Randy Belice/NBAE/Chicago Bulls

This time the Hawk is too much for the Bull

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By Sam Smith | 1.18.2015 | 2:39 a.m. CT

You know how you have this girlfriend or boyfriend who is really nice and fun and you enjoy them. But they’re not exactly perfect, and wouldn’t it be nicer if they looked just a little better? And then you find someone who does, and what do you know, they can’t play defense.

“The way that they play, that’s the way we should be playing,” Jimmy Butler was saying about the streaking Atlanta Hawks, who Saturday in the United Center defeated the Bulls 107-99.

It was Atlanta’s 12th straight win to go to 33-8, their 26th in the last 28 games and fourth in this current set of five straight road games. It was their first win in Chicago in the last eight tries and puts them six and a half games ahead of the 27-15 and fourth in the East Bulls.

“That’s the way we can play,” added Butler, who had another quiet game with 15 points and just two free throws. “We’re going to get to that, so why not pick up a few things from them.’’

Or stated another way, “Hey that was us!”

You know, the little engine that could team, greater than the sum of its parts, the team of who-were-those-guys, the Pinkertons from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid who never would quit despite the task and the reputation of the prey, the playing harder than any team in the league every game guys, the most relentless of defenders with the most modest of predictions. The Bulls saw them Saturday, except it wasn’t in the mirror any longer but across the court wearing the bird. Heck, they aren’t even famous enough to get their full name spelled out on the jersey: ATL.

But they’re being noticed after leading the Bulls the entire game behind 24 points from Kyle Korver, who made seven of nine threes, and 22 points and nine rebounds from Al Horford.

“They’re playing great basketball,” agreed Derrick Rose, who is also as he had 23 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds. “I think anybody would want to be Atlanta right now with the way they’re playing and the way the ball is hopping. You can tell they love playing together. Don’t get me wrong; we love playing together, too. We just didn’t figure things out on the defensive end. They’re a great team with the way they move the ball, the way they play defense. They don’t have any super, super stars but they have very good players and they love playing with each other and it shows.”

Despite the Hawks’ fabulous run to the top of the Eastern Conference despite one of the heaviest road schedules in the league, there’s doubt with their smallish front court and roster of veteran journeymen that they can have substantial playoff success. Like the Bulls in recent years.

So the Bulls decided to become more pleasing and perhaps successful with those fancy scorers who seemed the only missing element. So they added Pau Gasol, who hasn’t disappointed and had 22 points and 15 rebounds. They imported shooting star Nikola Mirotic, brought in crazy legs Aaron Brooks and drafted all-time collegiate shooter Doug McDermott.

But sometimes clothes do change the man. The Bulls’ Technicolor dream coat offense is their highest scoring in 18 years at more than 102 per game.

But you kind of miss that comfortable old friend.

“If I had the answer, I swear I wish I could tell you,” said Rose, whose 20 second half points helped the Bulls get within five points with 5:19 left. “Once again, communication, trusting, and just the effort. It’s frustrating, very frustrating. We’ve got to get it together if we want to go far. It seems like we’re down and chasing the entire game. I don’t know when we’re going to learn. But we have to learn very quickly. It’s frustrating starting off games like this and losing games like this. We’ve still got 40, 41 games left. That’s a lot of basketball. Just got to get guys on the same page and put everything else behind us. Go out and try to compete.

“Thibs can say whatever he wants to say,” added Rose. “It’s going to have to be done by us as a collective group. It can’t be two or three guys one possession or four guys on one possession and the fifth guy is out doing whatever he wants to do. We gotta be all five guys tied together. I think we’re going to figure it out.”

Perhaps, but life and basketball can change as you move on.

This is a different Bulls team not only with the enhanced offense, but the addition of so many new players. It’s the Hawks with the stable group that essentially is the same with the addition of Horford, back from missing most of last season hurt. They’re the new model franchise of the NBA, like the Bulls were, because of the way they compete, basically play that right way with ball and body movement, regular and relentless help on defense, a deep bench that plays a lot even if no one quite knows who they are and what they still are doing here.

The Hawks also have enjoyed a healthy season, though with their big lead and a soft home schedule ahead it’s difficult to see anyone in the East catching them anymore. No one in 2011 and 2012 caught the Bulls in the regular season and it didn’t lead far enough.

The Bulls’ current issues are more complex, and, as usual, marred by injuries. Joakim Noah missed his second game with a sprained ankle and Mike Dunleavy his ninth with a similar injury. McDermott remained out after knee surgery.

The Bulls have run out 13 different starting lineups, and myriad changes from game to game. Tony Snell started three straight games and then didn’t play at all in the next two.

Rose has been terrific, averaging 24.2 his last five games, 10 assists his last two and shooting 15 for 27 on threes his last three games. But Butler has come back to earth, rarely getting to the free throw line anymore and averaging about 16 points on 40 percent shooting this month. Suddenly, that big second scoring option for Rose isn’t quite there like it was.

“I guess I do have to be aggressive,” said Butler, also being a bit mysterious. “I don’t really want to get into it, to tell you the truth. But I guess I’ve got to be better.’’

Give Butler credit as he works exceptionally hard and never complains in leading the league in minutes played. He’s still been a revelation. But he struggled again on defense trying to contain Korver, who made his first six threes and routinely was open even if he had to be the No. 1 scouting report priority.

“It’s a lot more than just him and he’s great at moving without the ball,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau of Korver. “Kyle is very clever. If you turn your head he’ll never be in the spot he was at before you turned your head. You always have to maintain vision with him. He also utilizes the back pick and the curl probably as well as anyone in the league in terms of getting himself open and having the ability to get other guys open. It’s a credit to him.”

It’s also been a step back for rookie Niklola Mirotic in crashing into that imaginary rookie wall. Mirotic was basically undefended by the Hawks at the three point line. He was one of four on threes and fouled out in 15 minutes with three brutal fourth quarter fouls that thwarted Bulls comebacks in giving the Hawks extra free throws.

But you cannot fault players who have done so much when so little was expected.

Gasol had another strong double/double and Aaron Brooks had 13 points off the bench. But with so many new players and so many who have been offensive oriented their entire careers, it’s naïve to suggest you can be the same defensive team with the same temperament that you were. It was without Noah again Saturday. And when he has played, it has been in limited minutes to conserve his health after knee surgery and generally out of position to accommodate the arrival of Gasol.

So plenty of new people and old people doing different things.

It shows subtly, though brazenly.

Like when Rose late in the second quarter called out “Ice,” which is the Bulls signal to push the pick and roll to the baseline, where there will be help. Jeff Teague, who had 17 points and 11 assists and is on an All-Star track, ended up blowing by Rose for an easy layup. This is this communication thing you hear so much about.

Rose made the right play. He got on Teague’s left side to keep him out of the paint, which is where the Bulls deny the pick and roll. He sent Teague right toward the baseline. But nobody came to help and Teague went in easily. It looked like Rose was beaten for a score. The big man stayed glued to his man. So he looked in the right position. He wasn’t.

This sort of thing has been going on all over the court lately, in switches missed, mismatches without help, guys frustrated with the officials because, well, they are frustrated.

“I think it’s frustrating not winning, period, but we definitely can’t start the way we’ve been starting (games) and expect to do anything great,” agreed Butler. “It’s correctable. Everybody is saying, ‘We know what we have to do.’ But we can’t keep talking about it. At some point we’ve got to actually go out there and get it done. Stop going into (games) lackadaisical. Play some defense, cut down on turnovers early. I think that all plays into the hole that we’re digging for ourselves. We can score the ball, so we rely on that a little bit too much instead of doing what we’re known for, and that’s guarding. So we definitely got to learn how to get stops. We’re going to score enough points to win games, but our defense isn’t up to par.’’

Unlike the Hawks, the latter day Bulls who are the no name delights to watch that the Bulls were.

The ball constantly moves, not stopping basically unless they have a mismatch. They are smart and find those mismatches almost immediately, and take advantage as they did several times with Brooks against taller players and Mirotic against quicker ones. They help quickly and also seem able to identify the players less likely to pass out of double teams, like Taj Gibson, and they drop three defenders on him. They were pushing Brooks to the baseline and then stepping into the passing lanes for steals. Horford was popping outside on Gasol and then driving by. The Hawks’ cuts on offense are sharp while the Bulls’ players seemed to just move into assigned spots. The Hawks were setting hard screens, tagging guys, as the saying goes. These are those little things the Bulls did so well when they weren’t the best looking guys in the neighborhood.

“Losing five out of seven is concerning,” admitted Gasol. “The schedule we have coming up (Cleveland, San Antonio and Dallas) is not easy at all; the good thing is we have plenty of challenges ahead, plenty of tests; let’s see how we do. Let’s see if we can turn it around, get better, make progress.

“A couple of tough home losses,” Gasol added about Utah and Orlando. “I feel maybe if we’d won those two games things would have been better. We played a couple tough games with Washington, could not beat them twice. Atlanta is another tough team, but those are teams in our conference and if we want to get far we’re going to have to take care of down the road and be better than them.”

The Bulls had another of those frustrating starts, trailing 24-16 after one at home, where they are now 12-10. Rose’s passing was superb, though he was missing shots. It was in contrast with the in sync Hawks. There’s that Bulls tendency to walk into their plays to start games, which seems to sap their energy, if not interest, until late in the game.

It may be given the new personnel and injuries that this Bulls team cannot be a high level defensive team anymore, at least not at the prior level. It really doesn’t have to be like that again with the improved offense. And they didn’t win enough that way. But take advantage of the offense with more fast breaks, even after made baskets, outlet passing and pick and roll in transition, offense that would better enable players like Mirotic, Brooks and Gasol as well as Rose with his brilliant speed. A great race horse needs to run.

“They got us in the first quarter,” said Thibodeau. “We were chasing them the rest of the game. It made it tough on us. Our margin of error is so small right now, particularly against a team like that. You can’t make mistakes.”

The Bulls, amazingly, still could not find Korver in the second quarter as he added three more three pointers, a three jamboree.

The Hawks to their credit not only start Korver, who it’s been previously believed couldn’t defend well enough. But they look for him constantly in transition and in spots all over the floor instead of just designated plays running the baseline. The Hawks also play almost a two-unit Hubie Brown sort of game with frequent substituting that has fresh bodies running at guys constantly, sort of like they did with USA Basketball. So discarded players like Thabo Sefolosha, Elton Brand, Mike Scott and Kent Bazemore can play major roles. Really, how the heck are these guys doing it?

“Great basketball, moving the ball, moving themselves,” Gasol said of Atlanta. “Great flow. Playing with all the confidence, guys shooting a very high percentage; Korver. And Horford shot eight for eight last night and tonight was 11 for 14; knocking down those shots consistently puts a lot of pressure on your defense. Tough cover for anyone in this league as they’ve proven.”

Rose got going in the third quarter with 15 points and four of five threes as he pretty much single handedly kept the Bulls in the game. He’s playing by far the best on the team this month.

“I’m all right,” said Rose. “Not worried about my performance; my biggest thing is winning games. I can have zero points, 20 turnovers. If we win the game I’m happy with it. You can erase the performance; we lost. So it doesn’t matter.”

The Bulls with 60 second half points and 52.4 percent shooting showed they can respond to the need for urgency and featured Gasol in the fourth quarter. It was a terrific close, playoff type stuff as the Bulls kept coming and the Hawks kept answering. There were those tough fouls by Mirotic, including fouling Korver for a four point play. Look, he is hustling and trying, but there’s method to it. There was Horford popping outside for jumpers, Teague forcing switches on smaller or slower defenders before Rose returned, the Hawks answering with a tough basket or free throws every time the Bulls were close enough to make them blink.

The Hawks would score in seven of eight possessions down the stretch when the Bulls were making their last push. Yes, stops. They say it all the time. But there’s more than saying it; defense is coordination, continuity and familiarity. It’s difficult to come by when there so much different.

“I’d always rather have this tough stretch early in the year rather than later on,” said Gasol. “It’s not how you start, but how you finish. And when you go through this type of period, there are good opportunities for you to grow, tighten things up, understand you have to do better and work harder. I think it’s always good and positive to face adversity and how you handle it is what defines you. So let’s see how we handle it.”

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