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It could be worse. You could be a Laker fan. Or a Spurs supporter. The moral of the story is the playoffs are hard. Fans have to hang in there.
Even so, this series has been considerably tougher than anticipated (by me in my preview last week among many others).
If the Bulls play their best and the Hawks play their best in what is now a best-of-three series, the Bulls will still prevail. But if the Hawks' Josh Smith (11 huge fourth-quarter points during Sunday's 100-88 Atlanta win that evened the Eastern Conference semifinal showdown two games apiece) continues to mature before our eyes, the margin between the teams shrinks considerably.
In the past, Smith could always be counted on to do something stupid in crunch time. For a long time after he entered the league a half-dozen or so years ago, the prodigiously talented 6-9 forward was in love with his three-point shot. And that was despite the fact that he converted barely a fourth of his long-range bombs (out of more than 150 total attempts) during one particularly egregious season of talent-wasting a few years ago.
While he finally bagged the trifecta (or at least most of them) this past campaign, he was still susceptible to the siren song of open mid-range jumpers. No wonder, really, given how much easier it is to hoist it up from out there rather than going to work in the paint.
But Smith has found his inner muscleman of late and like another 6-9 guy who has lifted his team to crazy new heights during these playoffs - Memphis's Zach Randolph - the Hawk forward can be darn near unstoppable at the rim when he gets going.
As for the Bulls forwards, well, the team has become so accustomed to poor play from Carlos Boozer that when he finally displayed some offensive efficiency on Sunday, especially in the third quarter, his teammates didn't remember how to take advantage of it. When Boozer returned to the floor after taking a brief breather at the start of the final 12 minutes, Rose and Co. failed to find him with the kind of zippy little passes that had set up several slick shots earlier in the second half.
As for Mr. Derrick Rose, he received no rest in the second half (finishing with 45 minutes played out of a maximum 48) and that was a sizable screw-up. It was absolutely predictable that the young point guard's game came apart at the seams down the stretch. If it wasn't bad shots or bad passes, it was just bad choices. And it all added up to bad offense.
Coach Thibodeau is always going to be tempted to play his studs more in playoff games, what with at least one day between all games and with the stakes so high. He cannot give in to that temptation. Rose was clearly fatigued at the end and he needs to be at his absolute best for this team to advance.
Of course all of this has to do with growing pains as well. At times like Sunday's fourth quarter, fans have to remember that this is all new for the MVP. Some lessons can be learned on the fly, especially in regular season. But some are especially hard won, i.e. there is nothing that prepares a young player for the pressure-cooker that is the NBA playoffs.
I hope Luol Deng was paying attention as Josh Smith slashed to the rim for big basket after big basket down the stretch on Sunday. This might have been Deng's worst game of the playoffs and while there is no denying that he needs help to set up his offense, i.e. passes in good spots to either take it inside or fire away with his reliable mid-range jumper, he also needs to assert himself.
In other words, Derrick Rose didn't do a good enough job finding Deng but Deng didn't do a good enough job forcing the issue.
Here's the official NBA recap:
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