Game 1 ended with a thud and a grimace, as the Bulls fell behind in a series for the first time this postseason, but not before Derrick Rose re-injured his left ankle with mere tenths of a second remaining in the game.
The injury added to the insult of Chicago's first truly flat game in a while might be enough to put fear into even the most confident Bulls supporter. Not to call Game 2 a must-win, but it is certainly as close as the Bulls have been to one this year. Losing two games at home to the visiting Atlanta Hawks would put Chicago's dream season in serious jeopardy.
Rose accepted the NBA Most Valuable Player award at the ripe age of 22 years old on Tuesday afternoon. The 3rd year guard thanked everyone but the United Center custodial staff, but saved the best for last when he thanked his mother. Rose choked up as he spoke to her in the audience, and the outright sincerity and goodness of the moment touched many of those watching it, even Chicago's hardened press corp.
As I rubbed my eyes (it was dusty in the room!), I realized a few things:
1. Rose said his ankle felt really good, contradicting horribly scary stories like this one on Peach Tree Hoops that says Rose might have a Grade 2 ankle sprain. He had full participation in Tuesday's practice and walked without a limp during the press conference, but the only way to really find out how he's feeling is when the tip goes up Wednesday evening.
2. Rose has a history of playing big in the biggest moments, and it's hard to imagine one bigger than this. Already carrying the weight of a city's expectations, Rose will lead his team into a game they must have while fighting a nagging injury. Oh by the way he'll re-receive the MVP trophy in front of the United Center crowd before the game. Having never been to the second round prior to this year, it is fair to say that this is the biggest game of Rose's young career. I reiterate, to this point Derrick Rose has always risen up when the lights are brightest.
3. As Rose humbly said over and over again that he wouldn't be where he is today without his teammates, I became convinced that the Bulls would rally around him and, as silly as it may sound, win one for the kid. Make no mistake, the focus is on the game, the matchups, the assignments and plays, but I'd bet my entire blogging salary that to a man every Bull wants to make Derrick Rose's MVP night a memorable one.
Standing in the way are the, frankly, bizarre Atlanta Hawks. A team that takes terrible, and terribly difficult shots, but has made enough of them this postseason to beat the favored Orlando Magic and steal home court advantage from the top-seeded Chicago Bulls.
The Bulls lost Game 1 because they spotted a ten-point lead to a team looking for confidence. Shooting 29% in the first quarter put the Bulls behind the eight ball, and the Hawks were good enough to fight off any attempt at a late comeback. By the time Chicago realized it was time for its patented Closing Run™, the Hawks pointed out that they were not the offensively-challenged Indiana Pacers, swish after swish... after swish. Joe Johnson was spectacular, consistently hitting late-game and late-shot clock jumpers while being defended closely. Jamal Crawford and Joe Smith tossed up their regular quota of coach-aging long two-pointers, but Crawford was hot that night, and he and Johnson kept the Bulls at arm's length until the clock ran out. The Hawks shot almost 52% on Monday, almost ten points higher than usual. While they will no-doubt be tough to put away in most close games, some of their shooting on Monday was a bit flukey and should regress to the mean. That said, the Magic are on vacation wondering when exactly when that regression is going to occur.
Rose, injury and all, will not go without a free throw for the second game straight at home. Overall in Game 1, the Bulls did not attack well on offense, settling for jumpers when forays into the paint were available. The lethargy showed in being a step slow to all the loose balls and amazingly, losing the rebounding battle. The Bulls usually don't lose that statistic to anything less than the best rebounding teams, which the Hawks most certainly are not (25th in NBA). Expect that flukey statistic to get back to normal on Wednesday night as well.
Rose, Luol Deng and Joakim Noah will need to get off to a hot start as they did against the Pacers in Game 5 of the opening round. Noah once again will draw the assignment of former college teammate Al Horford. As Horford has owned the matchup in the regular season and represents the Hawks most efficient player, Noah will need to contain him and provide the offensive rebounding that is such a big part of his game. Deng, frankly, needs more rest or needs to pace himself, because he has run out of gas in the second half of almost every game this postseason. Unfortunately he always draws the other team's best offensive perimeter player, so he'll have his hands full all game.
The Atlanta Hawks have been impossible to predict most of this season, looking strong one minute and hapless the next. The Bulls have been steady all season, defending well nearly every night, and getting enough free throws and offensive rebounds to be efficient offensively. That consistency, Thibodeau's adjustments to Larry Drew's tactics and a returned edge against a team that can lose its sense of urgency as quickly as it arrives, puts the Bulls in good position for a bounce back game.
Game 2 tips off at 7:00 CDT on TNT.