Commentary

Bulls' breakdown builds up Hawks

Young team still has much to learn about the mind games of playoff basketball

Updated: May 3, 2011, 12:32 PM ET
By Michael Wilbon | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- A critic could lose his edge trying to find fault with the Chicago Bulls ... until Monday night.

Rarely had the Bulls done anything wrong. They didn't lose three straight games all season. They had, by any reasonable count, six or seven bad nights in a regular season that lasts 5½ months. The Bulls came closer to reaching their maximum potential than any other team in the NBA this season, which is why Tom Thibodeau was named the league's coach of the year Monday and why Derrick Rose will be named MVP any time now.

But a critic can have a field day between now and Wednesday night, because the Bulls violated the first tenant of big-time competition: They didn't respect the opponent. The Bulls probably wouldn't admit it, but the Hawks knew it, and so did pretty much anybody who's seen the two teams play all season.

An Atlanta team in desperate need of a shot of confidence got it from the most unlikely source: its opponent. The Bulls decided to join Game 1 in progress, after the Atlanta Hawks had built a 10-point lead and had begun to feel good about themselves. Once interested, the Bulls cruised into the lead, then became passive again, and the Hawks, probably relieved, found themselves hanging tough with a team they'd been battered by in two late regular-season games.

Unlike the Indiana Pacers, who are long on confidence but short on accomplished offensive players, the Hawks are the classic front-runners who need to feel good about something first, then are happy to turn the game over to Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford.

So, the Bulls find themselves down 1-0 in a series many people in NBA circles felt they could sweep. The only thing that saved the evening from being a total disaster was that the turned ankle Rose suffered in the meaningless final seconds, which had folks in the United Center shrieking and fearing the worst, didn't seem so bad afterward, when Rose stood through conversations with the media, insisting he'd be fine.

[+] EnlargeJoe Johnson
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesJoe Johnson scored a game-high 34 points in leading Atlanta to victory in Game 1.

At least the Bulls weren't in denial. Thibodeau, three hours after accepting his coaching award to a rousing ovation, was candid without being dramatic.

"We had a hard time scoring and a hard time defending to start the game," he said, appearing as puzzled as he sounded. He called his team's defense, perhaps the best in the league, "low energy." Then Thibodeau ticked off a list of the Bulls' ailments, including a lack of intensity to start the game and disinterest in applying ball pressure, challenging shots and showing help. That covers just about every important element of playing defense, doesn't it?

There was talk about the two days off and three days of practice, but Thibodeau said that formula at the end of the Pacers series should have led to a high energy level.

"You have to have an edge. We did not have an edge," he said.

Nobody did. Well, Luol Deng was quite efficient on offense but got lit up by Johnson, who, when his confidence is up, can light up any defender in the league. Carlos Boozer had his best stretch of offense in the playoffs, calling for the ball and producing points on three straight possessions when it appeared the Bulls were about to take over the game.

But other than that, the Bulls didn't do what got them this far. Rose -- and I don't think I've ever written this sentence -- was dreadful early. He missed his first seven shots and settled for too many jumpers, making some wonder just how bad his ankle might be even before the last-second tweak.

"I don't know why I didn't keep attacking the basket," Rose said.

The Atlanta Hawks are the prototype of a team you jump on early and put away. It's not overly mean to say the Hawks are usually fragile psychologically, and their coach, the tough-as-nails Larry Drew, has masterfully picked his spots in working around that issue. That's why Atlanta traded for former Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich for the stretch run, to add some physical and mental toughness to a lineup that needed both. Oh, before I forget: Hinrich missed the game and likely will miss the series with an injured hamstring.

So, the Bulls came out happy to counter punch a team susceptible to a first-round KO. Drew acknowledged as much afterward when talking about his team's 9-0 start and 28-18 first-quarter lead.

"[That was] critical … very critical," Drew said. "When we start a game off [well], I think psychologically that really plays into our favor. Trying to get off to a fast start is something we talk about all the time."

Drew wanted a similarly good start to the third quarter, too, and called a quick timeout 2½ minutes into the third when Rose hit a couple of baskets and the Bulls pulled ahead for the first time in the game.

"I called that quick timeout to get them to refocus," Drew said. "Easy baskets and stops, that got us going. That was huge for us."

So what happened to the Bulls in Game 1? How could they flat-line in the first quarter on a night when the joint was juiced from the patriotic singing of the national anthem and the presentation of Thibodeau's award, all the while knowing the Hawks' best chance to steal a game in Chicago was letting Johnson and Crawford get their groove on?

The answer is easy: human nature.

The Bulls, having won one series over a No. 8 seed, still know little, if anything, about the nasty, contentious rhyme and rhythm of playoff basketball. The notion around town -- that the Bulls should sweep the Hawks -- ignores both the nature of these playoffs and the fact that the Bulls aren't that good. They're going to struggle with everybody, particularly as they learn how to play as the favorite.

It's one thing to play with the nothing-to-lose abandon Rose and his mates did two years ago against the heavily favored and defending champion Celtics; it's another to play with expectations, with coaches and players being adored in ceremonies before playoff games.

Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson have told me more than once that some of the toughest playoff games they had were when they, or the men who coached them, were honored beforehand. It took them and their teammates out of their routines. It was awkward and humbling and unlike anything that ever happened before other games.

Well, tradition has it that the MVP often is honored before the second home game of the second round of the playoffs. You know what that would mean, right? Wednesday night's Game 2 would proceed only after Rose holds that trophy at midcourt … with his team down 1-0.

While the Bulls might have a few strategic adjustments to make, as Thibodeau himself said, one of the questions the coaches have to answer Tuesday is whether the team is doing what it is supposed to do "hard enough." It seems the Bulls' primary adjustment is to get their nasty back before Wednesday night, to wipe the smiles off the faces of Crawford and Johnson early.

A one-game deficit is hardly insurmountable if Rose is healthy enough. But the Bulls made things unnecessarily hard on themselves by allowing a team they trashed by 18 points on March 11 in Chicago and by 33 points on March 22 in Atlanta to feel confident it can now win the series.

The single reason I've been reluctant to pick the Bulls to reach the Eastern Conference finals, regardless of the opponent, is that young teams don't win in the NBA because it's inevitable (except in the case of Magic Johnson) that they find heartbreak first. It's a rite of passage.

Now, the expectation here is that the Bulls would have their hearts broken by the Miami Heat or Boston Celtics in the conference finals, not by a Hawks team they should beat in five games, six games max.

The Bulls have to figure they have one game to get their season back on track, to snatch back the confidence they allowed the Hawks to have in Game 1. There's a saying that a playoff series really begins when a team loses at home. Well, it's game on, isn't it?

Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Wilbon joined ESPN.com after three decades with The Washington Post, where he earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists.

Michael Wilbon | email

Pardon the Interruption co-host
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC, in addition to ESPN. You can follow him on Twitter: @RealMikeWilbon