As the series shifts to the home court of the Atlanta Hawks, it almost seems hard to remember how invincible the Chicago Bulls were at times during the regular season. No matter the opponent, the injuries or the venue, there was a sense that Chicago would be victorious when the final buzzer sounded.
Not so now, as the fluorescent light of the playoffs has illuminated the Bulls flaws for all to see. Call it pessimistic if you must, but the team has a few key issues that have merely been exacerbated with the injuries to their two best scorers.
As far as the injuries go, there isn't much to update. Derrick Rose would sooner say he was born in Kenya than admit his ankle was hurting -- even if it's clear to all who have watched his last few games that it is giving him problems. When your all-world point guard doesn't go to the rim, which is basically what his game andthe entire Bulls offense is designed around, you know he's hurting.
Carlos Boozer's turf toe has been a little harder to see with the naked eye, as he has played terrible basketball both before and after the injury occurred. Boozer is no doubt hurting, not only from his ailing foot, but also from the common refrain he has heard throughout his professional career. Besides his poor play, it isn't exactly clear why he seems to draw the ire of fans wherever he goes. Nevertheless, he has quickly risen in the pantheon of frustratingly overpaid Chicago athletes, joining the notorious Mt. Rushmore of Alfonso Soriano, Jacque Jones and Brian Campbell. Somewhere, Jay Cutler is penning a thank you card to Booz.
With Rose unable to attack (and left to shoot a jumper that's as streaky as it is improved) and Boozer ineffective in the post, the Bulls offense, which is predicated on inside-out ball movement, is stuck in a massive rut. Many are calling for Kyle Korver to get more playing time, and as the Hawks don't take advantage of offensive opportunities and mismatches as well as other teams, it's hard to argue.
At the beginning of the season, when Boozer was still recovering from his broken pinky and Rose hadn't yet made his leap to superstardom, Thibodeau's offense featured Korver much more prominently than it does now. Until either Rose or Boozer regains some of the form that got the Bulls where they are today, Korver and the spacing his presence provides seems too important to park on the bench.
It isn't all gloom and doom, though. Joakim Noah has shown himself to be a player that elevates his game when the pressure is at its highest. Call it being a "winner" if you must, but Noah's desire to take his team on his shoulders has been the difference through the first two games of this series. Without him, the Bulls likely would have been blown out in Game One, and his rebounding and a crucial 19 points really saved the team in Game Two.
Likewise, the ever-steady and dependable Luol Deng continues to quietly fill the stat sheet, defend the opposing team's best perimeter player and do whatever the team needs in order to win. After so many years of intermittent injuries and disappearances in big games, Deng has become the veteran rock that every team hopes and dreams of obtaining.
And that's where the Bulls will make their hay, with the triumvirate of Rose, Deng and Noah: The team's superstar, rock andheart. Everything else revolves around the performances and personalities of those three players, despite the fact that Boozer is the Bulls' highest paid player by far.
The Hawks have the second-worst home record of any team in this year's playoffs, and are 22ndin the league in attendance. In terms of dealing with a home-court advantage, the Bulls couldn't find a better place to go in and steal a game. While the affect a crowd has on players is arguable, the way it alters referees' calls is not. Home cooking is a part of the NBA, and if Bulls fans travel as well as they have all year, it could mitigate one the Hawks few advantages in this series.
Struggle as the Bulls have on offense, their defense is probably going to be too much for Atlanta to overcome. As has been said many times, the Hawks are keen to settle for jumpers if a defense makes it even mildly difficult to run Larry Drew's flex offense. More often than not, Jamal Crawford, Joe Johnson or Josh Smith will stop the ball, dribble it into submission and launch a shot as the clock runs down. The only problem with this from the Bulls perspective is that they're so practiced at that particular iso-offense that their lockdown D strategy from the Indiana series may not work.
The way to beat Atlanta is to play from ahead, so there isn't a late-game shootout. Because frankly, the Hawks are much more offensively-talented than the Bulls are at this stage. And, if their shots are falling, it isn't likely that Chicago can keep up. That's what happened in Game One, while the Bulls played from a lead in Game Two and coasted to a relatively easy win. The Hawks thrive on the confidence their opponent allows them. Both in the games and in the series as a whole, the key for Chicago is to get out in front.
As it is, all eyes will be on Rose, who's shooting 38% in these playoffs to go with a rumored grade-two sprain of his left ankle. On the road, in a hostile environment, the Bulls will need their superstar to lift them up now more than ever.
Game Three tip-off: 6:00 CDT on ESPN.
For updates and live-game commentary, follow Zachary Lee on Twitter @rightfieldsucks