Since the Atlanta Hawks' re-entrance into the NBA playoff picture, making the first round in 2008 after a nine-year absence, the team's two most consistent complaints have centered on the squad's inattention to detail and ability to self-motivate. All the bad things that follow -- bad decisions offensively, poor rotations defensively -- tumble down from that initial influence. During Friday's Game 3, the Hawks didn't have what it took mentally to compete with Chicago, and they lost home-court advantage as a result.
Sunday in Game 4? The Hawks narrowed their gaze and kept their focus throughout, and the result was an impressive 100-88 victory over Chicago, knotting up the two teams' second-round series at 2-2.
Though Josh Smith's activity in the paint and in transition will no doubt fill up the highlight reels, it was Atlanta's ability to expertly defend against Derrick Rose that took Chicago out of its game. Rose's 32 shots (making just 12 of them) were mostly good, but were pressured looks. He didn't force much, but he didn't make much either. Instead, Rose was consistently able to turn the corner on the Hawks defenders, only to meet perfect help-side defense from Al Horford, Jason Collins and Josh Smith. Atlanta's bigs were able to contest without fouling, and Rose missed a series of runners and hopeful lay-ins as a result.
"We knew Rose would try to take it over" in the fourth quarter, Hawks coach Larry Drew said following the game. "He's so good at that. We just had to make a conscious effort of everybody zeroing in on him."
And with the ball bounding off the rim and into Atlanta's hands, the Hawks were free to fly. Though the 89-possession game was still slow by typical standards, that mark is up 10 possessions from Friday's Chicago win, as Atlanta's spacing and quick hits put Chicago away. And even in the half-court, with Chicago oftentimes overplaying on shooters coming off curls, simple passes (sometimes a rarity in Atlanta's offense) allowed for easy looks at the rim for the Hawk big men.
"When you play against the number one defensive team in the league," Drew said, "you have to be committed to moving the basketball. And I thought tonight we did a great job with that."
Those two factors combined in a whopping 56 points in the paint for Atlanta -- 23 assists on 40 field goals, as the Hawks put up over 112 points per 100 possessions in the win.
The Hawks' defense wasn't perfect, as Chicago had its looks. Carlos Boozer took advantage of several crossmatches and a good touch from the outside to drop in 18 points on 10 shots. Kyle Korver and Luol Deng, however, combined for just a 6-for-22 (27 percent) mark from the floor, including a 1-11 clang-fest from behind the arc on what were mostly open attempts. If these two shot their averages, and Rose shot his average on those runners in the paint, this is a completely different game. This shows you just how needed Atlanta's newfound focus and execution was.
It was all activity with a purpose, and movement for Atlanta. The team's ability to screen and come off curls early in a possession had Chicago's defense on its heels, as Joe Johnson (24 points on 9-14 shooting) responded properly to the attention Chicago paid to him with its hedging, and set the wheels in motion for good Atlanta ball movement. And in the fourth quarter, when things were tight, Josh Smith was in the right place -- close to the hoop. Why Chicago was guarding him with Carlos Boozer during that stretch, and not Taj Gibson, is anybody's guess.
Smith needed 22 shots to score his 23 points, as he launched a few jumpers the first half, but he also managed 16 boards, eight assists and two blocks as well. Though Smith started the game at the small forward position, he was playing at big forward when the game mattered most, which helped him temper his perimeter instincts and focus on getting to the rim.
There's that word again: "Focus." Larry Drew can tell the difference between "Good Josh" and "Bad Josh." Sunday night he saw some of the latter, but the former won out, and so did Atlanta. "When he plays the way he did tonight," Drew said post-game, "we're pretty good."
Indeed. And quietly, as is his preferred volume, Al Horford bullied Joakim Noah throughout the game. Though few plays were drawn up for Horford, he moved well away from the ball and made good decisions when some plays broke down on his way to making 9-of-11 shots, finishing with 20 points. Chicago still managed to pick up offensive rebounds on nearly a third of its misses, but it wasn't nearly to the one-sided affair we (and, really, the Hawks) watched on Friday.
"They played harder than us tonight," Noah admitted after Game 4. "We got our [expletive] kicked. They deserved to win."
There was a little intrigue, as well. With Chicago down six and 2:27 left in the fourth-quarter, Derrick Rose was fouled while shooting a 3-pointer after making a head-fake on Jamal Crawford. Bennett Salvatore initially blew his whistle to send Rose to the line for three free throws, but then thought better of it, and then termed the tweet "inadvertent whistle," which resulted in a jump ball that Atlanta won. Following the game, speaking through a pool reporter, Salvatore said that "having watched the replay after, it was a foul and I should've called it. I made a mistake."
Rose's take on the chance to halve the lead being taken away by a missed call? "That's just basketball."
It shouldn't have come down to that for Chicago. Each of Atlanta's go-to makes down the stretch came off of lay-ins or dunks, and the Bulls just weren't quick or precise enough with their defense. The exact opposite could be said for Atlanta, who never let up with the pressure and rarely took many possessions off from executing well.
And now what?
"We'll watch tape and we'll watch this tomorrow," Drew sighed in his postgame press conference, "and hopefully they'll look at it and they'll see that this stuff does work. Particularly when we do play together and we share the basketball."
It's a familiar refrain for the Hawks, a worry to still give credibility to following Game 3, but a fading worry in the light of the team's performances in Games 1 and 4 of this series. If they come out with the same fire and precision they displayed on Sunday, Chicago is going to have a miserable time trying to pull away at home in Tuesday's Game 5.