In the first nine games of the Thibodeaux/Rose playoff era, the Chicago Bulls rarely looked like the best team in the East. The pieces are starting to fall into place, exemplified by tonight's 95-83 victory over the Atlanta Hawks in Game Five of their best-of-seven series...
It was far from a perfect performance. The Bulls blew all of a 15-point first quarter lead. And, Chicago's internal defense was repeatedly exposed for easy buckets to the tune of 56% shooting on two-pointers from the Hawks. Derrick Rose isn't great at stopping penetration from fast point guards (which may not matter against Miami, but would if the Bulls reach the Finals). Chicago's bigs rotated poorly after penetration, though that issue seemed to disappear when Joakim Noah spent the entire pivotal fourth quarter on the bench.
Those problems aside...
*Derrick Rose is BACK! He continued is free throw climb through the series with his highest totals yet:
ROSE FREE THROWS
Game One: 0-0
Game Two: 4-6
Game Three: 8-9
Game Four: 9-11
Game Five: 10-13
And, those are essential points because nobody seems to pick up the slack in this category if Rose isn't drawing fouls.
CHICAGO FREE THROWS
Game One: 13-16 (non-Rose 13-16)
Game Two: 15-18 (non-Rose 11-12)
Game Three: 15-18 (non-Rose 7-9)
Game Four: 21-27 (non-Rose 12-16)
Game Five: 21-28 (non-Rose 11-15)
Game Three didn't need free throws because the Bulls were 10-20 on treys. And, Atlanta was so passive it was hard to draw contact anyway!
Chicago's a few points better when Rose can draw fouls. Those few points are the difference between being a generic playoff team and a title contender because point differential is so tight in the postseason.
*Execution is cleaner. Chicago had their playoff low turnover total Tuesday with only 9 giveaways.
Turnovers vs. Indiana: 14-21-15-13-14
Turnovers vs. Atlanta: 11-13-11-10-9
The nervousness and slop of the early games vs. Indiana are a distant memory. Some of that is Atlanta's relative passiveness. But, you can still see incremental improvement over the last four games. That corresponds to Rose's improving ankle as well. Giveaways turn into free throws when he's in command of his speed.
*Luol Deng is attacking the basket. The Bulls desperately need somebody besides Rose flying at the rim and doing damage. Deng made that a point of emphasis tonight after losing initative mid-series.
DENG ON THE DRIVE
Game Three: 6 two-point shots, 1 free throw, 42 minutes
Game Four: 8 two-point shots, 2 free throws, 45 minutes
Game Five: 14 two-point shots, 7 free throws, 46 minutes
Deng is almost always on the floor. He can't be an innocent bystander on offense. He mattered tonight with a plus/minus of +15 in a 12-point win. Chicago needs him to matter on offense every game.
If you combine those recent signs of improvement with elements that have always been there...
*Rebounding Edge: Board victories in the last four games, and double digit totals in offensive rebounds in all five games.
*Limiting Perimeter Damage: only 1 of 12 allowed on treys tonight, and 9 of 42 the last four games.
*Youth and Energy: I won't list the ages because you know this is a young team. But, to the degree the playoffs are a war of attrition, the Bulls are currently pretty well suited to hang tough for a long time.
This is a team that is at least on the verge of rounding into the form everyone was expecting from the get-go. The middle quarters were still a disappointment tonight (outscored 47-37). The Game Four loss in Atlanta can't be dismissed just yet. But, the signs are promising if you're a Bulls fan.
CHICAGO 95, ATLANTA 83
2-point pct: Atlanta 56%, Chicago 53%
3-pointers: Atlanta 1/12, Chicago 4/14
1's and 2's: Atlanta 80, Chicago 83
Chicago can't be counted on to win treys on command...but they've actually made more treys than Atlanta in four of five games in this series.
Game Six is Thursday in Atlanta.
One of the understatements of the year came last night when I said Oklahoma City/Memphis was running late. I think I typed that in the third quarter, and the article went up in the fourth quarter. The fun was just beginning!
OKLAHOMA CITY 133, MEMPHIS 123 (in 3 overtimes)
2-point pct: OK City 53%, Memphis 39%
3-pointers: OK City 5/24, Memphis 6/23
1's and 2's: OK City 118, Memphis 105
Rebounds and turnovers were about even. A lot of things have to be about even for a game to go three overtimes!
It always feels like old news when I write up a late finish the next night. Don't want to rehash stuff others have been talking about all day. Let me mention that Russell Westbrook largely kept his "frustration numbers" in check (missed shots, turnovers, personal fouls). They ended up totalling 26, which had been a magic number in losses. But, since it took 63 minutes of game action (of which he played 51 minutes) to get there, that can be forgiven.
I'm not sure yet if he can be forgiven for a sequence that happened in the first overtime. If you were watching the game, you know that Westbrook and Kevin Durant spent some time on different pages again. Durant needed consoling from the coaching staff at one point when he went several minutes without getting any shots. (This was a problem because he was 9 of 20 from the floor against a tough defense, and 16-18 from the free throw line for the game!) TV analyst Mike Fratello mentioned this as it was happening. You could see the fury and resentment in Durant's eyes. He's not the type to yell at a teammate. That's the way Durant yells.
In the final minute of the first overtime, Durant was given the ball in position to create (after he had just hit a three-pointer to give OKC a 105-98 lead, and a two-pointer to give them a 107-101 lead), and turned the ball over on successvie possessions. Memphis specializes in forcing turnovers (Westbook deserves a ton of credit for only losing the ball 3 times in 51 minutes). Durant wasn't as careful as he should have been...not as cognizant as he needed to be of the dangers.
They cut to a close-up of Westbrook...and he was just seething. I was trying to read his lips...and he said something like "that was terrible" under his breath.
THIS IS NOT GOING TO WORK LONG TERM!
Things might work out in the rest of this series. And, even in the next round vs. Dallas if OK City does get past Memphis. Kobe and Shaq stayed married for awhile. But, eventually, Westbrook must focus on the team's needs and not his own (as Charles Barkley has pointed out repeatedly on TNT). He has to be supportive of teammates in times of stress rather than part of what's causing the stress.
You've seen a lot of Derrick Rose lately. Can you imagine him seething at a teammate with fire in his eyes? The teammate who would score 35 points on 20 shots (1.75 ratio) when he was scoring 40 points on 35 shots (1.14 ratio)? Rose credits his team and coach in interviews and his mother when accepting the MVP. Westbrook plays like he's mad he can't take 40 shots...and don't you dare miss if he throws you the ball because he's going to start taking your shots too if you hit iron.
This is such a tough issue to work through because his positives are dramatic. And, his negatives can partially be blamed on the structure of the offense. Let's keep watching. Volatile ingredients are percolating. The end result is likely to be dramatic one way or the other.
Back late Wednesday with more numbers and notes...