Wednesday, May 11, 2011
Surprising finish not that surprising
By Jon Greenberg ESPNChicago.com
CHICAGO -- If there has been one constant for the Bulls in this second-round playoff series, it's the importance of a good finish.
In the Bulls' three wins, they outscored the Hawks in the fourth twice and tied them once.
In the Hawks' two wins, Atlanta won the fourth quarter.
Bulls reserve Taj Gibson scored 11 fourth-quarter points in Tuesday's victory.
This is how a playoff series is supposed to be, close games that come down to critical possessions at the end.
"If you look at those games we lost, it's really the fourth quarter," Luol Deng said after Tuesday's game. "Those games that we've won, we've been great in the fourth quarter. In Atlanta, the game was tied with about four minutes and something left, and they turned it up a notch and outplayed us. Tonight, we turned it up a notch in the fourth quarter and we got a win."
On Tuesday night, the Bulls outscored Atlanta 26-15 in the fourth to turn a one-point lead into a 95-83 victory at the United Center, putting Chicago one win from making the Eastern Conference finals. Game 6 is Thursday in Atlanta.
The five-man unit that led the Bulls to the win might have looked unorthodox, but it's not. Really, it's a group that shows not only the depth of the team -- on the night that general manager Gar Forman won the co-executive of the year award -- but also the intelligence of the coach.
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau showed why he was coach of the year by ignoring the "shorten your rotation in the playoffs" mantra and sticking with a bench-heavy lineup that was one of the team's best in the regular season.
The quintet of Derrick Rose, Deng, Ronnie Brewer, Taj Gibson and Omer Asik posted a plus-75 in the regular season, which was the highest on the Bulls and the 14th-best in the league (some teams had multiple combinations do well). They played only 145 minutes, 42 seconds through 39 games together, but it's clear that group works well.
In Game 5, these five were a plus-11. Atlanta led briefly, 70-69, before Rose kicked off a 13-4 run that made it 82-74. In that time, Rose scored six, Gibson three, Brewer and Deng two apiece. Gibson and Asik each had a blocked shot and Brewer a steal. All of Atlanta's points came on free throws.
"He left us out there, and we had to prove it was a great decision," Brewer said. "We got stop after stop and made them take tough shots. Even when they made shots, it was contested shots. So, I think our defense was huge late in the game."
Forget the Bench Mob, how about Derrick and the Defenders?
"We'll see how it unfolds," Thibodeau said. "We said all along we're very confident in our bench. Our bench has played very well for us all season long. It's always somebody different. And if somebody is going well, we'll ride that group."
It's a perfect lineup to showcase Rose's abilities. He scored 11 in the fourth, as did Gibson, who went 5-for-5 from the field, after not taking a shot in the previous three quarters.
"I was kind of surprised," Rose said Tuesday of the lineup. "But they gave us a lot of energy, making hustle plays, stealing the ball, blocking shots, rebounding. They did everything we wanted them to do. This is a team thing, where, when guys come in, they've got to play as good as the starters. And tonight, they showed that."
In the playoffs, that five had logged only 3:48 together before Gibson subbed in for Boozer with less than 2 minutes to go in the fourth quarter. Boozer and Noah were clearly pleased with their replacements. Not that they want to sit, but the Bulls are devout worshippers of Thibodeau's coachspeak, and they bombard microphones with team-first themes.
"You saw what happened: Taj got on fire," Boozer said. "He was hitting shots from everywhere. He was flying like a plane out there, got us hyped out there, and D-Rose was D-Rose, took the game over as usual. Fun to watch the guys get down."
Although I can't advocate Asik-for-Noah on a regular basis, what he brought to the fourth "can't be understated," Noah himself said. It's nothing the 7-foot Turk hasn't done before. All he does is set hard screens and rebound. In early March, I asked Rose about the idea the Bulls should have dealt Asik for a 2-guard. Rose vehemently disagreed, and, for one night, he was dead on.
"No, no, no," Rose said. "I think in the playoffs you need size, and that's where he's going to help us out."
Along with Asik, Gibson, Deng and Brewer are legitimate closers because of their defensive abilities. And everyone but Rose is part of that group that starts second quarters.
Rose, of course, is the NBA Most Valuable Player, and he was the second-best clutch scorer in the league, according to 82games.com, behind Kobe Bryant. Once again, he showed why he's so dangerous.
That group (along with Rasual Butler and C.J. Watson, who played the final 1:05) held the Hawks to 31.3 percent shooting and no 3-pointers. Atlanta had four turnovers in the quarter, and Chicago had two steals and two blocks and shot 52.4 percent in the fourth.
The Hawks were scoring with relative ease three-quarters of the way through the game, having shot 52.7 percent.
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Rose scored 33 points and added nine assists in a typically masterful performance. He didn't have to take 30-plus shots, and he set the right tempo early on with his quick passes out of double-teams and traps.
The Bulls have been open in criticizing their own dullness through the first two rounds of the series, as they stand on the precipice of eliminating another flawed team. Miami looks to be the next opponent, but the Bulls have to try to block that out.
Because although closing out the Hawks seems elementary to some, even Atlanta coach Larry Drew can't figure out what his team is capable of from game to game. So it seems silly for me to try. There is no reason to believe Game 6 will be any easier than the past two.
So it stands to reason that Thibodeau, the reigning coach of the year, would revisit this lineup late in the game again. If he doesn't, he should.
"We're going to go right back to what we've done all year," Thibodeau said Wednesday. "We're not going to change what we've done. As the game unfolds, if there's foul trouble, an injury, something's working well, we'll tend to ride that a little bit longer, but we're not going to change."
Although Rose has thrilled the world with his exploits, the Bulls have underwhelmed in victory, and most of the key players have no conference finals experience.
We've learned a lot about this team in the postseason, most notably that a hobbled Boozer can rebound, dunk and yell, but that's about it. Noah has rebounded extremely well, and played strong defense, but his scoring is inconsistent at best.
If the Bulls play Miami in the Eastern Conference finals, most of the games will be low-scoring affairs between two defensively stout teams. In their three matchups this season, all Bulls wins, the games were decided by three points, four points and one point, respectively.
Boozer, who could be the square peg late in games against Miami, said Tuesday's game reminded him of something Thibodeau started preaching in the fall.
"It seemed like it took four or five stops to get a little cushion," Boozer said. "That's what we said in training camp: There might be a time in the season where it's going to take four or five stops to get a cushion. Everybody on the floor contributed, and we got those stops."
Getting those stops is all the Bulls should be worrying about right now. Derrick and the Defenders should be ready for an encore.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.