HANG TIME CHICAGO – It was as if a platypus and a Tasmanian devil got together, downed a few too many, impulsively detoured to a little chapel in Vegas and, nine months later (or whatever the gestation period would be — work with us here), were gifted with a beautiful white swan as their most unexpected bundle of joy.
That’s how the game at United Center played out Tuesday night, between a misfiring and road-weary Atlanta Hawks team and a sluggish, numb-for-three-quarters Chicago Bulls club. Ugly met ugly, with the winners shooting 33.8 percent and the losers poised to avert defeat if only its starting backcourt had gone 6-for-25 rather than 5-for-25.
Somehow, improbably, the late moments of what became Chicago’s 76-74 victory were striking, memorable and the stuff of the Eastern Conference semifinals between the Hawks and the Bulls. Derrick Rose’s tenacity, Josh Smith’s athleticism, Tom Thibodeau’s craftiness on the sideline – all of it and more was on display late, even with a hushed video review by the refs mixed in to turn two hours of farce into a few minutes of thriller.
How bad were things 40-plus minutes? Atlanta – which was wrapping up a north-by-southeast back-to-back (at Miami/at Chicago) after beating the Heat Monday – missed 41 of 63 shots through three quarters, but managed to lead by as much as 19 points. The Bulls were even worse after a 2-for-21 second quarter.
“In the first half, we were backward,” said Thibodeau, Chicago’s head coach. “We were shooting when we should have been passing and passing when we should have been shooting.”
Said Rose: “We know we’re 10 times better than what we showed out there … I felt bad for our fans to see us play that bad.”
By the end, though, much was forgiven. Atlanta, still struggling offensively, lost focus defensively. Trips to the foul line became adventures. And Rose got busy, scoring 17 of his game-high 30 points in the final quarter and going all 2010 MVP on the Hawks. His driving bucket with 57.8 seconds left got Chicago its first lead of the night, 72-71. Then, after a throwdown by Smith of Marvin Williams’ alley-oop, Rose did it again, as described by ESPNChicago.com’s Jon Greenberg:
Two between-the-leg crossovers, a hesitation dribble to freeze the point guard, and then an explosion to the hole. After he picked up the dribble, Rose carried the basketball – though it wasn’t a carry – coasting toward the rim where [Smith] in wait.
Smith had already blocked Rose at the rim twice in the quarter, but this time Rose timed his shot perfectly, a teardrop high over Smith’s extended hand. It kissed in off the glass.
And still that didn’t win the game. There were 9.9 seconds left. Al Horford promptly got Atlanta even at 74-74 when he pivoted into Luol Deng, going under Horford’s screen, and got the call, making the second of two free throws. That left 7.7 seconds for the Bulls, at which point Thibodeau subbed in center Joakim Noah, who’d been sitting since 10:04 of the third quarter in deference to backup Omer Asik’s energy and production.
The play that ensued was swan-like for basketball fans. As Deng looked to pass inbounds on the right sideline, Rose circled past him but either didn’t really want the ball or looked too vulnerable to an Atlanta trap. So the Bulls forward tossed it to Noah, then slashed to the basket behind what wound up as a screen by Rose. Noah hit him with the ball in stride and Deng’s layup at 3.7 proved to be the game-winner. Multiple Chicago defenders smothered Joe (3-for-17) Johnson’s 3-point attempt from the left wing at the buzzer.
The only funky thing at the end was Thibodeau stating that Rose was the first option all along on the play, while Noah’s presence and the precision of Deng’s cut-catch-and-score argued that it was set up from the start with the Bulls’ point guard as a decoy. Sounded like Thibodeau was hoping to pull that one out of the playbook again some night, which meant there was something worth hanging onto from a game so ooogly it required three o’s.