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Steve Aschburner

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Despite being the East's top seed, the Bulls have struggled to find their rhythm this postseason.
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Two desperate teams preparing for Game 6 battle in Atlanta


Posted May 12 2011 11:19AM

ATLANTA -- Desperation has descended on both teams in this Eastern Conference semifinal series, still grinding on at a time when half the field and most of the audience is ready for the next stage.

For the Atlanta Hawks, the desperation is as obvious as the plot twists in a made-for-TV movie. Lose and go home. Lose and go fishin'. Coach Larry Drew and his crew are in simple see-the-game, win-the-game mode.

There is nothing particularly daunting, though, about their brand of desperation because they have beaten Chicago on both courts. The Hawks led in the fourth quarter of Game 5, Chicago's must-win, and were within six points late in Game 2, when they nearly took 2-0 command of the series.

Atlanta's defense has forced MVP Derrick Rose to take 137 shots for his 160 points in the series. It has sufficiently choked off Carlos Boozer (11.4 points per game), Joakim Noah (7.6 ppg) and Kyle Korver (5.4 ppg) as reliable scoring options around the Bulls' explosive point guard.

Drew has shown a steady hand emotionally and he had NBA Coach of the Year Tom Thibodeau in reactive mode in Games 4 and 5, dictating the matchups with his use of Jason Collins (meh) and Zaza Pachulia (better). The real benefit of Atlanta going "bigger" has been the freedom Josh Smith has felt in playing small forward and Al Horford's ability to knock down jumpers from a range where neither Boozer nor Noah cares to stray.

Point guard Jeff Teague, the understudy stealing the show for the Hawks, surely doesn't want this series to end. With his stalwart work against Rose -- including more than a few blow-bys and a 17.0 scoring average -- the second-year pro has earned himself a reset on his career, either in Atlanta or elsewhere.

So the only negative element to the Hawks' desperation is the prospect of getting stuck at the conference semifinals for what would be the third consecutive postseason. The traditional view at playoff time is, if you aren't moving up, you're moving down. Especially after completing a season with nine fewer victories than the one before. The sense is that Atlanta, collectively and individually, pretty much is what it is, unless Teague blossoms into a serious floor-general type.

The Bulls, meanwhile, face desperation of a much different sort in Game 6 and, if they're pushed to it, Game 7.

Everyone understands how teams might clash and grind differently than their respective playoff seeds would suggest. And sure, cutting 14 teams off the bottom of the NBA standings and keeping around the top 16 means there are no doormats at this time of year. But Chicago won 62 times in the regular season. It held the No. 1 seed overall and was universally considered to have the smoothest road to the East finals.

But the Indiana Pacers were more trouble than anyone expected, even within the context of a five-game elimination. Beyond making the Bulls sweat in all but one of those meetings, they exposed some flaws in their Central Division betters. Rose never looked quite this alone during the regular season. The roster put together by Co-Executive of the Year Gar Forman, for all its facets and skills, isn't the swiftest or leapingest. Thibodeau's starting lineup features two guys, Noah and Keith Bogans, whose offensive contributions can best be described as "opportunistic."

Then there is the charge -- delivered mostly as praise but troublesome at this point -- that the Bulls played harder than the rest of the league in racking up those 62 victories and has no "next gear" into which to shift.

Dallas shifted. Miami shifted. Oklahoma City appears to have shifted now against Memphis. But the Bulls still are grinding their gears, riding the clutch. Luol Deng either is Rose's reliable sidekick or he isn't. Noah hasn't had a full high-energy game, tipoff to final horn, yet in this postseason. If the Bulls had a second superstar, Boozer would be cast in the Chris Bosh role, only with fewer close-ups.

Frankly, Chicago's defense -- as concocted and directed by Thibodeau -- really is its second superstar. That enabled the Bulls to win six of their first nine playoff games while shooting 42.1 percent, to stay close no matter what. The Taj Gibson-Omer Asik-Ronnie Brewer wrinkle in the fourth quarter of Tuesday's Game 5 had Atlanta stymied and dragging, but even that was borne out of desperation, three starters planted on the bench on merit.

If the Bulls don't finish off this series in six, they will face Game 7 back home Sunday. Against an Atlanta team that will have momentum, confidence and virtually no pressure. With the Miami Heat waiting, watching and resting, like matadors about to take over for the picadors.

All the hardware collected by the Bulls' key performers so far -- MVP, Coach, Co-Executive, the No. 1 seed -- will sit on various shelves, collecting dust and seeming a little junky if their pursuit of a more coveted trophy ends two rounds early.

There's your desperation, Chicago.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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