The Atlanta Hawks gave the Bulls all they could handle for the first three quarters of Game 5. They had a surprising amount of success moving the ball against Chicago’s top-ranked defense, penetrating at will and scoring tough baskets under the rim. They continued to make the league MVP work for everything he got — Rose finished with 33 points and 9 assists while only making two jump shots, but he had surprisingly few easy layups against Atlanta’s defense. But in the end, the team with the best regular-season record in the league and the league MVP was able to overwhelm the Hawks in the fourth quarter, and the Bulls came away with a 95-83 victory and a 3-2 series lead.
The big worry for Chicago in this game going forward was the ineffectiveness of their starting frontcourt — Joakim Noah was held scoreless, finished with only one offensive rebound, and was benched in the decisive fourth quarter for Omer Asik. Carlos Boozer’s playoff struggles continued — Boozer was active on the glass and put in a few mid-range jumpers, but he missed a ton of the “ugly baskets” between the free throw line and the rim that are usually his bread-and-butter, and he was benched in the fourth for Taj Gibson, who gave the Bulls a critical boost by scoring 11 points on 5-5 shooting in the fourth quarter.
The ineffectiveness of Noah and Boozer and Atlanta’s revelatory ball movement, and the spectacular play of Jeff Teague gave the Hawks a chance to steal home-court advantage and put the Bulls on the brink of elimination, but they failed to do the two things any team must do to have a chance against the Bulls: make shots from the outside and keep Derrick Rose away from the rim.
Atlanta couldn’t buy a jump shot all night long. They shot only 1-12 from beyond the three-point line, and Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford combined to shoot 7-24 from the field. Even with Jeff Teague flying into the paint at will and making every crazy floater he threw up, Chicago’s defense is too good to be broken without getting a few outside shots to fall.
Then there was Derrick Rose. As I mentioned, Rose only made two jump shots in Game 5, but the Bulls had no answer for his relentless drives to the rim. Rose put on an MVP performance, slithering through traps, absorbing contact, getting himself to the line, finding teammates when the Hawks were forced to collapse three or four defenders on him, and he was consistently able to sneak through the tiniest possible slivers of space for layups. Eventually, the Hawks simply succumbed to the pressure Rose put on their defense, and now they find themselves having to win two games in a row to avoid elimination.
The Bulls haven’t looked like juggernauts over the first two rounds, but they still do some things as well as any team in the league, and are just as much of a threat to come out of the East as they were at the beginning of the playoffs. Their deep bench gives them contingency plans when guys like Noah and Boozer have off nights. Rose can dominate a game without needing his outside shot to be on. The Bulls’ defense guarantees that any team who wants to get past them will have to be able to win an absolute war. The Bulls aren’t perfect, or close to it, but they’re gamers to the core, and that makes them just as dangerous as any team still alive in these playoffs.