Chicago 93, at Atlanta 73 (Chicago wins series 4-2)
Offensive Ratings: Chicago 110.5, Atlanta 86.7
Any team can get hot for a game or two, even this time of the year. Especially this time of the year, when the only teams left playing are ones to have displayed a certain degree of proficiency. The Hawks rocked the Bulls' world by stealing Game One in the United Center. They spurred a lot of head scratching by taking Game Four in Atlanta, when it appeared that Chicago had righted its ship. In the end, the series turned out about right, with the Bulls' sizable advantage manifesting itself. One or two games does not a series make--you have to win four. Thankfully, a seven-game series in professional basketball is a meaningful sample, a prime reason why the NBA has the best postseason in sports. The team that wins truly earns the right to be called champion.
The Bulls took a major step towards earning that designation during their series against the Hawks. It began in much the same manner as their first round series against Indiana. The offense was too stagnant, the pace inconsistent and the defense, while excellent in the aggregate, was prone to lapses in the paint. Derrick Rose was playing fantastic basketball, but was also shouldering too much of the scoring load. By the end of the series, Rose was playing the pure point guard role, the Bulls' offense was nearly flawless and the defense, as always, was at a championship level. Chicago got better as the series progressed, just as in the regular season the Bulls grew a 9-8 start into the league's best record. They are ready for the next challenge, the Miami Heat, and it should be a thrill to watch.
The teamwork and defense have been there for the Bulls all season, during which Chicago became the league's most consistent team. The Bulls still have not lost three straight games this season. They have not lost a game by more than 12 points since Dec. 1--the only time this season they weren't in position to win a game when crunch time hit. Think about that. Just once in 93 games have the Bulls been in a game that wasn't in doubt in the final quarter. I mean, every team has lapses, right? The NBA schedule is a brutal one and sometimes, the energy is just not to be there. The Bulls managed to fight through and remain in virtually every game they played this season--the prima facie reason why Tom Thibodeau was so deserving of the NBA Coach of the Year award he received last week.
It's hard to beat a team like that, even in the playoffs when presumably every team is upping its effort and energy, and ought to be doing it in every game. Chicago never stops coming at you, with Rose, defense and depth. Atlanta never led in Thursday's series finale. After briefly closing within eight points early in the second quarter, the Hawks never again got the lead down to single figures. In the first half, the Bulls were aided by a questionable call against Josh Smith and Jeff Teague's wrist injury, but those things couldn't explain Thursday's game. Chicago stepped on Atlanta's neck and kept its metaphorical boot there, until the Hawks finally quit wriggling.
The number that jumps off the stat sheet is Chicago's assist total: 34 dimes on 41 made field goals. (Atlanta had 14 on 27.) The thing that Rose doesn't get enough credit for is his willingness to accept what the opponent gives. If he doesn't have to score for the Bulls to win, he won't score. He doesn't care. Earlier this season, when asked if he wanted to win the scoring title, Rose winced and said, "No, I'm a point guard." In Game Six, Rose took 14 shots. Six players took seven or more. Rose led the way with 12 assists, but Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng chipped in with five each and C.J. Watson had four. As Rose said his team had to do after Game Five, the Bulls walked through the fire together.
The Bulls, as is usually the case, were so efficient offensively largely as a result of playing with a quick pace. The Bulls had 15 fastbreak points in the game and scored 20 points off turnovers. The Bulls shot just 10 free throws on Atlanta's 12 fouls, which might say something about the Hawks' broken will, but may also just illustrate how easy the game was for Chicago. The Bulls put up a .552 eFG% and turned the ball over just 11 times. The rebounding, particularly on the offensive end, that is normally so crucial to the Bulls' attack, was simply a non-factor. The effort in that area was not needed.
Boozer continues to improve his production as his turf toe heals. He had team-high totals of 23 points and 10 rebounds on Thursday, easily his best showing of the postseason. A lot of his points came on jumpers in Game Six, as he learned earlier in the series that the Hawks weren't a great matchup for him in the post. All of the Bulls' bigs played well. Joakim Noah had 11 points of 5-of-7 shooting. Omer Asik had five points, three boards and two blocks in more than 20 minutes of play, during which he again anchored the Bulls' defense. Taj Gibson didn't get as much run as he got in Game Five, but managed 10 points and four boards in 13:45. Thibodeau continues to use more or less the same 10-man rotation he employed to the regular season. The Hawks played six players heavy minutes in the series, perhaps contributing to the growing disparity as the matchup evolved.
Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford combined for 56 points in Atlanta's Game One upset. In the last five games, the pair combined to average 24.8 points. Johnson averaged 16.8 on a .527 True Shooting Percentage and a pedestrian .217 usage rate. For Crawford, it was even worse. He averaged eight points on an unsightly .379 True Shooting Percentage. The Bulls also choked off Al Horford, who averaged 11 points on a .453 TS%. Josh Smith was, at one point, 3-of-29 from outside the lane. Teague (15.8 PPG on a .614 TS%) was about all the Hawks had going for them on the offensive end.
Atlanta played improved defense in the playoffs but, again, it was consistency of effort that set these teams apart as much as anything. The Bulls ended up with a 110.5 Offensive Rating for the series, better than their mark for the regular season, and outscored the Hawks by seven points per game, just shy of their pre-playoff average of +7.3. The Bulls held Atlanta to a 101.5 Offensive Rating, matching Dallas for the best defensive performance of the eight teams in the second round. In the end, everything went about how it should have, with the Hawks probably winning one more game than their performance deserved.
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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