Chicago – Once again the Hawks had seized a series lead, and once again the opponent was essentially calling them front-runners. After Wednesday morning’s shootaround, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said: “That’s who they are. When they shoot the ball well, they’re a very confident team.”
The flip side: If you feel good about yourself only when you’re hitting, what happens when you miss? Do you melt into a little round puddle, like the Wicked Witch of the West, with only your sneakers left as residue?
The Bulls believed their Game 1 loss was a function not of what the Hawks did, but what they were allowed to do. Thibodeau again: “They made some shots early, and it gave them confidence. When a team does that, it’s hard to slow down.”
That’s true. And the Hawks are pretty good at getting ahead: In the first seven games of this postseason, they had a double-figure lead in six. (This surely trumps falling behind by 30, which the Hawks did too many times during their indifferent regular season.) But the respect they believe should be flowing their way after this surprising playoff success has been slow in arriving, and their reputation is why.
You know the story. Ryan Anderson of the Magic told reporters: “If things aren’t really going their way, they’re going to struggle a little bit.” An Orlando Sentinel columnist referred to the Hawks as fragile and christened them the Birdbrains. And even after authoring the most impressive performance in years in whipping the Bulls in Game 1, the Hawks still had to fight perception.
Would they, believing they already had the road victory they wanted, roll over in Game 2 the way they had in Game 5 against Orlando? Would they be able to hang close when the Bulls ratcheted up their defense, as you knew they would? (Asked if the Bulls would seek to put more pressure on the fill-in point guard Jeff Teague, Thibodeau said: “Some would be nice.”)
Game 2 began rather differently. The Hawks, who scored 51 points in Monday’s first half, managed only 38 this night. They made 51.3 percent of their shots in Game 1; in the first half of Game 2, they made 32.6 percent. Only a 12-point half from Teague, who might not have played in this series had Kirk Hinrich not gotten hurt, kept them within hailing distance.
“We were our own worst enemy tonight,” Larry Drew would say afterward. “They played us aggressively. When our shots didn’t fall, we panicked.”
Kind of like what other folks had been saying all along, huh?
But wait: Down 11 after a tepid half, the Hawks were nonetheless close enough to make a surge. Joe Johnson scored nine points in the third quarter, and Josh Smith awoke from one of his walkabouts to block a Carlos Boozer layup and run the floor and score. Down 14 midway through the period, the Hawks cut it to seven on Smith’s stickback of a Jamal Crawford miss and Teague’s foul shots after a backcourt steal. With 12 minutes left, this game had been rendered winnable.
Derrick Rose’s drive pushed the lead back to nine. A Teague twister off a loose ball made it seven again. But Kyle Korver, the standstill shooter who missed his first five casts, made a 3-pointer at the shot-clock buzzer. Crawford lost the ball on a drive, and Johnson did the same. Rose found Boozer underneath. Now it was a 13-point margin, and the Hawks were in scramble mode.
They kept coming, though. Al Horford made a baseline jumper. Smith converted a three-point play underneath. Teague made a one-hander from the key. The deficit was six with 4:02 remaining, and the No. 1 seed had to be wondering, “Why aren’t these front-runners folding?”
Finally the comeback went splat. Johnson threw the ball out of bounds, then missed a jumper. Smith missed a trey — he had to shoot it; Johnson passed to him with the clock dying — and Luol Deng scored twice inside. The series was level.
“To lose by 12 points [13, actually] on an MVP night [Rose was presented the award before the game] and this a desperation night for them,” Crawford said, recounting the evening. Then: “We were still right there. We took their best shot.”
Truth to tell, the Hawks saw nothing in Game 2 that should make them think they can’t beat the Bulls a few more times. They shot poorly. Horford was badly outplayed by his college roomie Joakim Noah. Johnson needed 15 shots to score 16 points, Smith 14 to score 14. With all that, this still was in doubt inside the final four minutes.
And that, conveniently enough, is where this series stands: Tied at 1, very much in doubt.
By Mark Bradley