NBA Playoffs: One-Track Offense Dooms Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks Pull Even

In a game which neither team seemed particularly keen to run away with, one momentum-swinging surge seemed likely to decide the outcome.

The Atlanta Hawks–playing in front of an invigorated home crowd–scored such a surge with five minutes left in the fourth quarter. After trading blows for 43 minutes, with neither team holding lead exceeding seven points, the Hawks blew open the 84-84 game with an incendiary 16-4 run, inciting a riotous atmosphere in Philips Arena en route to burying the Chicago Bulls 100-88  just two days after they were thoroughly outplayed in Game 3.

Highlighting the Hawks’ impressive finish was a feverish 10-0 spurt following a driving layup from Derrick Rose to knot the game at 84. Jeff Teague, who continued his stellar play for the third straight game, answered right back with a slashing take of his own. Rose, feeling the pressure to answer back (a common trend on the night), took to the paint again, but drew only iron. Off of that miss, Teague found Al Horford in transition for an easy lay-in, pushing the score to 88-84. Bulls coach Thom Thibodeau attempted to quell the surge with a timeout, but two possessions later, a clearly gassed Rose lost his handle bringing the ball up the floor, leading to another Horford gimme. Another possession later, Rose had the rock swiped from his grasp by Jamal Crawford, which the Hawks promptly converted into a Horford dunk.

I don’t believe I’ll have to provide much more play-by-play for you to connect the dots as to why the Bulls failed to close out Game 4. An unexpectedly close contest forced Thibodeau to leave Derrick Rose in for the entire second half, as opposed to allowing his MVP to catch his breath at the beginning of the final frame. Though Rose’s talent is unquestioned and he is only 22, the fatigue factor was unmistakable. Even more unmistakable was the lack of creativity in the Bulls crunch-time offense. Rose ended his night with an exemplary 34 points and 10 assists, but he reverted to the inefficient tendencies that plagued him in the series’ first two games, going making just 12 of his 32 field goal attempts.

Rose dazzled for stretches on Sunday night, finishing his acrobatic drives but struggling to put together a consistent effort. The Hawks countered with a devastatingly balanced attack. Five Hawks reached double figures in points (only three Bulls did so, and no one other than Rose topped 20) with Joe Johnson (24 points), Josh Smith (23 points, 16 rebounds, 8 assists) and Horford (20 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists) leading the way. Smith was particularly impressive, nearly managing a triple double despite going 8-for-22 from the floor and once again causing conniptions among the Atlanta faithful when he would spot up for any shot outside the paint.

Smith’s chucking aside, the Hawks were surgeons from the field, hitting 49 percent of their attempts, their best in the series since they drained 51 percent in their Game 1 win. Just as in that game, the Hawks looked unbeatable when they got everything clicking.

As for the Bulls, their crunch-time offensive woes weren’t here only concern. The Hawks seemed to get an endless amount of good looks, and the Bulls best defensive set quickly became “rotate quickly and hope Josh Smith launches a jumper.”

While Rose will certainly catch an earful for somewhat delving into blinder mode down the stretch, his teammates seemed tentative and somewhat detached from the game. I understand that we can debate the chicken-or-the-egg aspects of these two behaviors, but I am willing to give the MVP of the league some credit, as he has rarely shown a penchant for ballhoggery.

Chief among the offenders for the Bulls’ supporting cast was Kyle Korver. Though his sole function on the team is to come off the bench and score quickly, Korver began his night 0-for-6 and clearly got into his own head for the remainder of the game, finishing 1 of 8. Bulls fans were likely salivating when Carlos Boozer finally showed signs of life for the first time since Game 2 of the Indiana series, posting 18 points through the first three quarters with a healthy mix of mid-range jumpers and competent post moves. However, as he is wont to do, Boozer failed to score in the final quarter.

After the game, much was made of an odd officiating sequence late in the fourth quarter. With the Hawks ahead 90-84 at the 2:27  mark, Rose spotted up for a 3 and appeared to be fouled by Crawford. Head official Bennett Salvatore (no stranger to playoff controversy, just ask any Dallas Mavericks fan) blew his whistle, but later ruled that action to be inadvertent. A jump ball ensued, which the Hawks won and continued on their closing romp. Salvatore reportedly admitted after the game that he blew the call. Rose should have headed to the line with the attempt to halve the deficit, but three foul shots in a scenario like that are for from gimmes, even for a good free throw shooter like Rose. In a game where the Bulls did very little to all but ice the series headed back home for Game 5, I’m hesitant to assign a lion’s share of blame to Salvatore, particularly on a play that (at best) has the Bulls still trailing by three.

I suppose that will teach me to make sweepingly bold predictions in this column. With the teams having split on the other’s home floor, anyone who tells you they’ve got this one pegged is watching a different series entirely. Game 5 set for an 8 p.m. tip on Tuesday.

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