The Vegas oddsmakers who just a couple of weeks ago installed the Chicago Bulls as the betting favorite to reach the NBA Finals in June clearly haven't been paying attention to the Atlanta Hawks. Just like virtually everybody else. The Hawks keep carving up opponents, even the league's very best teams, and the skeptics keep offering reasons that Atlanta's 12-game winning streak and 33-8 record are a mirage. No superstar to close or carry the team through the torturous playoffs, no rim protector, no prerequisite postseason heartbreak ...
To recap a fabulous week lost on even casual basketball fans during the NFL playoffs: The Hawks crushed the Wizards (who then beat the Spurs and Bulls on consecutive nights) by 31. Atlanta then hit the road and won its franchise-record 11th straight road game, dismantling the Raptors in Toronto by 21. And then, playing their fifth game in seven days, the Hawks rather clinically disposed of the Bulls in Chicago, 107-99. Probably, there couldn't be a better set of conditions under which to be up for sale, as the Hawks are.
The Hawks, not the Bulls, are the best team in the Eastern Conference at the season's midway point, and the gap between the two teams ought to be alarming to the Bulls, who've followed a 13-2 run with a stretch of play characterized by lazy defense and at times a lack of energy and urgency. The Bulls have lost four of six, gotten smoked twice by a Wizards team that both teams know have the Bulls' number, and continue to play at home (12-10) as if they'd rather be on the road (15-5). The Bulls hit the halfway point of the season in the middle of the pack in opponents' scoring (15th), which has been the team's greatest strength during the Tom Thibodeau era, and seem to have become one of those teams that is convinced it'll turn it on and return to that 13-2 form when it needs to after the All-Star break.
The Bulls had better be right about that, because the other team in the ring with them Saturday night, Atlanta, played with all the energy, pace, ball movement and defensive intensity the Bulls have lacked the past two weeks. The Hawks are stunningly simple and fundamental in their approach and stunningly successful with the results. Only an NBA junkie can name their starting five -- DeMarre Carroll and Paul Millsap at forward, Al Horford at center, Kyle Korver and Jeff Teague at guard -- and it's true they don't have superstar. Their most accomplished player is 35-year-old Elton Brand, who now, in his 15th season, comes off the bench. There's also no ball stopper, not a single knucklehead, and a roster full of players increasingly convinced with each win that this way of playing enables them not to need a superstar. It's the kind of five-man basketball the Spurs of the past two years have popularized and whose former executives and assistant coaches have spread like the gospel to the rest of the league everywhere one of them is hired.
Offensively, the Hawks literally pass opponents numb, until somebody is preposterously open. Quick passes -- direct, commonsense passes. Teague off the dribble, Horford and Millsap out of the double-team, Korver away from a late-charging defender. Korver has become the new Ray Allen or Reggie Miller in the commitment he has made to moving like a Tasmanian devil without the ball. Like those great shooters before Korver, moving to get open before the pass arrives is art with him, and it's become Atlanta's offensive signature. "It's fun basketball," Korver said after torching his old team, the Bulls, for 24 points on 7-for-9 almost entirely wide-open 3-point shooting. "It's the best kind of basketball to me."
Brand, who is playing for his fifth team, says he's never played in anything like this. "No sets, no trends," Brand said of the offense. "You see other coaches calling plays from the bench and guys looking over. ... You hear 'FIFTY-FOUR!' And you know the ball's going to Pau Gasol. This is totally different. I know the criticism for people looking to find something wrong with us is: 'No star to close.' But Kyle has closed games. Al has closed games. I know Jeff Teague has closed games. Yeah, it's safe to say I've never played in anything like this. When I was young, I know [as a top scorer] I was going to find a way to shoot the ball. This is different. Even when we were 5-5 I could see the way we were beginning to play. The unselfishness has to come from the players. We've got talent. We've got pieces."
Defensively, although the Bulls are trying to settle into their complex rotations, which, to be fair to Thibodeau, has worked every single season, the Hawks play pretty much without exception a see-your-man, guard-your-man scheme that has left Atlanta with the No. 1 defense in the league in terms of points per game allowed and the No. 4 defense in the league in opponents' field goal percentage.
The similarity to the Spurs runs even deeper than X's and O's and attitude. Coach Mike Budenholzer, who spent 18 years working for the Spurs and Gregg Popovich, has even taken to resting players as he sees fit, just the way Pop does. Before Saturday's game in Chicago, Budenholzer announced that reserve big man Pero Antic would sit. "Trying to keep him healthy," was the reason the coach gave. "We pick our spots ... we're trying to be proactive."
It's nothing like the approach in Chicago, where there is still the tug-of-war between Thibodeau's big minutes, tough-it-out approach and the management/player preference of erring on the side of caution. In fact, the Bulls' season (again) is framed in part by the team's health. While Joakim Noah is out now with a sprained ankle, a big reason the Bulls' defense has been diminished is Noah's inability, coming off summer knee surgery, to move with his usual quickness and certainty. Dragging a leg simply hasn't allowed Noah the range of movement he had last season when he was the league's best defender. It's no secret that the Bulls players, having dragged wearily and injured into the playoffs last season, have vowed to themselves they won't do that this season. That's a reality the fresh Hawks haven't had to react to and navigate just yet. The Bulls, they would suggest privately, have been the hot, young team storming with vim and vigor through the regular season, only to be slowed by the quicksand that is the NBA playoffs.
A head coach who played in the league and who has made multiple trips to the NBA Finals reminded me last week, "Remember, guys in this league are excited about playing together the first 25 games and excited about playing together the last 25 games, and you'd better be really, really careful about drawing any conclusions off of the 30 games in the middle where guys are tired of each other or tired of their coach or coming off the holidays or dragging. You know how this league works."
And all of that speaks to the Bulls, these Bulls, knowing that there are no orange slices and trophies awarded at this level for full participation, that the No. 1 seed in the conference seems less and less attractive each season and nowhere near as important as springtime health. As Budenholzer said of the San Antonio approach, "I think every team is prioritizing players' health."
To that end, Rose and Noah are still the two most important members of the Bulls team, with Gasol and Jimmy Butler now also being indispensable. While the Bulls' offense is a half-court slow dance and moves with none of the crispness of Atlanta's, the Bulls nonetheless share the ball as well as any team in the league, though the turnovers have sabotaged several efforts of the first half.
The best news over the past week has been Rose's resurgence after missing a game to rest his sore left knee. Since then, Rose has had two of his best games of the season, the 29-point, 10 assist game in Boston and the next night, against Atlanta, the 23-point, 10-assist, eight-rebound performance while being guarded by Teague. The wisest approach would probably be a Spurs-like resting of Rose every eight or 10 games, not that the Bulls seem inclined to approach it that way. The Bulls have a deep enough roster, especially once Mike Dunleavy and Noah return, to be proactive in resting players the same way the Spurs and Hawks do and the Bulls are old enough as a team to warrant it, but it's not Thibodeau's philosophy.
For a while this season, while the Bulls were winning 13 of 15 games, there was little reason to second-guess or look for different solutions. But now, having seen the Hawks win 26 of 28 games (the only losses were at home to Milwaukee and at Orlando), including at Portland, at Houston, at the Clippers, at Dallas and at Cleveland, it might be time for the Bulls and all the other teams getting crushed by the Hawks to sneak a peek at what Atlanta is doing, which is scarily similar to what the Spurs have been doing all this time.
The Bulls have, on deck, the Cavaliers for the MLK holiday, the Spurs, and a trip that will send them to Dallas, Golden State and Houston, among other stops. If the Bulls, surely built to win now, are going to justify the faith that so many people put in them late this fall, they might want to summon the intensity and defensive purpose that has served the team so well in recent seasons, lest they find the Hawks, among others, looking at them in the rearview mirror.