ATLANTA -- The surprise on Saturday night wasn't that the Chicago Bulls lost to the Atlanta Hawks. After all, Fred Hoiberg's team came into the contest playing its best basketball of the season, having won five straight and six of its past seven. No team can play consistently solid basketball for 82 games during a season. The surprise for the Bulls came in how they were dismantled early in this game.
After an up-and-down first couple of months during the season, the Bulls have played at a higher level lately because of the way they are jumping on teams offensively. The problem on Saturday was that their offense wasn't great in the first half, and their defense, which was very good to start the year and has been solid throughout, was terrible in the first 24 minutes, allowing 64 points and trailing by as many as 19.
"We was on our heels right away," Bulls forward Taj Gibson said after the 120-105 loss. "They rocked us right away, hit us with a right-hand hook, stumbled us. We didn't respond early; they made a good run. And it's always tough to always try to fight back the whole game. We never had a lead and they was really into us. It's tough when you got a good winning streak going, you got everybody praising you. And they just wanted it more than us tonight."
Hoiberg knows that the poor start helped topple his team. To their credit, the Bulls clawed their way back in the second half, pulling within two points late in the third quarter, but the hole they dug for themselves proved to be too deep. The Bulls' energy in the third quarter couldn't be sustained in the fourth.
"They were getting whatever they wanted out there," Hoiberg said. "They had 30 in the first, 34 in the second. That's just too many. They got every 50-50 ball. All the energy, hustle plays, they beat us in the first half."
Specifically, Hawks big man Al Horford beat the Bulls in seemingly every way imaginable. He finished the game with 33 points, going 15-for-21 from the field, grabbing 10 rebounds and dishing out six assists. Horford is one of the main reasons why Hoiberg said that his team will need a "good pick-and-roll defensive day" during Sunday's practice.
"We're getting exposed right there right now," he said. "We got to be better, transition ... that's where it starts. If you get back in transition, limit some of those, we're generally a pretty good team. If we can limit teams in transition and rebound the ball, we usually have success."
While Hoiberg and his team were frustrated, the mood in the locker room was understandably far different than it had been earlier in the year. The Bulls believe in themselves again and believe they can continue to string wins together in the midst of a tough, four-game stretch in five nights this upcoming week. When asked if this performance masked some defensive issues that had been bubbling, Bulls point guard Derrick Rose acknowledged that he thought his team just needed to do a better job of talking.
"Yeah, but you could say that with almost any other team in the NBA," Rose said. "If you're scoring the ball good, it's kind of an easy game. But we got to find ways to win these games when our shot's not falling in the beginning. I think communication was huge tonight because we was switched up a lot as far as, like, matchups and we just didn't talk things through."
In the end, some players actually thought the setback would be good for the group in the long run. After all the ups and downs they've already experienced, the Bulls are steadfast in the belief that they can bounce back from defeats better than they did earlier in the year.
"I think it's good for us," Gibson said. "Even though I hate to say that we got out-hustled. But I think it's good for us, it's going to test our character knowing that that team had their eyes set on us from the way they jumped out on us. Like Coach said, we got a bull's-eye on our back. People are starting to see us come around, so we just got to adjust and make the right kind of plays, make the right kind of hustle plays, but I think we'll be fine."