There aren’t many good reasons to think the Chicago Bulls, currently in a state of free fall, can make the Eastern Conference playoffs and avoid humiliation.
The Atlanta Hawks are one of them.
We emphasize the word “good” here, because it owns a double meaning.
The Hawks are a good reason why the Bulls are still afloat in the East. The Detroit Pistons are now seven games into their monster nine-game homestand. They’re 5-2, which isn’t bad… but they could be 6-1 or 7-0.
One team has limited the extent of the Pistons’ ascendancy: the Hawks.
Atlanta’s offense is a riddle Detroit’s defense just can’t solve. Back on March 16, the Pistons’ two-and-a-half-week stay at The Palace began. The Hawks dropped 118 on the home team, ruining Stan Van’s plans. Five Hawks landed in double figures, attaining the balance Mike Budenholzer wants from his offense. Atlanta did commit 12 turnovers, but its offense was more powerful, generating 34 foul shots and 28 makes.
A week and a half later, in a quirk of the schedule, the Hawks returned to Auburn Hills for another visit. Had the Pistons learned anything? Granted, this was the back end of a back-to-back, but it was at home. No flight, no very late night; Detroit was able to sleep in familiar beds without the rigors of a commute.
The Pistons’ defense remained toothless against the Hawks, who were in many ways better than on March 16, despite scoring six fewer points in a 112-95 romp.
If you watched the Villanova-Kansas Elite Eight game Saturday night, you noticed how two teams got into each other’s ribcage and shrank the size of the court. Offensive players had very little room to breathe, a reality which naturally inhibited shooting performances and overall offensive flow.
The Pistons created none of that on defense against the Hawks.
Atlanta was barely bothered. The Hawks didn’t shoot nearly as many foul shots this time — only 14, a minus-20 differential relative to March 16. (Jeff Teague earned 13 foul shots back then, nearly all the tries Atlanta generated Saturday night.) However, whereas Atlanta committed 12 turnovers on March 16, it coughed up a scant 4 turnovers on Saturday, a remarkably low number.
If Atlanta’s balance was very good at the start of Detroit’s nine-game homestand, it was exponentially better on Saturday. Eight players cracked double figures, a Budenholzer blueprint come to life. Paul Millsap led the charge with 23 points on 8-of-14 shooting, but he had plenty of help and didn’t feel unduly burdened on the floor.
On the night of the Easter Vigil, the Pistons fell asleep on defense. The Hawks’ crisp execution enabled them to remain the only road team to win on this nine-game bed-and-breakfast homestay for Detroit.
As a result of all this, the Pistons — having played 74 games to Chicago’s 72 — lead the Bulls by two games in the standings but only one in the all-important loss column. Had Detroit managed to win even one of the past two home games against the Hawks, the loss column margin would be such that Chicago could not catch Detroit with a win over the Pistons next Saturday (April 2) at the United Center. Now, the Pistons are a little more reachable, and if Detroit can’t win at home versus Oklahoma City on Tuesday — in what shall be dubbed The Reggie Jackson Bowl — the Bulls will still have a chance to stay in the hunt.
There’s just one thing: Chicago has to beat the Hawks at home on Monday night.
The Bulls are adrift after getting swept in a back-to-back by the Knicks and then enduring a 22-point drubbing at the hands of the Orlando Magic on Saturday.
Taj Gibson, Fred Hoiberg, and the rest of the locker room are at a loss to explain what’s going on. Moreover, Jimmy Butler’s health — and his refusal to rule out offseason surgery — will only make the Bulls’ thoroughly chaotic internal situation even harder to understand. The winds of distraction, exhaustion and disappointment are swirling around the Bulls, and for all the ways in which Tom Thibodeau might have irritated portions of the roster, Thibs had a gift for pulling a tired team together and coaxing strong defensive performances from it in moments of acute need.
That’s what the Bulls need against Millsap, Teague, and the rest of the Hawks on Monday.
If Chicago can’t get a dubya in that game, the Bulls visit Indiana on the back end of a back-to-back, which is a very likely loss. The Bulls then have a roadie in Houston, followed by a weekend back-to-back which starts with that must-have game against Detroit on Saturday, followed by a game in Milwaukee on Sunday. The Bulls might be only one back in the loss column, but with Butler’s and Derrick Rose’s shared physical limitations, back-to-backs are more likely to be splits than sweeps. Chicago might be only one back of Detroit in the loss column, but with two more games to play, the Bulls feel like a team that’s three games out.
Good thing Atlanta — unlike other NBA clubs — can beat Detroit in The Palace.
The Bulls must express their gratitude to the Hawks by beating them… or else their chances of hitting the golf course in three weeks will rise to a considerable extent.