After seven games of lulls and lapses, The Bulls finally showed the 62-win form that had so many touting them as a title contender going into these playoffs. Derrick Rose was nothing less than brilliant, scoring a new playoff career-high 44 points to go with seven assists and five rebounds. After looking so tentative in Game 2, Rose looked much more like the MVP we have come to know this season, attacking the basket and pushing the ball in transition.
When Rose's shots didn't fall, the Bulls absolutely crushed Atlanta on the offensive glass. Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson combined for 15 of the Bulls' 18 offensive rebounds, while the Hawks only had 26 defensive rebounds. That is an insane percentage, one that would many any opposing coach make reservations for the nearest padded room.
Gibson and Kyle Korver were the only other Bulls to score in double figures, with 13 and 11 respectively, as Luol Deng, Noah and Carlos Boozer (huge surprise) had subpar games offensively. However it was the team defense that was absolutely stifling, and for only the second time in these playoffs coach Tom Thibodeau got extremely productive minutes from his bench unit. The bench scored 34 points overall and extended a lead for the first time in these playoffs during a great stretch in the second quarter.
Thibodeau has made great adjustments to both Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford, and when Gibson came into the game Thibodeau even employed a trap against Crawford to force the ball out of his hands. Johnson shot 4-12 and Crawford, 3-7, forcing the Hawks to look for offense from some of their less-efficient players. Jeff Teague continues to play extremely well, begging the question of how he spent so much of the season parked on the end of the Hawks' bench. Teague scored 21 points and led his team in scoring for the second straight game.
After Game 2, Thibodeau said he hoped to push the ball more in the games ahead, and it deserves acknowledgment. Thibs understands that if you can get on top of the Hawks early, the game is much easier to win. After seeing his team struggle to hit shots in the halfcourt in this series, Thibs emphasized transition baskets and it allowed his team to get the jump on the Hawks and take control of the game.
A final note, and it needs to be mentioned: Injury or not, if this is what Carlos Boozer offers at this point, then he needs to sit out a few games to regain his form. Thibodeau limited his minutes tonight after a largely ineffective stint that saw poor defensive rotations, and turnovers and fouls on the offensive end. Once Gibson entered the game, the Bulls defense locked down the Hawks and the rout was on. There's something to the idea that Boozer might be more effective coming off the bench to face another team's second unit. In a world without ego, Boozer could be a focal point for the bench's offense and could bridge the gap between Rose's stints on the floor. Alas, that is unlikely to happen as a demotion of Boozer at this point in the season could end up hurting him more than helping. These guys are human, after all.
Road wins aren't easy to come by at any time, to say nothing of the playoffs. But Rose and the Bulls built a lead, shut up the Phillips Arena crowd (half of whom were chanting MVP for Rose by game's end) and never gave the Hawks a chance to make a run. That's what championship teams do, and tonight will serve as a template for the kind of effort and execution the Bulls will need if they do indeed advance in these playoffs.
Game 4 will be on Sunday night at 7:00 CDT. Now that the Bulls have wrested back home court advantage, the goal now is to take a stranglehold on the series and have a chance to finish it off in Chicago in Game 5. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Game 3 reminded us all of who these Bulls can be when everything is working, and it was a sweet sight to see.