Without question, the Bulls face their toughest test of the season tonight at Phillips Arena. Chicago has had a number of "test" games this year -- the breakthrough win against the Lakers in December, the 42-point Rose-splosion against the Spurs at the UC, and the back-to-back road wins against Orlando and Miami that put the Bulls in position for the top seed in the East. If you're noticing a trend, that's because the Bulls have won virtually every major challenge they've faced since the new year began. If we're working off of recent history, it says that this team wins when they have to.
The thing is, since the lead the series 3-2, their backs aren't entirely against the wall, at least compared to the Hawks. There is a certain value to desperation, and added to home court advantage, the Bulls will have to weather the storm from a team with nothing to lose when Game 6 tips off at Phillips Arena at 7 p.m. Central on ESPN.
The Hawks long ago proved themselves to be worthy foes, to the point that the series previews predicting a Bulls sweep now seem pretty laughable. The Achilles' heel of Atlanta is their inconsistent effort (which leads to those awful iso-jumpers that Thibs' loves so much), but that will be off the table for a team with their playoff lives on the line.
So even as the Bulls have been steadily improving as the postseason has gone on, they will need to play their best game yet to beat the really good version of the Hawks. Chicago's seen it once, in Game 4, and were soundly punched in the eye by it.
Although there was never a chance that Thibodeau would change his rotation because of Game 5's Taj/Asik/Brewer finishing lineup, he did discover that team offense was worth sacrificing for an effective defensive unit, especially if Rose is on the floor to do the Rose Show . Without saying it will be the same players, look for Thibodeau to go with the group that is defending best down the stretch, as Atlanta is hard to stop and their iso-jumper offense can lead to easy baskets in transition for the Bulls.
As far as individual performances go, it is time to acknowledge the Bulls' birthday boy, Keith Bogans. In a postseason filled with criticism directed at Carlos Boozer and praise and Rose, Bogans has largely fallen through the cracks. But the truth is he has been spectacular in the postseason for the Bulls, playing his regular stifling defense on Jamal Crawford and Joe Johnson while really picking it up on offense. Bogans' PER rating has gone up from 9.0 to 12.5 in these playoffs, where he is shooting a team-best 50% from behind the arc on 18-36 shooting. Bogans had a lot to do with the Bulls' early 15-point lead in Game 5, scoring eight straight at one point.
Likewise, no one is talking about the struggles of C.J. Watson, whose PER is down from 12.8 to 7.4. Watson's first experience in the intensity of the postseason has gotten the best of him so far. His possessions have mostly looked like dribbles into the teeth of the defense or panicked jumpers. However as we're seeing with Omer Asik, Ronnie Brewer, Bogans and Taj Gibson, the Bulls are getting better with every game they play. Hopefully that can extend to Watson at some point, as the Bulls need his offense when the bench unit plays.
Boozer's PER is another matter altogether, plummeting from 18.8 to 11.3 in the playoffs to the surprise of no one who has watched him play. Three points to make about him and then we'll move on. 1) THIS IS WHAT HE DOES EVERY POSTSEASON. I like it how everyone knew this was his career MO, that he shrinks come playoff time, and it was still beyond maddening. We have no one to blame but ourselves. 2) Boozer has been great on the defensive boards, even increasing his DRB% to 27.1%. It often seems like he gets to collect the easy rebounds which helps with stats, but that discounts the space he takes up down low that created that room to rebound in the first place. Yelling GIMME THAT S**T at every other loose ball can't hurt either. 3) Having been scratched by Zaza Pachulia early in Game 5, Boozer had a trickle of blood down his forehead that reminded me of this moment. Anything to get him fired up is good for Chicago.
It was strange to see Korver play only 4 minutes on Tuesday, but the Hawks present such a tough matchup that there's nobody for him to guard. The drives he gave up in Game 4 really stressed the Bulls' rotations. As Thibs has come to value defense more and more in this particular series, Korver may continue to sit while Bogans plays early and Brewer closes because of his rebounding prowess and on-ball defense.
The Bulls core three of Rose, Deng and Joakim Noah will need to play well, especially Noah who struggled against Al Horford on Tuesday for the first time in this series. Rose must continue to attack the basket, but the Hawks will likely run Jeff Teague under screens and dare Rose to shoot. It would do wonders for the team if Rose cans a few early and makes the Hawks switch their strategy.
And so, the Bulls go into the lion's den to take the next step in their dream season. A win would send them to their first Eastern Conference Finals since the dynasty years, to face the Miami Heat who ousted the Boston Celtics in only five games. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Rose, Deng and the rest of the Bulls try to slay the beast of Johnson, Horford, Josh Smith, and yes, even Teague.
The stakes have never been higher. Time to see just how precocious this team wants to be.