Though most NBA followers focused on Chicago's atypical, five-day layoff prior to the opening game of its second-round series against the Atlanta Hawks, few pointed out that the Atlanta Hawks had a bit of a mini-rest of their own following last Thursday's dismissal of the Orlando Magic. Both squads, as with all teams playing into early May, needed the time off; but the resulting byproduct that led to Atlanta's semi-shocking win over the favored Bulls could not have been more different.
Chicago was rested and rusty. Atlanta was rested and ready.
This was obvious from the outset, as the Hawks silenced a rowdy Chicago crowd spurred on by a stirring rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner," and the presentation of the Coach of the Year award to Tom Thibodeau. Atlanta had the crowd sitting on its hands within minutes as it raced to a 9-0 start, and though Chicago came back to take a lead in the third quarter, Atlanta's active turn helped put the game away in the fourth with a flurry of jumpers.
It was a familiar sight to the Bulls and their fans, as an underdog with nothing to lose let loose with a torrent of long attempts and a sustained bout of active, encouraged play. After a season as the underdog, Chicago has not warmed to the idea of working in the playoffs as the team that led the NBA in wins in 2010-11, something that has carried over from the end of the regular season, and throughout the team's close opening-round matchup with Indiana.
It was "a compilation of things," that led to Chicago falling short, Thibodeau described postgame, pointing out that "the intensity wasn't right. The ball pressure, the challenging of shots, help defense. Intensity is the first thing we have to correct."
Intensity is the first thing Atlanta has to sustain, if it wants to keep the surprise and win again in Game 2 on Wednesday.
The fast start "was very critical," Hawks head man Larry Drew insisted. "When we start a game out fast, we get the shots and we want to play defense. Tonight was one of those nights where if we were good offensively we were good defensively. Psychologically, it turns everything in our favor and we play better."
Nobody benefited more from this psychologically serene setting than Hawks go-to scorer Joe Johnson. The All-Star is often criticized for the staggering $119 million deal he signed last offseason, but he got a measure of revenge against the team that helped drive up the supposed bidding market last offseason, dropping 34 points on only 18 shots (10 coming in the fourth quarter), while only sitting for three minutes of a 48-minute game.
"Joe was big tonight," Drew said after the win. "He was in an attack mode. He was very aggressive tonight and stepped into his shot and made plays out of double-teams. He had trust in his teammates on the other side of the floor."
Jamal Crawford was often that trusted teammate on the other side of the court, especially in a wild fourth quarter that saw Atlanta spreading the floor and making jumper after jumper as Chicago became more and more exasperated. The former Bull had 22 off the Atlanta bench, including 11 in the fourth, and Chicago just didn't have any answers for the team's ridiculous shooting.
Following the loss, Thibodeau wanted no part of excusing Atlanta's bombs as a result of a lucky touch. He dismissed the idea of doubling Johnson in Game 2, asking, "The first thing you have to ask is 'are you executing properly?' Then you have to ask yourself, 'are you playing hard enough?'" The Coach of the Year then went on to make an unsolicited comment about Chicago needing "to get back to practicing well," a possible shot at the injured Carlos Boozer who had missed a week's worth of practice with a painful turf toe injury, a player that Thibodeau had earlier pointed out as someone that the Bulls "have to get him back to practice."
All the practice in the world can't stop the sort of fadeaway jumpers the Hawks were nailing in this win, but it can help do something with the sort of spacing Atlanta started and finished the game with. Though a few Chicago traps were successful, Atlanta moved the ball confidently to the open man, often filling the floor with three shooters, center Zaza Pachulia (Drew: "In the playoffs, officials allow a little more, and that plays into his hands."), and big forward Al Horford, a player whose mid-range shooting numbers rival that of the best shooting guards in the NBA.
"We have so many guys," Joe Johnson marveled after his team put up a blinding 118 points per 100 possessions against the league's best defense, "that can make plays."
All signs do point to an aberration for Atlanta. Without dismissing this team's talent, or calling Johnson's scouting report inaccurate (he's right, Atlanta's mix of drivers and shooters can be lethal when they're making quick decisions with the ball), several things just can't be counted on as the series progresses. Jason Collins won't be hitting two face-up jumpers in a game with any sort of consistency. A good portion of Atlanta's long-range bombs were highly contested, low-percentage jumpers.
And Derrick Rose, whether he deserves the looks or not, will not go an entire game without attempting a free throw. Perhaps for the rest of his NBA career. Rose was seen limping off the court following the loss, but he chalked it up to a minor tweak. "It's fine," Rose insisted, "I just took my time walking off."
He also took his time warming up, hitting 11 of 27 overall. With the iffy-defensively Hawk guard Jeff Teague guarding him, he can't help but improve from this potential low point.
But none of this matters unless Chicago finds the spark that drove them to look like the only caffeinated team in the NBA during the regular season.
"You have to be able to handle everything in front of you," Thibodeau said to reporters on Monday night, referring to things as disparate as a four-games-in-five-night stretch during the regular season, and the team's near-week off before this Game 1. "Three days practice, two days off prior, you have to have high energy and high intensity. We did not have an edge to start the game. If you don't have an edge, you're asking for trouble."
Chicago might find a way to turn the corner against Atlanta in this series, because it's played from behind all season. But until Chicago regains its edge, nothing will shift.
And while the Bulls are searching, those mercurial Hawks will gladly continue to launch jumper after jumper. Some of them might even go in.