Author: Rob Mahoney

Atlanta Hawks v Chicago Bulls - Game Two

NBA Playoffs: Bulls get back to basics, even up series against Hawks


If Game 1 between the Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks was an aberration — after all, the Hawks converted tough jumpers at an extremely high rate, and rode the high of those makes into a well-executed defense and an improbable victory — then Game 2 was oddly typical.

The Bulls are no strangers to offensive inefficiency, and on those nights when Derrick Rose struggles to keep his turnovers down or his field goal percentage up, Chicago still holds the means to gut out ugly wins. For all of Rose’s strengths, the Bulls didn’t climb to the top of the Eastern Conference standings due only to the brilliance of his drives or his ability to set up his teammates; Chicago won a gaudy number of games by leading the NBA in effective field goal percentage allowed and dominating the boards on both ends of the court. The Bulls are as active and bothersome as any team in the league on the defensive end, and though Game 2 began with the MVP trophy being presented to Rose in front of his home crowd, it ended with the Bulls taking care of business in a manner that only included Rose as one valuable part of a successful team-wide effort.

The Bulls were back to their dominant ways on the glass, as they grabbed 32.6 percent of the available offensive boards while limiting the Hawks to a far lower mark on the other end. Joakim Noah — who had seven offensive rebounds and 14 boards overall to go along with his 15 points — was the star in that effort, but Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng grabbed a combined 19 defensive rebounds to prevent the misfiring Hawks from securing any extra opportunities.

Atlanta’s shot selection finally came back to bite them, and without a superior rebounding performance like the one they had in Game 1, the Hawks had no means to score reliably. Jamal Crawford and Josh Smith made some particularly questionable decisions, but the less prolific output from Joe Johnson (who finished with 16 points, just a few shy of his 34-point outburst from Game 1) was just as damaging to Atlanta’s cause. The Bulls didn’t exactly light up the scoreboard, but the Hawks still had trouble keeping pace, and scored at a rate of just 83 points per 100 possessions. That mark is atrocious, but was an inevitable result of Atlanta’s desire to shoot contested jumpers and live with the consequences.

The problems of Atlanta’s offense were due to no explicit fault of Jeff Teague’s, as the emergency point guard dropped a team-high 21 points on 7-of-14 shooting from the field. That said, Teague’s limitations did come into play; Johnson and Crawford initiated much of Atlanta’s offense, and while that strategic decision minimized Teague’s turnovers (he didn’t commit a single TO in Game 2, after giving the ball away just once in Game 1), it put a lot of pressure on Atlanta’s ball-handling wings to create a stable offense. That’s possible when all of the Hawks’ jumpers are falling, but once the defensive pressure increases and the exasperation sets in, the Hawks sometimes stymie their own offense at the point of attack. To a degree, it becomes less about what the Bulls are doing defensively and more about what the Hawks aren’t doing offensively. The ball movement becomes unproductive, the cuts and curls are mere tokens, the effort to really run a legitimate offense is subpar. These are the realities of the typical Atlanta Hawks, and even though Teague is doing an admirable job of filling in for Kirk Hinrich, the absence of the Hawks’ true starting point guard has stifled their already stiflable offense considerably. Things were going to be tough for Atlanta to maintain their offensive production even with Hinrich in the lineup (as-was?), but now this team seems capable of little more on the offensive end than splashes of hot shooting and benefiting from their occasional good fortune. It’s not easy for any team to execute against Chicago’s defense, but Atlanta doesn’t make it any easier on themselves, either.

Game 2 fell more in line with series expectation, though it’s likely that Chicago’s offense will improve from here through schematic means; we already saw a foundation for improvement with an increase in side screen-and-roll action, a fairly effective counter to the defensive pressure that had kept Rose from getting to the basket in Game 1. If the Bulls continue to work those side angles and implement more variety into their pick-and-roll attack while spacing the floor well, they’ll create more opportunities for Rose to charge toward the rim with a full head of steam or use his active dribble to create new passing lanes. Atlanta, on the other hand, is still too reliant on the bounce of the ball, not to mention the often questionable decision-making ability of its high-usage players. Johnson, Crawford, and Smith are often too willing to take a poorly chosen shot or stop the ball with isolation play, and though on their best days those three are a sight to behold, the norm is something a bit less fantastic. It’s 4-of-14 shooting for Smith with four turnovers. It’s 2-of-10 shooting from Crawford and a -9 plus-minus for the game, the single lowest for any player on either team. It’s dreadfully low scoring efficiency in what could have been a very winnable contest.

This is the result of a game in which the Hawks are the Hawks and the Bulls are the Bulls. If Atlanta wants to win a few more games and make this a series, they had better start working toward a few more aberrations.

NBA Playoffs: Hawks give Bulls a run for their money on the boards

Carlos Boozer, Damien Wilkins, Al Horford
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In their Game 1 victory, the Atlanta Hawks pulled off a hell of a trick: not only did they completely negate one of the Chicago Bulls’ greatest advantages, but they did so in a way that flew completely under the radar.

Sure, they bothered Derrick Rose and limited Carlos Boozer. They also took away Chicago’s defensive efficacy by hitting tough shots against considerable pressure. But those things were well evident and, in the aftermath of the game, well-covered. Yet, the fact that the Hawks — a decidedly subpar rebounding team — managed to play the Bulls — the only team in the NBA to rank in the top five in both offensive rebounding rate and defensive rebounding rate — to a draw on the boards went slightly ignored. Basketball fans and analysts are trained to look for glaring differences, but in this case it was the absence of a glaring difference that should have stood out most.

Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer are strong rebounders, but Chicago’s boarding prowess is a team-wide effort; Taj Gibson, Omer Asik, Kurt Thomas, Ronnie Brewer, and Luol Deng all do good work on the glass, and the balance of strong offensive and defensive rebounders made the Bulls the best overall glass-cleaning team in the NBA this season. That standing wasn’t exactly on display in Game 1, as Atlanta limited the effectiveness of Chicago’s offensive rebounders while the Hawk bigs fought to create extra possessions of their own. Al Horford, Zaza Pachulia, and Jason Collins each grabbed at least two offensive boards, while Joakim Noah and Carlos boozer had just one offensive rebound combined.

We’ve seen the Bulls’ rebounding technique in action; there’s no concern of whether Chicago can rebound well in the context of this series, but merely whether they’re willing to put in the proper effort. This was just a matter of execution and effort, and Chicago’s regulars — from Noah to Boozer to Deng to Brewer and beyond — just didn’t attack the boards as assertively as they have all season. It’s an easily remedied situation, but the fact that it’s a situation at all grants the Hawks credit for yet another improbable accomplishment. Out-rebounding the Magic (who are a strong defensive rebounding team, but below average on the offensive end) was one thing, but to meet the Bulls at a point of strength and force a draw was a considerable accomplishment.

Rose, after his struggles and a late-game ankle tweak to boot, will be front and center in the Game 2 spotlight, but keep an eye on the rebounding column. The Bulls should have a considerably easier time if they take care of their responsibilities on the glass, and the Hawks should have yet another chance to steal a win on the road should they remain as successful in their rebounding pursuits.

NBA Playoffs: Atlanta shocks Chicago in Game 1

Joe Johnson, Jeff Teague

It’s time to go back to the drawing board, NBA world. These Atlanta Hawks apparently aren’t ready to crumble under the Chicago Bulls’ might just yet, as the underdog club — predicted by most to win but a single game in this series (or less), and predicted by yours truly to be overrun by Derrick Rose — stole Game 1 on the road, 103-95.

Although the focus will largely be on how the top-seeded Bulls fell short in the inaugural game of their second round series, let’s not forget that the Hawks won this thing. Atlanta was the unmistakably better team on Monday night, and though the sustainability of the Hawks’ offense will understandably be questioned, public doubts don’t make Joe Johnson’s jumpers count for any less. So long as Johnson and Jamal Crawford and the entire Hawks crew can continue to hit their shots, the reliability of Atlanta’s methods is a non-issue. For now, the Hawks were good enough on both ends to control their first game against the Bulls, and each contest from here on out will have to be examined on a case-by-case basis. Atlanta can’t and won’t win them all, but we should be past the point of devaluing the Hawks’ makes for probability’s sake. Their weaknesses are well known, and there’s no use reinforcing them until the clock finally does strike midnight.

Like it or not, Johnson was spectacular. He took some tough shots and broke free from the offense at times, but he scored 34 points on 18 shots, and went a tremendous 5-of-5 from beyond the arc. Johnson helped build the lead in the first quarter, hit timely shots that broke the Bulls’ momentum in the third, and closed despite facing plenty of traps down the stretch. Call it the hot hand, call it random chance, or call it a quality shot maker converting on his tough looks, but Johnson was far and away the game’s most effective offensive player. The fact that Tom Thibodeau saw it fit to run aggressive ball pressure at Johnson in the fourth at all speaks volumes, as does the Hawks’ victory in spite of that pressure. Crawford also connected on half of his field goal attempts — in spite of his shot selection — and finished with 22 points.

Atlanta deserves a ton of credit for their collective defense against Derrick Rose. Jeff Teague worked his tail off to stay in front of Rose, but it was a team-wide effort that forced the league’s MVP into bad passes and deterred his drives into the lane. When Rose did manage to get to the basket, the Hawks contested effectively; Atlanta pestered Rose into 4-of-9 shooting in his attempts at the rim without fouling him in the act of shooting a single time, an even more impressive accomplishment when considering the boost to Rose’s shooting from transition and semi-transition opportunities. In the halfcourt offense, Rose had no means to create efficient shots, and he settled for too many threes (seven attempts with just two makes) as a result. Honestly, Rose is as deserving of blame as the Hawks are of praise; both contributed to Rose’s inefficiency with their decision-making in Game 1, but it should be interesting to see the Game 2 response from both parties.

Larry Drew has to be pleased with Teague’s work on offense in addition to his defensive work against Rose. Five assists to just one turnover is pretty solid for a young guard seeing his first meaningful action of the playoffs, but Teague also impressed with his creative intermediate game. Teague’s 10 points were mostly off of floaters and runners, carved out from that fluffy middle ground between the protected interior and the preventative perimeter front. Being able to manufacture makes in that space is quite valuable, and Teague’s patience was essential in creating those opportunities.

The rest of the series will write its own story, but this first game belonged to Atlanta. They held their own on the boards despite the surrendering a considerable advantage to Chicago in that regard during the regular season. They took a nice performance from Luol Deng (21 points, 8-12 FG, six rebounds) in stride, and still won regardless. They kept Derrick Rose out of the paint, and scored at a rate of 118.4 points per 100 possessions. That — along with the shooting of Johnson and Crawford, and the sturdiness of Teague, for that matter — could change overnight, but this is the world as we know it. The Atlanta Hawks are up 1-0, and everything that will be, will be.

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NBA Playoffs: With Hinrich out, Rose is set for an onslaught

Indiana Pacers v Chicago Bulls - Game Five

Kirk Hinrich is doubtful to play at all in the Atlanta Hawks’ series against the Chicago Bulls. As such, the Hawks are doubtful to even remain competitive in the series that will surely spell their playoff end. I hate to foretell a team’s postseason demise in such certain terms, but Hinrich’s absence makes it easy; without their top perimeter defender, the Hawks just don’t stand a chance.

Atlanta’s playoff success thus far has hinged on making their opponent’s offense operate even less fluidly than their own, and if they’re to follow the same template in the second round, then finding a way to impede Derrick Rose is the Hawks’ foremost priority. It’s a tall order to begin with, but almost inconceivable without Hinrich in the lineup. It’s going to get ugly.

Hinrich’s on-ball defense on Jameer Nelson and semi-frequent digs against Dwight Howard in the post were instrumental in keeping the Orlando Magic’s offense under wraps in the first round; according to’s StatsCube, the Hawks were 9.9 points per 100 possessions better defensively with Hinrich on the floor, and it wasn’t hard to imagine a healthy Hinrich having a similar defensive impact in the second round. It just wasn’t meant to be, as a strained hamstring has created even more difficulties for an outmatched Hawks team.

That said, Hinrich’s defensive value sadly has as much to do with his strengths as it does his teammates’ weaknesses. When Hinrich sits, either Jamal Crawford or Joe Johnson typically defends the opposing team’s point guard, and at risk of spoiling the surprise, let’s just say it doesn’t typically end well. Johnson once had the repute of being a successful defender, but he and Crawford are both similarly flawed on that end of the court. The Indiana Pacers may have successfully utilized a wing defender – rookie Paul George – on Rose in their first round matchup against the Bulls, but the limitations of the Hawks’ rotation wings make employing a similar strategy almost impossible. Atlanta could potentially cross-match Johnson, Crawford, or Marvin Williams to defend Rose, but none of those players have the lateral movement or the athleticism to mimic George’s success. They would merely be empty copies, defenders with size on Rose, but no total skill set with which to use that size as a defensive weapon.

With that in mind, Hawks head coach Larry Drew has reportedly elected to start second-year guard Jeff Teague at point guard for Game 1, though it’s unknown how exactly Atlanta will match up on defense. Assigning Teague to defend Rose could be the best option available, if only due to the aforementioned poor alternatives; not only are Johnson and Crawford limited defenders, but giving them such a taxing defensive role is perhaps too much of a burden given their demanding offensive responsibilities.

Teague is athletic, but — by Drew’s own fault — a bit inexperienced. The same could also be said of George (though he has former Pacers head coach Jim O’Brien to blame), but the fundamental difference in the physical profiles of the two players makes a profound impact. Teague may have a better athletic capacity to stick with Rose than anyone on Atlanta’s roster, but his lack of experience defending quality point guards will only make him prone to defensive mistakes. George may have been similarly hindered by his lack of consistent court time, but height and length privilege defenders with a greater opportunity for recovery. When George made a mistake in the first round, he could still hustle back to block Rose’s shot from behind or get a hand in his face. When Teague makes a mistake in this series, he’ll practically be dead in the water. Length is an effective mask for the limitations of young players, but Teague, who stands at just 6-2, will have no such benefit.

Atlanta has nowhere to turn. Their best defensive option against Rose is sidelined. Their contingency plan is athletic, but can be easily exploited. All other alternatives are too slow, and too unathletic. Rose can create a positional advantage against just about every team he plays against, but this Hawks roster is uniquely incapable of stopping him without excessive trapping, and thus uniquely incapable of maintaining their current level of defensive success.

NBA Playoffs: Grizzlies go to work, Spurs go home

San Antionio Spurs v Memphis Grizzlies - Game Six

The deed is done. Even the slightest doubts of the Grizzlies’ prowess in their first round series have been put to rest, as have the revered San Antonio Spurs. Memphis completed their seemingly improbable upset by dominating in the most probable ways; the Grizz scrambled, posted up, defended, rebounded, and scrapped their way to a 99-91 Game 6 victory, the final fantastic performance of their 4-2 upset of top-seeded San Antonio.

The momentum of Game 6 seemed to shift in favor of whichever team controlled the glass. Initially, the Grizzlies worked the offensive boards while limiting the Spurs to a single opportunity. Those two aspects of their first quarter play were crucial to forming an early cushion, and would later come into play when the Grizzlies started to create separation — however slight — from their opponents in pursuit. The Spurs had their moments, though; whether due to fatigue or just a lack of effort on Memphis’ part, San Antonio made a push in the second and hung around in the third due to their competition on the glass. It couldn’t last. Not with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol bullying their way into prime rebound position. Not with Shane Battier darting around the court collecting more boards than all but two of the Spurs. Memphis outscored San Antonio in each of the quarters in which they held the rebounding advantage, and while that may be implicit (fewer points usually indicate more misses, and more misses beget more opportunities to rebound), the Grizzlies’ effort to control the boards was clearly explicit.

Rebounding was only a portion of Randolph’s contribution, though. His play in this game and this series is the reason why the Grizzlies are the toast of the league at present; when he hasn’t been dominating the glass, Randolph has been scoring like a legitimate superstar, and the consistency of his point production provided a steady pillar for Memphis’ surge. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili cut into the Grizzlies’ lead repeatedly over the game’s final minutes, but Randolph never relented. He backed down Antonio McDyess. He hit turnaround jumpers over outstretched arms. He converted the kinds of shots usually reserved for the league’s true elite, a distinction which Randolph creeps closer toward with every performance like this one. His production is unquestionable, and now his résumé includes the toppling of a conference power despite being in a position of the greatest seeding disadvantage.

Gasol wasn’t quite as overtly punishing as Randolph, but his ability to exploit Tim Duncan on both ends of the court throughout the series has been eye-opening. Duncan’s decline over the last few seasons has been evident, but Gasol dominated their individual matchup to a degree that would surprise even Gasol’s greatest advocates. The box score only puts Gasol at an advantage of three rebounds and one turnover while merely matching Duncan’s point total, but his defensive presence removed an invaluable failsafe from San Antonio’s offensive plans. Duncan’s post and face-up game were both taken away, as Gasol’s size, length, and defensive acumen put him in an optimal position to contest at all times. Neutralizing Duncan doesn’t shut down the Spurs offense in itself, but it gives the Grizzlies’ team defense the opportunity it needs to swarm ball handlers and attack passing lanes. Duncan may have been Plan C, but removing him as an option puts all the more pressure on Plans A, B, and D. Manu Ginobili (A), Tony Parker (B), and the Spurs’ supporting cast (D) were never able to fully compensate.

The Spurs competed. They fought hard until the very end, and if not for Randolph’s unspeakable might, they likely could have ushered in the hope and potential salvation of a Game 7. Yet they didn’t, and as much as our natural basketball instincts wish to heap praise on the Grizzlies, it’s worth remembering that the Spurs lost this series. They came in with the second-best record in basketball and home court advantage against any Western Conference opponent and were dropped in the first round. I’m honestly not quite sure what the word “choke,” means anymore (the term has been recast and bastardized to the point that it no longer holds meaning), but by most conventional definitions of the word as I understand them, the Spurs did no such thing. They did, however, lose a series in which they were considered a sure favorite, and failed to capitalize on their strong regular season performance. San Antonio remains a tremendous organization and a quality team, but they disappointed in this series with their inefficacy.

In this championship-or-bust playoff framework, it’s not enough to just show up and play hard, even when boasting a supposedly superior roster. San Antonio worked, but they didn’t execute consistently enough; they failed to convert shots at the rim and beyond the arc, and had no answer for the Randolph-Gasol tandem, nor the capacity to match the wild card offensive contributions of Mike Conley, O.J. Mayo, Tony Allen, and Sam Young. Gregg Popovich and the Spurs are obviously still worthy of our respect, but Pop was out-coached and his team was out-played. The Spurs aren’t going home after the first round because of some fluke, but because the Grizzlies bested them — they of the No. 1 seed, the second-best offense in the league, and the fourth-best regular season margin of victory — in a legitimate measure of basketball worth.