No, Tuesday nights 76-74 Bulls (5-1) win was not a flashback to last season. Yes, many of the same elementsa slow start, poor shooting, never refusing to quit, a comeback sparked by stout defense, dramatic twists and turns up until the final buzzer existed and even a familiar foe in the Hawks (4-2)but until Luol Dengs game-winning layup fell through the net, the raucous United Center crowd couldnt be completely sure their beloved home team had its mojo back.
Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, the architect of the masterfully-executed out-of-bounds play that produced the winning basket argued, We caught a break that thats a second night for them, back-to-back, but anybody who watched the Bulls grind out a significant portion of their 62 regular-season victories in a similarly ugly fashion knows otherwise.
Although the visitors were coming off a night in which they came from behind to win in Miami, they still attempted to push the tempo in the games early going and had successful results, getting out to a 13-4 lead.
That was our first thought from the beginning to tire out the Hawks, but they came out, we couldnt hit a shot, we werent playing defense, said Derrick Rose. Thats how they got the big lead.
Versatile forwards Marvin Williams (14 points, eight rebounds) and Josh Smith (15 points, 14 rebounds) were both very active and go-to scorer Joe Johnson (10 points on 3-for-17 shooting), last seen by Chicago fans getting hounded into a dreadful playoff showing, was also effective.
The home team failed to take care of the basketball and fell into sloppy habits, though the up-and-down pace suited Rose (30 points, seven assists, 11-for-13 from the foul line) well, as he abandoned the distributor role he claimed at the games outset in favor of attacking the rim as a scorer. Still, after a quarter of play, the Hawks had a 23-15 advantage.
It was disappointing, the way we started the game. I thought we were playing a low-energy game, said Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau. I give them a lot of credit. I thought that they played great. They were more aggressive to start the game. When we play without pace, we struggle.
Even the insertion of the typically-energetic Bench Mobminus swingman Ronnie Brewer, who started in place of shooting guard Rip Hamilton, who missed his second consecutive game with a groin injury, while C.J. Watson was also absent due to a sprained left elbow and was replaced in the rotation by third-string point guard John Lucas IIIdidnt help matters for the Bulls, as Atlanta maintained its double-digit cushion. There was a lid on the rim for the listless hosts, who mishandled the ball even when left alone, missed an assortment of open shots and blew defensive assignments.
Thibodeau tried different combinations and offensive setsas promised, Brewer occasionally initiated the offense, with Rose playing off the ballbut with the starting frontcourt of Deng (21 points, eight rebounds), Carlos Boozer (11 points, nine rebounds) and Joakim Noah combining to make just four of 19 attempts from the field and the team shooting 24.3 percent overall, it was too much to overcome. At the halftime break, the home team trailed, 38-26, partially as a result of the Hawks zone defense and somewhat due to their own uninspired play.
Explained Thibodeau: For whatever reason, I just thought, in the first half as a team, we were just backwards. We were shooting when we should have been passing, we were passing when we should have been shooting and we couldnt get anything easy, and I think thats important for us, to get some easy baskets and get a flow to the game.
Added Deng, who said that the fiery head coach was unexpectedly really positive at halftime: We had good looks. We just didnt make them. But their zone did bother us. Its the most zone weve seen this year, so Im sure the next practice that we have or even the next tape session, well be talking about zone offense a lot.
The tide began to turn early in the third quarter, as the Bulls used much-improved defenseafter Noah picked up a pair of quick fouls to give him four for the game, backup center Omer Asik (nine rebounds, three blocked shots) impacted the game with his shot-blocking acumen and overall defensive presence, not to mention a surprisingly fluid reverse layup in transitionand more efficient offense, sparked by Roses playmaking, to get a rise out of the discontent United Center crowd. However, as Atlanta settled down and was more patient with its offense and shot selection, the suddenly scoring-deficient Bulls gradually fell into an even deeper hole, trailing by as many as 19 points.
Boozer, the target of many fans dismay, started the period slowly and picked up his play as the frame waned on, but his lack of intensity on the defensive end forced Thibodeau to pull him from the game for the more active Taj Gibson. But the much-maligned power forward cant possibly shoulder all the blame for the lackluster effortdesignated sharpshooter Kyle Korver (eight rebounds) missed a wide-open three-pointer and a technical foul free throw, Brewer struggled to hit a variety of shots and the normally-reliable duo of Rose and Deng also struggledwhich left the Bulls down, 56-42, heading into the final stanza.
It was just one of those nights, but the way that we play on the offensive end cant affect the way we play defensively, said a dour Rose afterwards. Our defense always has to be there.
As if they finally realized how lousy they were playing, the Bulls came out like they were shot out of a cannon in the fourth quarter, with the slumping Korver knocking down a triple to open the periods scoring. Rose followed with a pair of shots from long range, sandwiched around two free throws and an Atlanta three-pointer, but after Deng turned a Hawks turnover into a fast-break layup, Chicago cut the deficit to five points with under 10 minutes to play.
It was officially a ballgame again and the Bulls suddenly morphed into the lovable, scrappy squad of last season, as Rose switched into takeover modebreaking ankles and slashing to the basket when he wasnt draining long bombs or calmly sinking foul shotsand a frenetic, trapping defense (even Korver, back on the floor after Thibodeau briefly took him out at the end of the previous period, was hustling all over the court to make plays, something unexpected for a player considered a defensive liability by many) rushed Atlanta into hurried possessions.
Ive been focusing on my rebounding a lot, trying to get more of those. Were a good rebounding teamsometimes theres not many rebounds to getbut thats something Thibs talked to me about and something Ive been focusing around lately, and just trying to be an all-around player, said Korver. No one wants to be labeled a one-dimensional person.
Deng, who turned up his aggressiveness as a scorer, hit a corner three-pointer just prior to the quarters midway point that knotted up the score at 62 apiece, setting the stage for a tense stretch run.
As he did in last years playoffs, Thibodeau rode the athletic, defensive-minded combination of Gibson and Asikalong with fellow reserve Korver, they were paired with starters Rose and Dengfor the final period of the low-scoring, close-knit affair, counting on their heart to make up for whatever the unit lacked in scoring balance.
We were very flat. We were searching. That group got some momentum going, so we were staying with them. We felt like they got them out of the hole, so they deserved the chance to finish it, reasoned Thibodeau. There was a stretch where I was going to come back with the starters, but that group was making their run and it was a lot of ground to make up, and I felt at that point, you couldnt afford to have another lull. They looked like they were fine and we looked like we were picking up our energy, and Derrick and Luol are accustomed to playing big minutes.
I thought Taj and Omer came in and gave us a lot of energy, he continued. The bench was very good. Of course, Derrick was sensational down the stretch, just made big play after big play. You cant say enough about Luol. He does everything. He rebounds, he defends, cuts, active, tough, smart.
Following a Deng layup and an Atlanta turnover, a Rose layup with 57.9 seconds on the clock gave the Bulls a 72-71 lead, their first of the game, but a subsequent thunderous alley-oop finish quickly changed the atmosphere of the arena.
Rose missed a leaning floater on the next possession, then Hawks point guard Jeff Teague was fouled and missed a pair of attempts from the charity stripe with 16.3 seconds to go, setting up Rose making a tough, driving layup in traffic with 9.9 seconds left, giving the Bulls back the lead. The game appeared to be signed, sealed and delivered, but an inexplicable off-the-ball foul called on Deng sent Horford to the line and the All-Star split a pair of free throws, tying the game at 74 with 7.7 seconds remaining.
But Deng refused to be the goat, cutting backdoor to receive a perfectly-timed pass from Noahback in the game for his passing in place of Asik, the center knew the Hawks would focus on denying Rose the ballfor a layup with 3.7 seconds to go.
We run it every day after practiceevery single dayand it works. We see it works now. Lu got an easy basket. The guy that was sticking him turned his back and Joakim threw a great pass to Lu, and Lu had a layup, Rose broke down the play to reporters. I set the back pick for Kyle and then I go off a screen, Kyle goes off, then Joakim gets me, I act like Im going to the hole, set a back pick for Lu, Lu flies off. If Lu isnt open, dribble handoff.
Summarized Thibodeau: Theres multiple options on the playobviously were trying to get it to Derrickand they did a good job taking the first and second options away, and then Derrick made a great screen and Jo made a terrific pass, Lu made a great cut.
Atlantas final attempt, a Johnson jumper at the buzzer, was off, but the crowd was already breathing easy, knowing the ending to a familiar story.