Chicago Bulls must keep their balance
To win in the playoffs, even an MVP needs help from his friends, as Game 5 illustrated
CHICAGO -- Larry Drew knew all the discussion over Derrick Rose taking 32 shots Sunday night in Atlanta's victory over the Chicago Bulls wasn't going to sit well with the league's newly minted MVP.
The Atlanta Hawks coach wanted Rose to take 32 shots again Tuesday night in Game 5 or, for that matter, 42. The Hawks had just shown they could win a playoff series, against the Orlando Magic, by allowing the opponent's best player, Dwight Howard, to essentially score as many points as he wanted as long as the Hawks kept the Magic's role players in check. What Drew did not want, but what he suspected would happen, was for Rose to respond to the criticism by getting his teammates engaged in the game which is exactly what happened.
Don't get me wrong, Rose's 33 points were critical to the Bulls' 95-83 victory, which gave them a 3-2 series lead. But finding the balance they didn't have Sunday night in Atlanta was what enabled the Bulls to win Game 5 and is exactly the way they need to play on Thursday if they're going to close out this series in Atlanta or, looking ahead a bit, legitimately challenge the Miami Heat if the two meet in the Eastern Conference finals.
Luol Deng scored nine of the Bulls' first 12 points and finished with 23. And Keith Bogans' 11 points might as well have been a Red Auerbach victory cigar; when Bogans has scored six or more points in a game this season the Bulls are -- listen to this -- 31-2. Rose took plenty of shots in Game 5, 24 to be exact, which was nine more than any Atlanta player took and six more than Deng put up. But the 24 shots were his lowest shot total of this series, and unlike Sunday night when Rose missed 20 of 32, Tuesday night Rose made 11 of 24. And it seemed he always had a tag-team partner offensively, which both kept the Hawks defense off balance and kept Rose fresh enough to be effective as the closer in the fourth quarter.
If you want to fast-forward to the fourth quarter, after the lead had changed hands on six consecutive possessions and eight of nine, Rose gave the Bulls the lead for good with a blast to the basket then fed Deng for a three-point lead and then found Taj Gibson for the three-point play that gave the Bulls some breathing room at 76-70. Drew's worst fears had come true. Boozer and Noah were on the bench cheering while Gibson, Omer Asik and Ronnie Brewer each played the entire fourth quarter.
"You have confidence when the coach has confidence in you," Brewer said. "He left us out there; we had to prove it was a good decision." It's the kind of adjustment that characterizes playoff basketball. You find out what you did that didn't work -- 32 shots does not work -- and fix it, quick and in a hurry.
It's an easier fix for the Bulls than with most guys who would take 32 shots in a game, say, Russell Westbrook, just to pick a name out of thin air. Everything about Westbrook's play recently -- and much of it is spectacular and some of it is damn effective -- is self-indulgent, considering he plays alongside one of the five best players in the game in Kevin Durant. Rose, on the other hand, not only doesn't have a Durant but he understands that lack of balance will not help the Bulls beat elite teams.
"I heard for two days people say, 'Derrick took too many shots,'" Deng said, "But the only reason Derrick takes that many shots is that the rest of us haven't been aggressive enough to start the game."
The solution, very simply, was for Deng to come out and step on it to start the game. The fact that Atlanta changed defensive assignments and put Josh Smith on Deng seemed to play right into Deng's plan. Deng, especially if the Bulls get to face Miami, is going to have to be this kind of aggressive every single game. He can score in a variety of ways, inside and out, can get to the foul line and is the only Bulls player other than Rose who can get his own shot with any consistency.
"Luol got things going," Rose said. "Driving, hitting tough shots, not hesitating."
Not hesitating. The thing about Deng and Gibson is that they can both produce efficiently on offense even when being asked to guard some high-octane opponent. Gibson is still best coming off the bench; it would be crazy to overreact to Boozer's slump or injury or whatever. Boozer, though he played only 30 minutes (compared to Al Horford's 42) grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds.
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When Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau wanted better defense from the position late he went to Gibson, who in a couple of instances completely discouraged Smith, who resorted to launching a couple of ill-advised rainbow jumpers. Not many defensive aces can also go 5-for-5 in a playoff game.
"Taj is a good ballplayer," Rose said. "I think he really doesn't know how good he is. I'm glad he was hitting everything tonight; it opened things up." The larger point to be made off of Game 5 is Rose had plenty of offensive help. The Bulls shooting 48.6 percent is like most teams shooting 55 percent because of the way they rebound and defend. Thing is, it's Atlanta's turn to adjust, to come up with a defensive plan that will limit Deng's ability to get to the basket in Game 6, that will limit the others while forcing Rose to take something north of 30 shots. For the longest time Tuesday night, it didn't look as if the Bulls' relatively diverse offense was going to pay off because Atlanta's Jeff Teague, who is only playing because Kirk Hinrich is injured, hit eight of his first nine shots, handed out seven assists and didn't commit a single turnover in 40 minutes on the court.
You tell me that Joe Johnson has 15 points, Jamal Crawford has two (1-for-9 shooting) and the Hawks miss 11 of 12 3-pointers and it would seem the Hawks would have zero chance to win. But guys named Teague and Zaza Pachulia helped the Hawks hang around. The question for the Bulls is whether they learned enough from the past two games to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they have to play this way, that Deng has to assert himself early, that Bogans has to fire those 3s, particularly in the first and third quarters, and that Kyle Korver has to shake himself out of whatever funk he's been in for a couple of games.
The last time the Bulls went to Atlanta they were so cocky about beating the Hawks they stood around and waited for Rose to do everything and it failed miserably. If this doesn't convince the Bulls they have to play exactly this way, the result will be Game 7 Sunday back in Chicago.
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.