With the series tied 2-2, the Bulls find themselves in a much more tenuous position than they were only a few days ago. Perhaps both the team and those covering it (COUGH me COUGH) began to look past the Hawks a little bit, but who can blame them? The Hawks were so predictable and so putrid in the series' first three games -- including Game 1, where about a million atrocious Atlanta shots ended up finding the bottom of the net -- that a performance like the one we saw in Game 4 caught the Bulls flat-footed.
For the first time in these playoffs, hell, the last few months, the Bulls were out-executed down the stretch in a game. It's hard to know exactly what to attribute it to, as it was a multi-faceted loss that couldn't be summed up as simply as: "ROSE AWESOME" or "ROSE NOT AWESOME ENOUGH", much to the chagrin of bloggers everywhere. So instead of pointing out the many things that made Game 4 go against the Bulls -- Derrick Rose's tunnel vision, his teammates' disappearance, Josh Smith's rim-attacking doppleganger, a must-have game for the Hawks in their gym -- let's keep it simple.
The one constant in this series is this: When the Bulls get on top of the Hawks early, they win. When the game stays tight, the glaring reality of Atlanta's offensive superiority scares the hell out of me. Depending upon who you ask, the Hawks have between three and five players who can create their own offense: Joe Johnson, Jamal Crawford, Josh Smith, Al Horford and Jeff Teague. The Bulls have one. You may have heard of him. Starts with an "r", ends with an "e", and is a type of flower?
That difference is literally the only thing that makes the Hawks dangerous, as Chicago owns the rebounding advantage, the defensive advantage, the coaching advantage and usually, the execution advantage. That's a lot of assets for a team to have, but none of it means a thing if the Bulls can't be more efficient on offense against a team that can always get a shot up.
I think it's fair to say that no one saw a near-triple double coming from Josh Smith in Game 4, after watching him make terrible decisions all series and literally causing his home fans to scream "NOOOOOO!" whenever he took a shot beyond 15 feet. But he did show up big in his team's biggest game of the season, and Thibodeau will need to adjust his defense to coax Smith back into his team-killing jumpshooting ways.
On the Bulls' side, Luol Deng -- who was shockingly snubbed from the All-NBA defensive teams -- needs to chip in a little more on offense to keep defenses honest against Rose. Deng is slumping most of all from behind the arc, where he is 2-12 in the series. In general, he is fantastically consistent, but had his worst game in the playoffs in Game 4 and the Bulls need him to bounce back. As for being left off the All-defensive squads, somehow Rose got more votes than Deng, which is an absolutely absurd notion. Rose is a lot of things, but better than Deng (not to mention many other players) on defense is not one of them. On the bright side, Joakim Noah was named to 2nd team All-defense despite missing almost 40 games. Noah is the Bulls' best interior defender and best offensive rebounder, wreaking havoc on most nights because of his length and non-stop motor. It would help the Bulls if Noah could get a couple of those little lefty hooks he's becoming so good at, but more than anything he needs to rebound the ball on both ends for Chicago to reassert itself.
Kyle Korver and C.J. Watson, the Bulls' two best perimeter shooters, are struggling mightily to find the range, combining to shoot only 30% so far in the series. That may help explain why Rose tried to take on more of the offensive load when crunch time came down the pike in Game 4. No matter the explanation, the Bulls were far too one-dimensional and made it easy for a mediocre-at-best defensive team. Carlos Boozer is a bit of an after-thought, despite playing well in Game 4 and showing some lift after months of getting his shot blocked. The Bulls need him to rebound well and at least hold up on defense, but with the game's importance Thibs will have a quick hook for Boozer. It's unlikely he'd need to use it, however, as you can pencil in Carlos for two early fouls pretty much every first quarter.
At the end of the day, the humility that comes with a tough loss, combined with a return home to the United Center, a need-to-have game and the likelihood that at least one of the Bulls' shooters gets off the snide, all foretell improvement for Chicago. If the Bulls can get back to forcing the Hawks to take long jumpers and then get out in transition off of misses, I like the team's chances to push the Hawks to the brink of elimination. But if Atlanta stays close heading into the fourth quarter, I'll be chewing on a towel like Jerry Tarkanian used to do.
Game 5 at the United Center tips off at 7:00 p.m. CDT on TNT.