Talking with Steve Holman after the game he told me he felt that was the worst Hawks performance of the season (including the 58 point game) because of the lack of heart and guts they showed. That pretty much says it all about the Hawks' performance against Chicago on Saturday.
The Hawks have been dominated 190-134 in their past two games against Chicago after beating them 92-75 in their first meeting. Saturday night, the Hawks were unable to get anything to work in their favor, especially in the second half. Nate Robinson (20 points, eight rebounds, three steals), Luol Deng (25 points, 14 rebounds, four steals, two blocks), Jimmy Butler (16 points, 10 rebounds), and Taj Gibson (19 points, 19 boards, three blocks) were all dominant and beat the Hawks at their game by playing with pace and moving the ball. The Bulls had 26 assists on 38 shots, out-rebounded Atlanta 53-45 (18-12 OR), and forced 14 turnovers for 15 points. Larry Drew summed up the night in his opening statement.
"First, we got totally outplayed tonight from start to finish. The first half, it wasn't pretty basketball. We had the lead by one at the half and there should've been some signs of encouragement because we didn't play well, but at halftime there were no signs of encouragement for me. We've been playing behind and getting off to slow starts, and as I told our players, it doesn't matter who put on the Bulls uniform tonight we have to come out and change our whole way of thinking as far as getting off to a good start. It wasn't about Chicago tonight. At the very beginning of the game, it was about how can we get back to the way we were, as far as playing solid basketball right at the start."
The Bulls accomplished all of this without the services of Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer (and Derrick Rose, who worked out before the game without a knee brace and looked good). Drew said before the game that the Hawks didn't have a good history playing teams without their stars. After the game, Drew talked about how he told the guys they would need to come out firing no matter who was playing.
"We played against a very competitive team. Regardless of who showed up tonight, I told the guys we had to bring a playoff game mentality. We had to bring our "A" game. Because this Chicago team, minus the guys who didn't play tonight, are still going to come out and play at a high level. If you don't compete at that high level along with them, they'll run you right out of the building."
Drew also pointed to the physicality of the game (something he's done a number of times) as something that the Hawks struggled to deal with.
"We did not respond in tonight's game. From a physical standpoint, they absolutely manhandled us. They had 18 offensive rebounds. We didn't play together as we had in the past, as far as moving the basketball. For some reason we got back to isolating, and that's not us."
The Bulls played small most of the night with Taj Gibson playing at center for 45 minutes (vintage Thibs). Al Horford said that lineup, with Robinson at the point and Deng at the four gave the Hawks some problems.
"They threw us off with four guards. They had a lot of movement. Deng is tough to guard. They just did it in different ways. When we were going to help, they were tipping in shots. They were by far the more aggressive team. They really took it to us tonight."
Josh Smith had 19 points, 13 boards, and five assists, but only three points in the second half on two shots. Josh was not very active on the offensive end and did a poor job getting himself open off the ball for entry passes. He seemed to be bothered at times by the length of Deng, who would front Josh in the post and deny him the ball.
Al Horford struggled mightily at the start and finished shooting 7-for-18 on the night for 14 points along with 12 boards and three blocks. Horford talked after the game about how he got frustrated by his inability to score early.
"Yeah [it was frustrating]. I mean shots weren't falling for me that I normally make and practice everyday just weren't falling for me and easy shots too. Defensively they did a good job contesting everything, but those are shots I normally make and that was a little frustrating."
Jeff Teague picked up his play in the third (he was the only one) and scored nine points, but he had just 16 points on the night and four assists. Teague seemed to let Robinson frustrate him (granted, Nate frustrates everyone) and take him out of his game early. Kyle Korver finished with 10 points on 50% shooting while DeShawn Stevenson and Jannero Pargo combined for two points on 1-of-12 shooting. Ivan Johnson was strong early, but struggled shooting in the second half and finished with eight points and nine rebounds.
With the Bulls a potential playoff opponent (and would be our opponent if the standings remain the same), Atlanta will need to either figure out how to play them, or find a way to avoid them because as of now, Tom Thibodeau and the Bulls have figured out how to completely shut down the Hawks offense.
The Hawks have Indiana (away) and Memphis (home) coming up on the schedule in what could be a crucial stretch to assert themselves as a mid-to-high seed or fall towards the bottom of the Eastern Conference.