ATLANTA — It was evident from the jump, the Bulls didn’t have the same energy and fervor as the Atlanta Hawks.
And it was just as evident their six-game winning streak would go up in smoke, as it did Saturday afternoon with a early-fourth quarter Hawks surge putting the Bulls away at Philips Arena, 120-105.
After falling behind by 19 early, the Bulls made a rousing comeback to put a scare into the team sitting a couple spots below them in the Eastern Conference, as this could very well be a second-round playoff matchup come May.
“Like Fred (Hoiberg) said, we have the bullseye on our backs now. People are starting to see us come around,” Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. “We got outhustled. It’s good for us. That team really had their eye on us. We got humbled.”
It showed as the first minute of the fourth erased a lot of the Bulls’ hard work as turnovers, a game-long bugaboo, doomed them, leading to fast break dunks for the Hawks when they were reeling and possibly on the verge of collapse.
It was 22 giveaways that led to 25 Hawks points, as if they needed any more easy buckets, as the highest-scoring team in the East lived up to its reputation.
Al Horford dominated the afternoon with 33, 10 rebounds and six assists, giving Pau Gasol fits and leaving them to wonder if they had showed up in the first several minutes of the game if there would’ve been a different outcome.
“Turnovers got their confidence up, our pick and roll coverage was not good, to say the least,” Hoiberg said. “They were getting whatever they wanted out there. (Horford) was phenomenal.”
They rebounded from a slow start against Boston, but they got burned with that fire on the road. The Hawks got to every loose ball, and kept the Bulls on their heels for the majority of the game.
Paul Millsap scored 18 with eight rebounds, two steals and six blocked shots, emphasizing the difference in energy between the two clubs.
The Bulls gave up nearly 50 points in the first 18 minutes, as they allowed the Hawks to execute their offense to its ball-moving and backdoor-cutting best. And with the Bulls not about to find an early rhythm, it was almost a laugher.
“I think we did a bad job of communicating while we were out there,” Rose said. “They executed, they knew who were going down to on the inside. They played hard.”
There weren’t enough timeouts Hoiberg could have at his disposal to stem the tide and for the first time in awhile, Pau Gasol wasn’t available for the easy safety-valve jumpers for Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler.
It contributed to Rose having six turnovers and Butler three, but the Hawks simply made life difficult for the Bulls even through the Chicago runs.
“I think tonight, he got himself off his feet a couple times. A couple times we didn’t give him an outlet, that’s not on him,” said Hoiberg on Rose’s turnovers. “But a lot of careless ones, too many unforced.”
The Hawks’ bevy of bigs, including Horford and Tiago Splitter, were quick enough to jump out on Gasol while helping on drives to prevent the open looks. It was one reason it threw the Bulls all out of their rhythm, along with the Bulls’ overall sluggishness and inconsistent energy.
“We were trying to play catch-up the entire game,” Rose said. “We got within two, a call on the other end, a 3-point play, I don’t know that I touched him or whatever. But tonight we didn’t have that energy on the defensive side of the ball.”
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Gasol, who had been on a tear averaging 19.8 points, 12.5 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 2.5 blocks in his last four games, couldn’t muster a similar showing when it was clearly needed.
He turned it over four times, often leading to fast breaks and wayward looks to the officials.
Then for a quarter and a half, the Bulls woke up, a chief reason why they scored more than 100 for the ninth straight game.
They came in waves, finally corralling the Hawks’ efficient offense and shut down the easy lanes to the basket and easier looks. Rose and Butler paced the comeback, along with the resurgent Nikola Mirotic, as the lead was slicked to two with a couple minutes remaining in the third.
Mirotic scored 24 with 10 rebounds while Butler led the Bulls with 27 and eight rebounds. Rose scored 17 with five assists in 35 minutes.
Butler picked up his fourth foul with over four minutes remaining but prodded Hoiberg into staying on the floor and went without picking up his fifth for the rest of the game, along with Rose playing the entire third, breaking usual Hoiberg trends.
The Hawks’ often-frenetic style took advantage of nearly every Bull mishap, especially with former Bull Kyle Korver stalking the perimeter for one of his three triples, although he didn’t have to do much once the Bulls decided to give the game away early in the fourth.