It was obvious from the living room, the stands and both benches. The Atlanta Hawks were not prepared to match effort levels with a desperate Chicago Bulls team in Friday's Game 3, and as a result Chicago pulled away for a one-sided win. Hawks coach Larry Drew was forced into calling a timeout less than one minute into his team's home game to try and wake his players up, but the Hawks never responded and ended up losing by a 99-82 mark. As a result, Chicago has taken back home-court advantage in this series.
Though Atlanta's lack of motivation and dodgy execution helped guide him toward a career-high in points, a springy pair of legs and accurate touch from outside also shepherded Rose toward 44 needed points for Chicago. The Bulls, ever the constant in this regard, came out and played stifling defense throughout the win, and, when paired with Rose's brilliance and Atlanta's apathy, a blowout resulted.
Drew could tell right away that things were off.
"When I called that timeout 47 seconds into the game," the Hawks coach said, "I saw then and there that my team had not made that commitment that we made in Game 1. I knew. I saw an energy level, and right away I knew we were in trouble. You have to come out and match energy and effort. Forget about Xs and Os."
Chicago's Xs and Os were on point, all night. The team's coaching staff was able to clear the strong side of the court easier to aid Rose in finding clear lanes to the rim, or making it so the Hawks had to over-commit to the lanes he suddenly seemed able to drive into. Because Atlanta's defense was so lax, Rose was able to get to the rim or scare Hawks guard Jeff Teague into giving him room on a jumper that just wasn't there in Games 1 and 2. Rose hit just 20 percent of his 3-pointers before Game 3, but he nailed four of seven in Friday's win.
Atlanta had no answers offensively either. Luol Deng was an absolute dominant force defensively, chasing Joe Johnson and then Jamal Crawford (who combined to miss 12 of 19 shots) through screens and around the baseline, and catching up with the two in transition when other Bulls were lost on cross-matches.
Chicago's guards also made life hellish for Al Horford as he received passes in his wheelhouse -- 18 feet from the basket -- helping and swiping as he unsteadily rose for flat-footed jumpers that he had made with greater statistical regularity than any other big man in the NBA during the regular season.
With those three options gone mute, and Atlanta's transition game taken away by all the Bulls makes on the other end, the Hawks had no choice but to limp to just 82 points despite hitting 47 percent from the field.
The Bulls weren't exactly firing on all cylinders offensively, but it was clear from the start that they were going to have good chances from the field if Atlanta continued to defend as listlessly as it did in the first quarter. The Bulls had several good looks in the first quarter that would not go down; the Hawks failed to ramp up the defense, and the result was a fantastic 125 points per 100 possessions mark for Chicago once the nice looks started falling.
Though the Bulls talked about pushing the pace after Game 2, and insisted on it before Game 3, this was actually a slow-paced game overall (don't pay attention to the newspapers that tell you otherwise tomorrow) and finished with just 79 possessions. The team just moved the ball with expert precision and Rose had the touch. He absolutely could not be stopped from anywhere on the court.
The MVP had 44 points on 27 shots with eight made free throws, five rebounds and seven assists. He had just two turnovers despite dominating the ball for nearly 38 minutes, with a block and a steal. And anytime Rose or his cohorts missed, the team's offensive glass work was good enough to put Atlanta away. The Bulls picked up offensive rebounds on a dominant 42 percent of their chances in that area, a ridiculous number created almost entirely by Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson's combined 15 offensive rebounds.
The Hawks, frankly, seemed comfortable in just standing around and watching. The Hawks weren't letting the Bulls waltz to the basket or beat them badly to open spots, but it was significantly easier for Chicago to get where it wanted in Game 3. Atlanta's coach, for whatever it's worth, seems beside himself at his lack of options in that area.
"There has to be a genuine excitement when playing in front of our home fans," Drew said. "There has to be a self-motivation. When I called that timeout [in the first quarter], I just wanted to make them aware that 'Hey guys, we are not ready to play.' "
Atlanta, as is usually the case in disappointments like this, did not shock with its middling effort. There wasn't any overt laziness or refund-worthy play. The Hawks just seemed happy with letting the game happen, rather than matching Chicago's intensity long enough to try to make an impact that goes beyond merely showing up.
"They play hard," Jamal Crawford pointed out following the loss. "That's how they won 62 games, they compete and they play hard all the time. They don't take rests in the regular season, and they don't take rests in the playoffs."
That's Atlanta's problem. The Hawks treated this game like one of 82, instead of the most important game of their career. Chicago saw its own season flash before its eyes, got desperate, and did what it needed to do.
The Hawks had no such worries, and the team is now forced to win three out of its next four. With two games left to play in Chicago against a Bulls team that has beaten them four out of the six times they've played this season, that's no small task.
And if the Hawks came out with the same attitude we saw on Friday night, they've got no possible chance. Take it from their coach.