- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- They are, in some ways, victims of their own success. Sixty-two victories, taken in total, makes a certain statement about a team, and it's a standard the Chicago Bulls have had trouble living up to this postseason.
Even with their 4-1 first-round series victory over the Indiana Pacers, the Bulls' play overall left their fans with a certain measure of disappointment and concern moving on. And after their Game 1 loss to Atlanta at home on Monday, that anxiety only grew.
Chicago's 86-73 victory in Game 2 on Wednesday night may have been reassuring. The Bulls played at a defensive level closer to what they showed in the regular season. And they avoided a potentially disastrous 0-2 hole going into Atlanta for Games 3 and 4.
But they are far from establishing the sort of dominance expected of them in a predicted march to at least the conference finals. And for those inclined to look ahead to a potential matchup against either Miami or Boston, few would say the Bulls inspire the level of confidence they did only two weeks ago.
"I thought we played much better [Wednesday night], I thought we were much sharper," Bulls guard Kyle Korver said. "But we can still be better. Offensively, we can be a lot better. But defensively it was night and day from Game 1."
Defense is the yardstick by which these Bulls measure themselves. And in Game 2, holding Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford to a combined 9-of-25 shooting (including 2-of-8 from 3-point range) for 27 points, after the two went off for a collective 56 points on 20-of-34 shooting (7-of-9 on threes) in Game 1, was critical.
"We talked a lot about not letting Johnson and Crawford beat us tonight, really loading up for them," Korver said. "That's what this defense is built to do. Indiana was a tough series because they have a lot of ball movement, a lot of side to side, a lot of shooting. This is more of a one-on-one team. They have some guys who can really get it going, but I thought tonight we did a better job of loading up for those scorers."
The Hawks, who shot 33.8 percent as a team, were not quite as impressed.
"I didn't see much different from them from Game 1," Atlanta coach Larry Drew said. "They played us tough and physical just as in that first game. We did a poor job with shot selection. That was our undoing. We were our own worst enemy."
Luol Deng wasn't buying it. "We have to get some credit," he said. "This is the NBA. They're not their worst enemy. We did something for that to happen. Every time a team shoots bad or doesn't play well, the other team has something to do with it."
Just the same, no one was mistaking this for one of the great playoff battles. Not only is there no apparent dislike built up between the two teams, the only boos heard Wednesday night were meant for beleaguered Bulls forward Carlos Boozer.
To say Boozer has not lived up to expectations is like saying the White Sox have been a tad disappointing.
And offensively, the Bulls have not wowed anyone, including themselves. They shot 39 percent in Game 2, including 5-of-22 for 23 percent from 3-point range. Rose had eight of the Bulls' 14 turnovers. And they have yet to show the type of rhythm they had going during the regular season.
Of course, offenses traditionally slow down in the playoffs, half-court play dominating. And the Bulls say they're not worried about that end of the court.
"We really don't focus too much on the offensive end because we know we have enough scoring and we've been playing together all year," said Bull starting guard Keith Bogans, 2-of-4 for six points, both shots from 3-point territory. "But defense is something we have to bring every night. We can't afford to not play good defense."
Offensive rhythm, said Bogans, is simply "not a big deal. If you're in a great defensive rhythm and you're getting stops," he said, "if you're not making shots, at least you're making stops on the other end."
It is obviously a team mantra.
"We can go out and have a great game and all of a sudden we're talking about how our rhythm came back," Deng said. "Those guys can score. If we play a scoring game with them, that's their game. We really have to focus on our defense, and our offense will just come."
Shooting for perfection, said several Bulls' players, is nice but not realistic. "[But] we can always improve each game," Rose said. "We have to continue to make hustle plays."
The benefit of jumping on loose balls was obvious in Game 2. And that edge the Bulls have been talking about finding was in evidence, even if downright swagger was not.
"They say you can be a little nervous, have some jitters," reserve forward Kurt Thomas said of the first-round series and even Game 1 against the Hawks. "That could've been it, starting the second round. But everything is settled now and now it's just about going out and playing our style of basketball and I believe that's what we showed [Wednesday night]."
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
Stops are nice, but the Bulls must start making more shots to advance.