For the second straight game, Chicago's offense eluded them. The long jumpers weren't falling, and the spinners in the paint rarely splashed through the net. It hardly mattered, though, as the Bulls pulled even with Atlanta in their Eastern Conference semifinal series. Two reliable elements -- Chicago's stifling defense, and Atlanta's poor shot selection — allowed the Bulls to hang on for an ugly 86-73 win.
"Defense, rebounding, and turnovers," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau brought up following the clang-fest, "those things are a priority." And though Chicago's 39 percent shooting and terrible 98 points per 100 possessions marks are nothing to grin over, Chicago did take care of the defensive end (Atlanta barely made more than a third of its shots), the rebounding (Chicago out-rebounded the Hawks by 19), and they kept the turnovers in check despite point guard Derrick Rose clearly playing through an ankle that was less than one hundred percent.
And Atlanta did their part; by forcing bad shots or relying too heavily on the sort of isolation-heavy game that often means nothing but trouble for Larry Drew's club.
"We were our biggest enemy tonight on the offensive end," Drew admitted post-game. "When the shots didn't fall we hit the panic button and tried to do it ourselves. We panicked, and you just can't do that in the playoffs."
Though Joe Johnson still hit for 7-15 shots in the win, Chicago made a point to rush two defenders at the Hawks go-to scorer, trapping him as he caught the ball and denying him the sort of long range looks he enjoyed while making five of five three-pointers in Game 1 of the series. Johnson missed two of three bombs on the game, and Jamal Crawford (who clanged eight of 10 shots in Game 2 after scoring 22 in Game 1) was little help.
That's mainly because Chicago helped. "Our defense," Bulls center Joakim Noah noted, "is all five of us. It's us rotating, and not one single player. It's all of us being on the same page." And while Atlanta appeared to spread the floor as effectively as they did in Game 1, the Chicago close-outs were much better, despite Tom Thibodeau's half-joking assertion that "we also did that in Game 1, and [Johnson] made shots."
Thibodeau was not as amused with the team's transition play off of all those newly-available misses (or, as Joakim Noah put it, "there were a lot more boards to be had"). Chicago had 44 defensive rebounds to try and turn into easy fast-break buckets, but Chicago scored just five transition points all night. "We have to play with more pace," Thibodeau insisted. "When we can get Derrick into the open floor, he has more screens where he can get to the rim. I'd like to see the pace be a little bit quicker."
The Bulls coach wasn't upset, at least on record, about Rose's 1-8 shooting mark from behind the arc (a number that included two half-court heaves to end the quarter).
"If he feels like he can get a good look at it," the Coach of the Year explained, "I'm OK with that." But he couldn't have been happy behind the scenes at Rose's somewhat laconic manner when it came to revving the engines and getting into the paint. The newly-crowned MVP attempted six free throws (with one coming on a technical foul), but he appeared hesitant throughout the game to turn the corner and drive.
It can't be a co-incidence that Rose's play has fallen off significantly since spraining his left ankle in the first quarter of Chicago's Game 4 loss to Indiana in the last round. Rose tweaked the ankle again towards the end of Monday's Game 1 loss to Atlanta, and though he gave the press his usual no-excuses routine ("my ankle's fine, it wasn't a factor in the game"), something is definitely up. And with Game 4 scheduled for Friday night, following a plane ride to Atlanta, Rose won't have much time to heal up.
Though Rose wasn't copping to his injured ankle, his teammates didn't think twice before pointing out what big forward Carlos Boozer is going through with his turf toe malady.
The former All-Star struggled again in Game 2; he missed eight of 12 shots and watched as four of his attempts were blocked, with several others altered by the presence of Josh Smith (who finished with, you guessed it, four blocks). The crowd booed Boozer throughout, and the uptick in play with reserve forward Taj Gibson was noticeable. Gibson was the biggest part of a second quarter stretch of a 12-4 run over the first and second quarters that helped Chicago pull away.
When baited with a "Boozer, bad; Gibson, good" question following the game, Joakim Noah wanted no part.
"Sometimes our home crowd …," he started, walking a fine line in front of a lot of cameras, "… it's a tough place to play. It's important for us to stick together. With Carlos, people have to understand that he's playing through an injury right now."
Noah went on to credit Boozer for what he allows the Bulls center to roam defensively, along with praising his screen-setting abilities offensively, before pointing out that "we need Carlos to get to where we want to go."
Where Atlanta wants to go is back home, flush with home court advantage, hoping not to waste what it had earned with its Game 1 win at the United Center.
Though Larry Drew did seem upset that his team did not attempt to match Chicago's amped-up defensive play with some slick moves offensively ("You have to expect pushing and grabbing under the basket. That's playoff basketball. We did not respond to that."), he likes his team's chances heading back to Georgia with a well-earned split.
"We're not going to hang our heads after this game. We'll look at this game and learn from it. We're going home with our heads up, and we have the home court advantage in our building."
And even after clanging away in Game 2, Atlanta would appear to have the momentum. Because, whether it's a result of nagging injuries or just a postseason that has caught up to their attitude, Chicago just cannot seem to turn the collective corner.
It's the Hawks' choice as to whether or not they'll be ready to pounce back in Atlanta. Your guess is as good as theirs.