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Bulls Wed May 11 2011

Bulls Finish Strong to Hold Off Hawks

Toppled in Game 4 by a late Atlanta surge, the Bulls put together an explosive finish of their own in Tuesday's Game 5, turning a one-point lead at the start of the fourth quarter into a 95-83 win at the United Center.

Thumbnail image for bulls hawks series logo.PNGThe mercurial Hawks submitted their second straight determined effort, but Derrick Rose set game-highs with 33 points and nine assists, Luol Deng added 23 points and Taj Gibson came up big down the stretch, scoring all 11 of his points in the fourth.

The win gives the Bulls a 3-2 lead as the seven-game series shifts back to Atlanta for Thursday's Game Six, putting them one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals appearance since the final Jordan championship 13 years ago.

Chicago started the game on a 10-2 run, eventually stretching its lead to 15. Atlanta hung around, though, and managed to whittle down the margin with strong defense and fast-break points, eventually taking its first lead at 64-63 late in the third.

But in the fourth, the Bulls came out firing, and in a show of confidence in his bench, coach Tom Thibodeau trusted three of them down the stretch. Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer came out for a rest late in the third and stayed out, as Thibodeau closed with Rose, Deng, Taj Gibson, Ronnie Brewer and Omer Asik. The three reserves played the whole fourth quarter, sparking Chicago to a 26-15 quarter.

A few things stood out compared to previous games in this series. For one, we'd all better hope nobody tells Atlanta that their shooting gets a heck of a lot better when they make the extra pass. Through much of the first half, the Hawks were the picture of an efficient basketball offense, swinging the ball around inside and out, looking for the open shot. It was certainly more successful than clearing out to let Jamal Crawford or Joe Johnson go one-on-one -- and was, dare I say, fun to watch.

But in the fourth quarter, the Hawks started to lose the energy to get open for the extra pass and began launching ill-advised jumpers early in the shot clock. It's a style that takes stamina and discipline, not to mention the patience to run each possession down to the final seconds, and frankly, the Hawks aren't often that sort of team.

Another exciting story was the play of both point guards. Rose was obviously spectacular, scoring 30 points for the third straight game and hitting 11 of 24 shots (instead of the 32 he needed to score 34 points in Sunday's Game 4 loss). He played smart as well, with only two turnovers against his nine assists despite constant defensive attention.

Atlanta's Jeff Teague continued to rise to the occasion, looking like a poor-man's Rose out there himself. He was incredibly fast, slicing through the lane or sprinting up the court on fast breaks, and finished with 21 points on 8-of-11 shooting with seven assists.

I wasn't living here in Chicago when Rose was a rookie. I watched him at Memphis of course, but I can't say I saw him play much his first year in the league. But there were times last night where Jeff Teague looks like Rose did as recently as last year -- not much of an outside shot, but fantastic when driving to the hoop, able to make the floater or dish it off to a teammate, and absolutely streaking by everyone in a full-court run. Their battle has been good, and the longer this series goes on, the more respect and admiration I have for the fearlessness of Teague.

(Side note: Is there a point at which Rose bears some defensive responsibility for Teague's sudden success in this series? On the other hand, letting him run free has worked out for Chicago: Teague has scored 21 points in each of the Hawks' three losses, and had 10 and 12 points in their two wins.)

So it heads back south, with the Bulls needing to put in just one more concerted defensive effort to advance to a long-awaited meeting with Miami or Boston. Will the Hawks fold like they did in late games during the regular season, or have they realized they can hang with the Bulls if they work hard enough? Derrick Rose knows what the key is, saying after the game that "our whole game plan is playing defense." With Thibodeau at the helm, you have to like their chances, but as we've seen all season, having the plan drawn up doesn't guarantee success.

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