The sellout crowd in Chicago had reason to fear the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday night. Not only had the Hawks entered the game with an even 2-2 mark against the favored Bulls, but Larry Drew's team was playing with an edge and a focus heretofore unseen in three previous playoff trips. By the time Hawks forward Josh Smith hit a long jumper with two minutes left in the third quarter to give Atlanta its first lead, the United Center crowd was stressed to the point of palpable anxiousness.
Then Chicago tried the simple things. Rolling to the hoop. Getting to the line. Communicating well defensively, and converting on its good looks. It didn't hurt that the team added some fresh legs to the mix, in the form of Taj Gibson, Omer Asik and Ronnie Brewer. Fourteen minutes of playing time later, Chicago had the pivotal Game 5 win, by a 95-83 take.
Almost exclusively because Derrick Rose and Gibson took over. Rose's ascension was almost to be expected; he started Game 5 by getting to the rim well, and the Hawks couldn't keep him out of the paint for long. But Gibson's contributions were something else. He seemed to baffle Josh Smith on a couple of drives, and he didn't miss a shot in the final period, finishing the game and the quarter with 11 points.
"His motor is very quick," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. "It doesn't take him long to get going," and with both Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer struggling to hit from the floor once again (the two combined to shoot 4 for 13), Gibson's touch was needed. Badly.
In countering Smith (who was instrumental in changing scores of Chicago attempts in the paint during Game 5), Gibson put Chicago over the top just as Jeff Teague started to lose his nerve defensively. Though Teague had another fantastic game offensively, Drew pointed out that his point guard looked "a little tired" down the stretch, as Rose turned the corner on him several times and finished the quarter with 11 points.
"We just lost our composure," Drew admitted following the loss. "It's nothing new."
Several calls in that fourth quarter did not go Atlanta's way. Rose earned a pair of ticky-tack trips to the line (they were technically fouls, but still …), and the refs looked the other way as the MVP essentially tackled Jamal Crawford while diving for a loose ball in the fourth. Still, Drew didn't want to hear any excuses.
"If we did allow any calls to affect our play, then I would be very disappointed in my team."
He doesn't have to feel that way, because the Hawks did compete and work through those non-calls. Chicago's bench just had the legs to do damage to a Hawks team that looked a step slow come crunch time. The two teams were playing their fifth game against each other in eight days, and it showed on the legs of the Hawks starters down the stretch -- and in the chippiness that was obvious even from the cheap seats.
Though Thibodeau sloughed off the angry glares and technical fouls as the "typical playoff sort of thing" because of "five games straight against the same opponent," there was some frustration on Atlanta's end. Smith didn't take kindly to a cheap shot thrown at him by Boozer in the third quarter, shoving back and earning a technical of his own, and Teague seemed exasperated that he wasn't getting the same calls as Rose after driving.
The real difference was that bench play, though. Chicago's reserves "played with a lot of energy, a lot of intensity," as Drew described. Omer Asik didn't light up the scoreboard, but his big body was instrumental at screening and securing some of the spacing Chicago needed to get the rock to Rose and get the heck out of the way in the fourth. And Ronnie Brewer's close-outs and perimeter help settled Joe Johnson and Crawford (who combined to miss 5-of-7 shots in the fourth quarter).
And while Atlanta's defense may have slowed a bit in comparison to the sort of help it gave while closing out Game 4 in Atlanta, the Hawks tried, they cared, and they're spitting mad following this loss. This is a new development for a team that seemed to waltz through second-round losses in 2009 and 2010. Chicago can't expect the Hawks of old to lay down in Thursday's Game 6.
"We have to come out and play like a desperate team," Drew said. "We have to come out and play like our backs are against the wall."
Then it hit him. "Because they are."
The win also did a little to weaken the memory of Derrick Rose's 32-shot escapade in Game 4. With little movement in the offense and several good looks in the paint that didn't go down, Rose needed to shoot nearly that many in order to give his team a chance to win on Sunday. Though there were a few stray perimeter jumpers he probably should have passed on, the resulting controversy was a bit of a needless brouhaha.
"We don't care about that," Luol Deng said after Game 5. "He can go out and shoot 100 times, and we don't care." Deng himself put up 18 looks in the win, scoring 23 points and acting as a needed finisher when Chicago's offense broke down in the face of Atlanta's good second- and third-quarter defense.
Deng's defense -- though unrewarded with a spot on the All-Defensive team (Deng: "I don't really know how I feel about that yet.") -- was superb. And, yes, he sat for just two minutes and 10 seconds all night, in a series that has seen him averaging a startling 44 minutes per game.
"I'm definitely going to feel it tonight, and I'm going to feel it tomorrow morning," a still-sweating Deng said an hour after the game ended. Fatigue, he also said, has a habit of going away once the opening tip gets tossed in the air.
No rest for the weary with these two teams. Game 6's tip is tossed on Thursday, and Derrick Rose (33 points, nine assists, ho hum) is already pleading for his team's ears to stay perked. "We cannot get tired," the MVP pointed out. "If we come out and play our way, defense-first, we can make things tough on them. We know that this is going to be a war going to Atlanta."
Thibodeau is loving every minute of his march down to Philips Arena for Game 6. Shockingly, the Coach of the Year seems ready to get back to watching game tape.
"I think this is a great time of the year. We work all season to get to this point, and these are great games. They're great teams that you are going against. It is going to test you in a lot of different ways. You have to have resolve and you have to be able to stay together."
And in case anyone missed it the first time, Thibodeau repeated himself.
"I think it's the best time of the year."
Hard to argue with the man.