Even with one series win under their belts, one gets the sense that the Chicago Bulls were searching for their regular season selves heading into Friday night’s Game 3 against the Atlanta Hawks.
Their search yielded overwhelming results, as the Bulls put forth their best effort of the 2011 playoffs with a 99-82 trouncing of the hometown (sort of) Hawks in a game that frankly wasn’t even that close.
Pick a stat, any stat, really. Let’s start with rebounds. The Bulls dominated the glass, snatching 41 boards to Atlanta’s 36, which included an 18-8 discrepancy on the offensive glass. Bench points? The Bulls’ reserves, affectionately termed the “Bench Mob” by their devoted fans, carried the team for a key stretch to begin the second quarter and bested the Hawks subs by a stunning 34-14 margin. The Bulls knocked down 10 of their 20 3-point attempts. The Hawks made just one in six tries.
Almost to a man, every Bull put forth a vintage effort. Unsurprisingly, the team’s best game coincided with the best showing from the league’s Most Valuable Player, Derrick Rose. Through two games, Rose–clearly nagged by a sprained ankle sustained in the Indiana series–scored 49 points on 54 shots. On Wednesday, he poured in a play0ff career-high 44 points on 27 attempts. Though he topped the 20-point, 10-assist plateau in each of the series’ first two games, Rose caught a lot of heat for his tentative drives and inefficient shooting performances, particularly from long range.
That all flipped on Friday, as Rose peppered the overmatched Hawks a downright lethal mix of slashing takes, mid-range jumpers, and cold-blooded 3-point bombs (he made 4 of 7), finishing with a 59 percent shooting performance. Hot off a 19-point, 14-rebound Game 2 performance, Joakim Noah scored just two points but pulled down 15 rebounds (8 offensive) and swatted away five Atlanta shot attempts.
Rose started fast and didn’t look back, netting 17 first-quarter points. At the same time, Rose had his handful on the other end of the floor as Jeff Teague went toe-to-toe with the MVP, scoring 11 point of his own. It was at that precise point, however, that the Hawks opted to essentially stop running any plays for Teauge, who scored just to 10 more points all night to finish with 21.
I suppose that’s as good a time as any to mention that, even though I don’t care to use this space for predictions, it seems fairly clear that the Bulls are going to win this series in five games. By all accounts, the Hawks played to their utmost potential in their Game 1 win, while the Bulls put forth their sorriest effort of the year. Since then, the Bulls have only looked better and the Hawks regressed sharply, reverting to the same talented, but ultimately lazy undisciplined band of misfits that sulked their way though the regular season. The real revelation for the Hawks has been Teague, who has topped the 40-minute mark in all three games, averaged 17 points, and committed just two turnovers. All of this while primarily deferring to his see-it-and-chuck-it running mates.
Speaking of those running mates, while Josh Smith ended Game 3 with an impressive-looking 17 points, 13 rebounds, and four blocks, his abysmal shot selection (read: anything more than 12 feet from the basket, often early in the shot clock) drew audible groans and boos from the hometown crowd.
I’m being very liberal with the term “hometown crowd” there. Though the Atlanta faithful tried their best to lobby their Hawks into coherence, their attempts were nearly rendered obsolete by the chants and cheers of the well-traveled Bulls fans.
Taj Gibson led the Bulls bench with 13 points and 11 boards. Kyle Korver, who made just one of five 3-point attempts in Game 2, sank three of four from long range on Friday to finish with 11 points. Though the Bulls led from the opening tip and were rarely threatened, I would be remiss not to mention the admirable job done by Coach of the Year Tom Thibodeau. Every time the Hawks put together something resembling a momentum-tilting run of points, Thibodeau wisely called timeout to defuse the rally before the Hawks even got a chance to start it.
Game 4 is scheduled for an 8 p.m. tip on Sunday.