It is strange how quickly fortunes and projections can change in these NBA playoffs, much like one of those snow-sleet-sun-wind-rain Spring days in Chicago. Predict at your own peril.
It seems only a few days ago that this 62-win No. 1-seed had looked anything but most of the second season, and to boot the Bulls' had their top two scoring limited by injury. Not only was the Atlanta series plausibly in doubt for the first time, but the prospect of Miami hung like a cloud over the arena even as the Bulls uglied their way to another win to even the series at 1-1.
Then Derrick Rose reminded everyone how good he can be, putting up 44 points at the Highlight Factory in Atlanta in one of the NBA's best playoff performances this season. He attacked the basket. He nailed the three. His ankle seemed fine, or at least a hell of a lot better than it was in Game 2. The Bulls cruised to a win like we used to remember.
And just like that, the basketball weather changed in Chicago.
All of a sudden, Atlanta seems less like an opponent and more like a foregone conclusion on the way to the Eastern Conference Finals. Still, it would be silly to count out a team that can be really dangerous in those rare moments when they get out of their own way. And while Rose's ankle seems to be on the mend and Carlos Boozer absence minimized by Taj Gibson's performance, the Bulls remain a mere misstep from calamity. Winning Game 4 would put a boot on the neck of the Hawks and give Chicago a chance to close out at home and get some rest while Boston and Miami beat each other up for a few more days.
The question now becomes: Was the Bulls' runaway win in Game 4 merely the result of Rose's jaw-dropping performance, or has Chicago figured Atlanta out? I'd argue the latter, while pausing first to gush about the league's MVP. Seriously, if Rose ever begins consistently hitting the three-pointer, he's going to be unstoppable.
Amazing as Rose was Friday night, a number of other signs showed that the scales are starting to tip precipitously in the Bulls direction.
1. The Bulls sped up the pace and finally found their offensive groove.
Had the Bulls not missed a number of easy lay-ins in transition, Game 3 would have been even more lopsided. The score wasn't nearly as close as the 99-82 score suggested. After grinding out a win in Game 2, Thibodeau promised to push the ball more and the returns have been spectacular so far. Chicago's offensive efficiency went up to 120 after hovering around 100 for the series' first two games, and it could easily have been much higher. The Hawks are prone to the long jumpshot and Thibodeau's decision to look for easy transition buckets off of those misses has given the Bulls the easy offense they were lacking. Again, Rose's success means so much to all of this, but 5-10 points in easy baskets is enough to push the Bulls over the top with their defense playing the way it is.
2. Thibodeau's defensive scheme had the Hawks reeling in Games 2 and 3.
Thibodeau decided to double the Hawks' two best isolation scorers late in the game. As you can see from the link, Josh Smith is who the Bulls have decided to leave on the perimeter, and he hasn't yet made them pay. Add that wrinkle to the Bulls two defensive anchors, Luol Deng and Joakim Noah, who are at the top of their games right now and you can see why Atlanta is averaging 77 points over their last two games.
3. The Bulls' elite skill has shown up when it was needed most.
More than anything else, the Bulls can rebound the ball with the best of them. And after ranking second in the NBA this season with 44.4 RPG, Chicago has actually outperformed it these last two games with 47.5 RPG. Besides Al Horford, the Hawks don't have a consistent rebounding presence. Horford is a talented player, an All-Star who is only going to improve. But putting him up against a rebounding rotation of Noah, Boozer, Gibson and Omer Asik/Kurt Thomas isn't really fair. The Hawks' next biggest threat on the boards is the aforementioned Josh Smith, who has a habit to float on the perimeter much to the Bulls' assistance. Thus it's no surprise that Chicago is killing Atlanta on both ends, even eviscerating them for 18 offensive rebounds in Game 3. It is what this team does best, and those extra possessions mean all the difference to a team with limited scoring options.
4. The bench mob is back... maybe.
Thibodeau has been reluctant to go with his second unit in the playoffs because other teams' shortened rotation pose a much more serious threat to that squad's lack of scoring punch. But against the Hawks, their defense has done enough to earn extended minutes. The bench mob extended a lead for the first time in these playoffs in Game 3, something that happened all the time during the regular season. As Thibodeau has tried to push the pace, an extended rotation plays into it and credit the entire bench for rewarding their coach's faith.
The Bulls don't have to win Game 4. Having reclaimed home court advantage with their Game 3 win, a mere split would be more than enough to take back to the United Center. This is where the "next game is the most important game" mantra has an opportunity to pay off for this young team. Instead of considering the stakes, as the Hawks clearly did in their Game 2 loss, expect these Bulls to come out ready to push Atlanta to the brink of elimination.
Game 4 at Philips Arena tips off at 7:00 CDT on TNT.