As if this series needed another plot twist.
After an opening act that featured the best version of the Bulls running out to a 15-point lead via Derrick Rose and a re-energized Luol Deng, the Atlanta Hawks turned back into the legitimately scary team that out-talented Chicago in Game 4, pulling even even entering the fourth quarter.
With a dream season on the line, NBA Coach of the Year Tom Thibodeau had the stones to go with a closing lineup he hadn't used once this year, let alone in the playoffs, and it paid off as a masterstroke of coaching genius. Rose, Deng, Ronnie Brewer, Taj Gibson and Omer Asik entered the game to begin the fourth, and when the lineup worked Thibs stuck with it until the game was over. The Bulls' best defensive lineup clamped down on Atlanta when the starters couldn't, and Rose, along with a huge contribution from Gibson, provided all the offense the Bulls would need on their way to a 95-83 victory.
Rose was simply spectacular, scoring 33 points while only making two jumpshots and adding nine assists. It was a stunning display of attacking the basket, and the fact that Atlanta couldn't defend what everyone in the building knew was coming made it all the more amazing.
Gibson played his best stint as a professional basketball player, scoring all 11 of his points in the fourth quarter on a variety of jumpers and a few twisting, pivoting moves in the paint. Gibson's given the Bulls great energy and defense off the bench all year, but offensive performances like this one show that he can offer a lot more in the future. Even Rose said after the game that "Taj doesn't know how good he can be." As it was, the two played off one another on offense while Atlanta was forced and frustrated back into a stagnant isolation-heavy offense.
Deng filled the Bulls' desperate need for offense early, scoring the team's first seven points on his way to 23 points, including 7-of-7 from the free throw line. Carlos Boozer had his first double-double of the playoffs with 11 points and 12 rebounds in only 30 minutes, and really had some more life in his legs. And just to remind you how much box scores can lie, Asik had zero points and only four rebounds, but his interior defense and activity meant everything to the Bulls' defense after getting carved up for the second and third quarters.
Sure, Gibson replaced Boozer and Brewer replaced Korver, who only logged four minutes in the game, but it was shocking to see Joakim Noah sit out the entire fourth quarter. As I tweeted earlier in the game, one of the main reasons the Hawks were closing in on the Bulls was that Al Horford was winning the matchup between the two former Florida stars, and Atlanta did a stellar job to keep Noah off the offensive boards.
Jeff Teague's ascendance continues as the third year guard once again led his team in scoring with 21 points on 8-11 shooting. Horford had 12 points and ten rebounds and gave the Bulls' interior defense fits as he popped out for jumpers around the free throw line time and again. And much-maligned Josh Smith was again active on the inside, matching energy with Chicago's bigs and cutting inside instead of camping on the perimeter as he had in the series' first three games.
The Bulls got contributions up and down the roster (even Bogans had 11 points!), and still the game wasn't in hand until the final minutes. Chicago has found themselves locked in a much more even battle than anyone predicted before this series began, and they will need to do even better if they are to win Game 6 on Thursday in Atlanta.