There was some consternation in Chicago during the first round, when the Bulls had a little bit more trouble with the Pacers than was anticipated. The Bulls won in five games, but needed a couple of comebacks to get the advantage before blowing out Indiana in Game Five. Indiana bullied the Bulls, which wasn't supposed to happen, not to one of the league's most physical teams. The Pacers raised their level of intensity from the regular season, as all serious playoff teams are supposed to do. The Bulls, on the other hand, seemed to slumber at times, turning on the switch when they needed to. It was surprising to see that from the league's most consistent team, which didn't lose more than two straight games the entire season. Still, Chicago did win in five and with the series-closing rout, there is a sense that all is well with the Bulls. From my standpoint, I thought the Bulls, who were driven hard by NBA Coach of the Year Tom Thibodeau to the end in pursuit of the top overall seed, looked a bit weary. The last few days leading up to the Atlanta series in which Chicago has rested might be just what the Bulls needed.
The Hawks stunned many--myself included--by knocking out the Magic in six games in round one. Orlando hammered Atlanta in the second round last season and while Kirk Hinrich was a fine addition to the Hawks, there wasn't much else different on the team, which has had relatively little turnover the last few years. One difference is the coach, Larry Drew, who oversaw a team-wide regression this season, but also developed a knack for beating Orlando. The Hawks went 7-2 against the East's No. 4 seed this season. Atlanta is 41-39 against the rest of the league, including the playoffs, and has been outscored this season. If you judge Indiana strictly by its performance under Frank Vogel, you can make an argument that the Bulls' road is actually about to get easier. Is it that simple? Do the Bulls have a virtual free pass into the conference finals? Let us consider.
The Bulls went 2-1 against the Hawks during the regular season, losing in Atlanta on March 2 despite scoring the first 14 points of the game and leading by 19 points during the second half. Chicago's offense went into the toilet after halftime of that game and Al Horford went nuts as the Bulls suffered through one of their worst losses of the season. The Hawks outscored the Bulls by 20 points in those last two quarters. In the other 10 quarters between the teams, Chicago outscored Atlanta by 68 points and enjoyed an average point differential of +16.8 points against the Hawks. Atlanta's regular-season success against Orlando turned out to be harbinger. Drew better hope the same doesn't hold true for his team's regular-season results against Chicago.
WHEN CHICAGO HAS THE BALL
Pace: 89.2 possessions per 48 minutes (22nd NBA)
Chicago Offensive Rating: 109.9 points per 100 possessions (12th NBA)
Atlanta Defensive Rating: 109.0 points per 100 possessions (15th NBA)
The Bulls put up a 114.9 Offensive Rating against Atlanta in their three meetings, a full five points per 100 possessions better than they scored against the league. The Bulls grabbed nearly 60 percent of available rebounds against the Hawks, including 36.7 percent of their own misses. The extra chances killed the Hawks. In the two Chicago victories, the Bulls held a combined 37-12 advantage in second-chance points.
The rebounding was the main difference between the teams. Well, that and Derrick Rose. Rose used an incredible 44 percent of Chicago's possessions while on the floor against Atlanta, and he mostly used them well. His True Shooting Percentage was .512--not great, but considering the volume, it's acceptable. He averaged 25.3 points and 30.3 points per 40 minutes, but also nine assists (10.8 per 40). These are scary numbers from the Hawks' perspective, as Hinrich is not expected to play in the series because of a hamstring injury. In his place is second-year guard Jeff Teague. The difference is stark. According to NBAPET, Hinrich held his counterparts 9.2 percent below their normal level of production. Teague's counterparts were 8.6 percent better. And this is the guy primarily tasked with chasing around Rose. Look for the Hawks to take a page from the Pacers and try to bully Rose, with Zaza Pachulia playing the Jeff Foster role.
It won't be Teague alone, however, but the absence of Hinrich could serve to scramble a Hawks defense that has a tendency to fall asleep at times. If Atlanta over helps on Rose--and how could it not--that will open things up for Luol Deng, who was very effective against the Hawks in the regular season. The matchup for Carlos Boozer, whose availability may be hindered by turf toe, isn't great--Horford is basically his worst nightmare. He averaged just 8.5 points in the two games he appeared in against Atlanta on a .409 True Shooting Percentage. That's actually encouraging for Bulls fans, because Chicago was able to hammer the Hawks without getting anything from Boozer. Chances are--and this was true of the Indiana series--the Bulls will be better when Taj Gibson is in on the floor in place of Boozer. The Bulls will need Boozer against Miami, if that series comes to pass, but they can get by nicely without him against Atlanta.
In their efforts to keep Rose under some semblance of control, the Hawks have to guard against giving too much cushion to the Bulls' three-point shooters. Atlanta was very good at defending the three-point line in the regular season, allowing the fourth-lowest percentage of any team in the league. (The Bulls were first against both two-point and three-point shots.) However, against the Bulls, Atlanta allowed a success rate of 36.8 percent. Chicago's spot-up shooters, Kyle Korver and Keith Bogans, combined to shoot 8-of-13 from deep against Atlanta. So not only did the Hawks have a tough time slowing down Rose, they also didn't defend Chicago's jump shooters. In this series, they are going to have to figure out a way to take away something. They allowed only 26 percent shooting from deep in the first round, so perhaps that bodes well.
WHEN ATLANTA HAS THE BALL
Pace: 87.9 possessions per 48 minutes (27th NBA)
Atlanta Offensive Rating: 107.5 points per 100 possessions (20th NBA)
Chicago Defensive Rating: 101.5 points per 100 possessions (1st NBA)
As mentioned, the Bulls put up a 114.9 Offensive Rating against the Hawks. That's impressive. Over a full season, that figure would have led the NBA. Scarily enough, the Bulls were even better on defense against Atlanta, putting up a 96.3 Defensive Rating that was 5.2 points better than their overall season defensive efficiency. In other words, the Hawks turned the Bulls into the league's best team on both ends of the floor.
Despite beating Orlando in six games, the Hawks were actually outscored in the series and their 100.7 Offensive Rating against the Magic would have been the worst in the NBA, well behind the points-starved Milwaukee Bucks. The Hawks were outrebounded by Orlando, didn't get to the line as often and turned the ball over more. They did outshoot Orlando, but didn't shoot well, posting a paltry .465 eFG%. The more you burrow into the numbers, the more it seems like a borderline miracle that I'm not writing a Bulls-Magic preview right now. I'll also consider it a borderline miracle if the Hawks average a point per possession in the series.
You can't play isolation basketball against Chicago. The team defense is simply too stout. In that respect, it's good that Drew moved the Hawks away from so many iso sets, even if the overall offensive efficiency dropped. According to Synergy Sports Technology, the Hawks had shots off of isolations 13.8 percent of the time this season, down from 17.3 percent last season. Last season, the Hawks ranked seventh in efficiency off isos; this season they were 20th. Meanwhile, the Bulls led the league in efficiency against isolations. No surprise there. If the Hawks don't play team basketball in this series, they have zero chance of winning a game.
Chicago defended just about everything at an elite level this season. The Bulls were, however, middle of the pack in efficiency against transition shots. There are a couple things at play here. First of all, Chicago had occasional lapses when Rose would drive the ball and no one would drop to protect the backcourt. Second, offensive rebounding was the lifeblood of the Bulls' non-Rose offense, and the tradeoff for sending extra guys to the glass is giving up fastbreak points. The Hawks weren't a great transition team offensively, but they are an athletic team and they would do well to run when they have the chance. There is no chance that Atlanta will be efficient in halfcourt sets.
As far as individual matchups go, Horford will have an advantage against Boozer when the latter is on the floor. He won't be as big of a factor against Gibson, but always seems to play well against the Bulls and former college teammate Joakim Noah. Josh Smith may be tempted to fire away from the perimeter, because the Bulls' interior defense makes driving problematic and Luol Deng is long enough to defend him on the block. He'd be better off just passing off and cutting. Joe Johnson is a guy the Bulls don't have a great individual answer for--Bogans is a good defender, but Johnson's size makes that a less-than-ideal matchup--but the Bulls will simply collapse the defense in behind Bogans and force Johnson to beat them from the outside. He can do it, too, for stretches, but Atlanta is not going to win a series that way. Again, it's essential that the Hawks trust their secondary players and keep the ball moving.
I don't think the Bulls will lose a game in this series. If Hinrich were healthy, I would probably give the Hawks a game because of his ability to hamper Rose into a bad game, but he's not around and Jeff Teague is about to become the subject of many a highlight reel.
Bulls in 4
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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