The encouraging component of the Bulls 120-105 loss to the Atlanta Hawks Saturday was that last season’s 60-win conference finalist Hawks were using the matinee game against the Bulls to gauge their strength.
“We understood this was a good measuring stick game for us,” said Atlanta’s Al Horford. “They’re a really good team. They just won six straight. We knew we needed to come out and the effort needed to be there.”
The discouraging part for the Bulls was that the Hawks delivered that effort and looked a lot better than the Bulls.
“They rocked us right away,” agreed Taj Gibson of the early 23-10 deficit in a game the Bulls never led. “Hit us with a right hand hook, stumbled us. We didn’t respond and they made a good run. It’s always tough to fight back the whole game. It’s tough when you’ve got a good winning streak going. They just wanted it more than us.”
The Hawks were in that neutral corner pretty quickly.
“I hate to say that we got out hustled,” added Gibson. “I think it’s good for us. Test our character knowing that team jumped out on us that way. Like coach said: We’ve got a bulls eye on our back. People are starting to see us come around. So we just need to adjust. Make the right kind of hustle plays, but I think we’ll be fine.”
And so ends the Bulls’ six-game feel good streak and era of good feelings.
The Bulls fell to 22-13, a half game ahead of the Hawks, who got a dominant 33 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and four blocks from Al Horford. Paul Millsap added 18 points, eight rebounds and six blocks as the Hawks’ smaller front line out scrapped, out hustled, out jumped and outworked the Bulls. The Hawks shot 52.1 percent with a dizzying 33 assists (to 16 for the Bulls) as they put on a clinic of passing, ball and player movement and shooting. Even the Hawks’ misses were basically uncontested.
“The pick and roll coverage was not good, to say the least,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “They were getting whatever they wanted up there, 30 (points) in the first quarter, 34 in the second. They got every 50/50 ball. All the energy, hustle plays.”
Jimmy Butler had 27 points and eight rebounds for the Bulls and Nikola Mirotic had 24 points and 10 rebounds with five of nine three pointers. Derrick Rose had 17 points with six turnovers (the Bulls had 22 for 25 Atlanta points) and Pau Gasol added 10 points, seven rebounds and five assists. The Bulls reserves were quiet, outscored 35-17 with rookie Bobby Portis taking his lumps again and scoreless.
But it was a tough game all around for the Bulls front court players, who were sending in missing persons reports looking for Atlanta shooters. The Hawks are a tough matchup for the taller Bulls, and the absence of Joakim Noah was especially noticeable as Horford kept bouncing outside for wide open jump shots.
Hoiberg said Noah, who missed the trip, might be able to return from his shoulder injury Monday against Washington.
The Hawks were a surprising, yet impressive 60-win team last season with regular ball movement, players cutting and drives into the paint and pass outs and ball reversals. That hasn’t been there regularly this season, but it was in the Saturday late afternoon game as Kyle Korver added 13 points and Mike Scott came off the bench for 14 and several explosive dunks off follows and fast breaks.
The Bulls were not able to take advantage of their size; instead, the Hawks used their pick and roll against Gasol and Mirotic to distraction for open shots and Bulls players late helping and often out of position. Bulls players constantly were sniping at one another about missed coverages and lack of help.
“I think the way we’ve been coming out has been not up to par,” said Butler even with the winning streak. “Not guarding, not making shots. Luckily we’ve been able to get ourselves back in a few of these games, but this one wasn’t the case tonight. They were just the tougher team from the jump. In the passing lanes, pushing us around. Not supposed to happen, can’t happen.”
It really wasn’t so much physical play as the Hawks are a finesse team.
It was intelligent, impressive basketball with a dash of hustle sprinkled in as the Hawks opened the game ripping balls away from startled Bulls players and diving on the floor as Bulls players seemed more like judges ready to grade the effort.
“They had way more energy coming out of the gate,” agreed Hoiberg. “For whatever reason we’re coming out with more energy in the third quarter than the first quarter and that’s got to change. Were giving up 30 pretty regularly now in the first quarter and we’ve got to find a way to stop that. We did make a run, cut it to two (77-75) in the third quarter. But again you’re climbing uphill. You want to get those leads. We’ve had some success when we get off to good starts. We dug too deep a hole tonight.
“They beat us in the first half,” said Hoiberg. “It is (a) tough matchup. They controlled the game. That’s the bottom line.”
That the Bulls only trailed by 13 (64-51) at halftime seemed the surprise.
The Hawks zipped the ball around and found players wide open. The Bulls put Butler on sharpshooter Korver, who is having an off season, and Korver made his first four shots. The Bulls were decimated more so in pick and roll with the Hawks having a 32-18 inside scoring advantage in the first half, runouts for dunks off 12 Bulls first half turnovers and nine first half Hawks’ steals.
“We’ve got to have a pick and roll defensive day,” said Hoiberg. “Were getting exposed there right now. If we can limit teams in transition and rebound the ball we can have success. Coming off a pretty darn good stretch. For whatever reason we didn’t have it out of the gate today.”
The Hawks simply were too much better. They substituted early and freely, running in players more quickly. Butler was zero for four with one point in the first quarter as the Bulls trailed 30-19. Rose was one of three.
The Hawks bolted out in the second quarter to a 44-26 lead in the first three minutes with reserve Mike Scott blowing by Bulls reserve defenders. Hoiberg brought back Rose quickly for Portis, who obviously has found his way onto the scouting reports. Rose went under a screen and Jeff Teague made a three, Mirotic over helped again left Millsap wide open for a layup. Butler lost Korver, Horford popped out against Gasol. And yet the Bulls were still there, pulling within 57-47 late in the quarter before another Korver three led the Hawks to a 64-51 Atlanta halftime lead.
Then, suddenly, it was a game as the Bulls opened the third quarter 9-2 as Mirotic banked in a three. And later in the quarter there was a 10-0 Bulls run behind Rose and Butler driving the ball. The Bulls were making everyone nervous trailing 82-79 with two minutes remaining in the third quarter.
Games are determined by much more than any one sequence, but this one was tough as Snell got a steal and instead of throwing ahead or to a guard dribbled up into the Hawks. He lost the ball and Horford still standing at the other end had an easy dunk. It was 84-79 Atlanta instead of 82-81. The Hawks pulled out to an 89-83 lead at the end of the third quarter and then opened the fourth quarter with a 13-2 run with Hawks players diving to the rim with the Bulls observing closely.
“Looked like we could have pulled even or get ahead,” said Hoiberg. “Maybe its different, but it never happened.”
Hoiberg tried changes, Butler some at small forward, Mirotic often back to power forward. But they’d be fooled to think they could have done much in this game. There was one rebound midway through the third quarter when Millsap at maybe 6-6 took it between three Bulls.
“They’ve got a really big group of guys,” said Butler. “Score the ball in a multitude of ways. Really unselfish group, which makes them so good. Whipping that ball around, making you guard everybody. They’ve won a lot of games. Hustle group of guys. Getting loose balls, taking charges, offensive rebounds. Just got a raise our game.”
It was the Bulls 10th straight game scoring at least 100 points. But they allowed at least 30 points in three of the four quarters and at least 100 in six of those 10. They’re last in allowing offensive rebounds. They’re going to have to outscore teams the way they’ve played lately.
So, good things in the NBA do come to an end. It’s been a good Bulls run the last few weeks, though now it gets more serious. The season’s only four games in five days set begins Monday. Saturday began 13 of 17 on the road.
“I feel we’ve played great on the road,” said Gibson of the Bulls 6-8 road record. “Just a couple times we couldn’t finish the games, but we love playing on the road. Just going to make us better. It’s tough, but it’s fun at the same time. Just knowing we came from having a good streak…previous to that streak everybody was talking about how tough we were having it. So much going on. So I just think we’re in a good space right now as a team, guys believing each other, guys believing in the system.
“The positive is that we got humbled,” added Gibson. “One thing is that when you get humbled you go back to the drawing board. You go back to the fight with each other. Make each other better. From the way they jumped out on us – how hard they were hustling – you could tell they really wanted the game. But I look forward to seeing them in the future."
Better watch out what you wish for. The Hawks measure up pretty impressively.