For the trailing team playing at home, Game 6 is a measure of belief. Of real believing, as opposed to lip service. For the trailing team playing at home, Game 6 brings this mighty question: Do you believe you can win not just this game but the one after that?
A Game 7 on the road is no day at the races. There was a time when winning Game 7 in the other team’s building was nigh-impossible — from 1982 through 1999, it happened twice — but such is no longer the case. Eight road teams have won a Game 7 since 2000. At issue is whether the Hawks might join the list.
If anything, they look more robust down 3-2 than they did 2-1, and there’s a reason: The Hawks have seen everything the Bulls can do. The No. 1 seed has been stout enough to nose in front but not to lap its pursuer. Except for Game 3, the Hawks have run alongside the purported big dog.
The Bulls played the league’s most efficient defense during the regular season, but it’s apparent they can’t guard this bunch the way they’ve guarded others. Over 82 games, Bulls opponents made 43 percent of their shots. The Hawks have made 45.9 percent in this series, and that’s with a 33.8 percent clunker in Game 2.
The Hawks are as quick as the Bulls, and they don’t appear any less gifted. Rather than be daunted by the prowess of the opposition, the Hawks have grown in confidence. There’s not much separating these teams; if there were, it’d be showing. What’s showing is that the Bulls required key minutes from subs Taj Gibson, Ronnie Brewer and Omer Asik to survive Game 5.
Remember: The Bulls are supposed to win this series. The Hawks weren’t expected to take more than a game. That they’ve carried the No. 1 seed to Game 6 without Kirk Hinrich brands this playoff run, as opposed to the past two, a success. Forget playing with house money — the Hawks are seeking foreclose on the Bulls’ house.
To do it, they’d have to win Game 7 in that house, but they’ve won once there already. To reach Game 7, they have to negotiate Game 6 here. They made it clear after Wednesday’s practice they expect to win Thursday. “Well, our backs are against the wall,” said Larry Drew, the coach, sounding almost serene.
Back to shooting percentages: The Hawks are hitting better against Chicago than they did against Orlando, which had all manner of bad matchups on the perimeter. In Game 5 the Hawks chased Kyle Korver, the best Bull shooter, off the floor. He played only four minutes.
“I really thought we’d see more of Korver,” Drew said. “But I think they’re more concerned with the defensive end.”
Believing comes easier when you know you can score. The Hawks have topped 100 points twice in the series, and not incidentally they won both games. Asked if he believes the Bulls are scrambling to find guys capable of defending his Hawks, Drew said: “At times I do feel like that.”
We return to the buzzwords that have attached itself to these Hawk: “Fragile” is one; the other, and the one that matters in this series, is “talented.” The Hawks have no fear of being overwhelmed by the Bulls’ weight of numbers. The Bulls win on execution. If the Hawks mess up Chicago’s execution, the advantage swings to them. Because their players are better.
Five games have been played. That’s 240 minutes of basketball. The Hawks have seen nothing over those 240 minutes to make them think they cannot win twice more.
Said Josh Smith: “We’ve got to go in and get Game 6 … We know we’ve given ourselves an opportunity [in this series]. Deep down in our hearts, we believe we can go up there and win Game 7.”
Three years ago, many of these Hawks surged from behind to win a rousing Game 6 here against Boston. They thought they had a chance in Game 7 at the new Garden but were too young to know better. They lost 99-65. This team is older and better, and these Bulls aren’t those Bostonians.
The Hawks trail 3-2, but they are not afraid. They believe they can win this thing. They might be correct.
By Mark Bradley