"Passing to the spot."
It's a trick and a phrase that ESPN analyst Hubie Brown pointed out midgame, NBA TV analyst Chris Webber pointed out postgame, and NBA Hall of Famer John Stockton effortlessly handled for 18 seasons. Somebody sets a screen for the guard, and then disappears as the guard both looks at his defender, and the rim. The guard then fires a pass to the spot where his teammate (usually the one who set the screen) should be. The screener, flush with room and giddy at the opportunity, then fires away.
On Thursday night, as the Chicago Bulls downed the Atlanta Hawks by a 93-73 score, Carlos Boozer finally got a chance to fire away. He scored 23 points, and the Bulls won their Eastern Conference semifinals series as a confluence of events factored into a litany of open jumpers.
For one, the close-out defense from Jason Collins and Josh Smith was not strong. Secondly, Boozer's perimeter shot was falling. And, perhaps most important, Bulls guard Derrick Rose had enough confidence in his passing and his team to dump the bounce pass into a spot that a teammate was about to step into.
It was a welcome sight for the Bulls fans who had been waiting for Boozer to at least approximate his work from the regular season since the playoffs started nearly one month ago. The much-maligned forward had been forgiven for his poor defense during the regular season mainly because he remained a consistent offensive threat, despite rarely seeing the ball as much as he was used to during his All-Star turns in Utah. Once the playoffs started, though, and the matchups sent Boozer spiraling? His jumpers spun out, and his interior looks were rushed and ineffective.
In Game 5? The ball was in his hands, and his aim was true.
Ten-of-16 shooting, 10 rebounds and five assists, too. Chicago's perimeter and interior passing was spot on, as it notched 34 assists on 41 field goals (no small feat, with an opposing team's scorekeeper at the helm) while putting up a sterling 109 points per 100 possessions. Rose managed 19 points on 14 shots, Joakim Noah saw the light around the rim and worked up 11 points, as Chicago's movement and Atlanta's sometimes-lacking defense combined to open everything up for the top-seeded Bulls.
That's the big story, the lead story, and the digestible story. What counted most, though, doesn't scan as well, or lead off highlights on cable TV. The key, again, was Chicago's defense. Those cats got after it.
Though shot selection and a first-half wrist injury to lead guard Jeff Teague hampered Atlanta's marks, the team still was at the mercy of a long-armed Bulls squad that seemed to already be wherever the Hawks wanted to go. Chicago had its issues with Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford at times in this series, but both combined to shoot 9-28 (32 percent) in Game 6, and Crawford (the former Bull) could only manage 27.6 percent shooting in the five games after his 22-point opener to the conference semifinals.
Not all was lost with Atlanta. Though the team has been knocked out of the first round three seasons running, this was the first competitive attempt for the team at making the conference finals in three chances. The emergence of Teague as an NBA-level starter and the growth of Larry Drew as a quick-on-his-feet motivator were both fantastic to behold. Drew took some heat for his decisions in the first round against Orlando, but his rotation work and between-games machinations earned him the admiration of many, as Atlanta stretched Chicago to six games in a series this dumbbell thought would be over in four.
Chicago deserves credit for surviving, though. It faced an opponent that looked and acted nothing like the team it ably handled in the regular season, working through both injury and ineffectiveness to secure a spot in the conference finals. And the emergence of Boozer as a confident, potent threat has to be sweet music to the ears of Bulls fans that were booing his every move in Chicago, and clapping whenever Taj Gibson took off his warm-ups to spell the Bulls' prime free-agent acquisition from last summer.
Miami, as the league has learned over the last month, is a different beast. Chicago took all three meetings from the Heat during the regular season, but the Heat have fair excuses (missing LeBron James and Chris Bosh to injury, a 1-18 shooting night for Bosh despite numerous good looks, an iffy call in Chicago's favor late in a game in March) for each of the losses.
Miami is playing its best basketball of the season, and Chicago (despite hitting an extra gear spurred on by the uptick in competition) cannot claim as much. The Bulls do match up well with Miami, though, and they will have four chances at home in a potential seven-game series to Miami's three. They have the league's MVP, its Coach of the Year, and apparently a reborn Carlos Boozer.
Most of all, they have that defense. Good god, man, that defense. Those poor Hawks won't get it out of their heads for months.