Posted May 10 2011 10:26AM
CHICAGO -- That old saw about needing to "watch only the last five minutes of an NBA game" could not be more wrong in relation to this Chicago-Atlanta Eastern Conference semifinals.
Better that an interested observer on a tight clock simply pays attention to the first 12 minutes. This series, tied at 2-2 heading into Game 5 Tuesday night at United Center, has been first-quarter-centric, not just on the scoreboard but in the seams, in all the intangibles such as effort, focus and intensity.
Whichever team has staked out the first quarter as its own, quantitatively and qualitatively, has grabbed that night's game. It figures to go that way again in Game 5.
Look at the series thus far:
Game 1: Atlanta 28, Chicago 18
The Hawks punched the Bulls in the nose with a 9-0 start, sending a message to the East's No. 1 seed and its overconfident fans that, yes, it would face a challenge in the second round. Atlanta wasn't bothered by the road -- hushing up United Center crowds isn't that hard if an opponent starts strong -- and its shooters nailed 59.1 percent of their attempts (13-of-22) in the series' opening period. The Bulls were on their heels, as well as on Derrick Rose's leftover sprain from the Indiana series; he was 0-for-7 and they were 6-for-21 in the quarter.
Game 2: Chicago 25, Atlanta 19
This was a yucky start to a grimy game, the kind the Bulls played and won often in 2010-11. They missed 14 of their 23 shots but were fine with that, seeing as how the Hawks missed 18 of 26. Both teams stayed on that pace the rest of the way: Atlanta wound up shooting 33.8 percent to Chicago's 39.3. Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford, who had combined for 56 points in the opener, were held to a total of seven, en route to 27 for the game. After getting outrebounded in Game 1, the Bulls made the boards a priority; in the first quarter, their guards and small forward accounted for half of their 16 rebounds. By the final horn, they had dominated that category, 58-39. As for Rose, he wasted no time, scoring 12 of the Bulls' 25.
Game 3: Chicago 29, Atlanta 23
Only one Atlanta player, Jeff Teague with 21, scored more points in the entire game than Rose got in the opening quarter (17) of this one. He was a fury on his way to a career-best 44, bursting past Hawks defenders from the start as if they were orange traffic cones. He had two layups, a dunk and a floater in the period, along with a 3-pointer and jumpers of 18 and 20 feet. It wasn't for nothing that Atlanta coach Larry Drew called a timeout just 49 seconds into the game, after seeing Chicago play at a faster speed and hotter temperature than his guys from the opening tap. Atlanta never closed the gap in its wire-to-wire loss.
Game 4: Atlanta 28, Chicago 26
That first-quarter score looks close, right? But it made a huge statement in the Hawks' favor, given the way the teams had played in Game 3 and how close the home club looked to spitting out its bit. Drew went "big" with Jason Collins at center and Collins got two buckets after being neglected defensively (he had no rebounds, though). The biggest effects of the lineup switch were freeing up Josh Smith and Al Horford for matchups with smaller defenders. Joe Johnson started fast with nine points and had Chicago's Keith Bogans not just chasing but limping (ankle sprain). Rose needed five shots to make one. And though he got to the line for five free throws -- as if the refs were eyeballing Drew's move to get more physical -- he shot just four more the rest of the night. His shot total ballooned to 32, the Bulls believe, because five or six of those -- drives to the hole and of course the Bennett Salvatore play -- could have been negated with uncalled Atlanta fouls. One promising sign for Chicago: Creaky Carlos Boozer got six points before picking up his second foul in the game's ninth minute.
So where are these teams at now, facing a best-of-three?
Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau was right to call his defense only "OK" after the Game 3 victory, because it regressed in Game 4. Johnson wound up with 24 points on 9-of-14 shooting and the Hawks got 56 points in the paint (a perfectly pro-rated 14 in the opening quarter). They are hitting at a 45.4 percent field-goal rate through four games, compared to the 43.0 percent Bulls opponents shot during the regular season.
Atlanta had an attitudinal makeover betweens Games 3 and 4. The Hawks are a front-running sort of team and now, again, they have confidence. The series is merely tied but based on Sunday's performance, the Bulls are the ones feeling pressure now. Never mind Rose's shooting percentage -- the most telling stat is that he has shot fewer free throws (26) in the series than Smith (28). Not only is that a drop from Rose's regular-season rate -- he averaged 6.9 FTAs then to 6.5 in this series -- but it is a plummet from the 12.0 he averaged against the Pacers.
Even with the three that should have come from Salvatore's "inadvertent whistle," that's a shortfall that Chicago -- if it remains this reliant on its all-Rose, all-the-time attack -- will not overcome.
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