BY MARK POTASH Commentary May 3, 2011 01:40PM
When the Bulls’ NBA-leading defense suddenly turns to mush in a playoff game — like when the Atlanta Hawks shoot 51 percent and score 103 points as they did in Game 1 on Monday night — it looks like a big red flag.
But not this time.
The Bulls still are one of the best defensive teams in the NBA. They still are the best team in this series. And they still are on target to win in five or six games. As good as the Hawks were in Game 1, they’re still a team prone to wild fluctuations. They lost nine games by 20 points or more in the regular season — the most ever by an NBA team with a winning record. They went 44-38 in the regular season and still allowed more points than they scored.
The Bulls gave the Hawks their due after losing 103-95 at the United Center on Monday night. ‘‘They played with a little more edge. They played with a little more hunger,’’ Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. ‘‘We gave them 51 percent [shooting], that’s not good. We don’t normally give up that high of a percentage, especially in the playoffs. It’s a tough one. We have to adjust.’’
History says they’ll do that. The Bulls were guilty of a little mental weakness in Game 1, not uncommon for them. When a team shoots well against them, it’s usually on the Bulls. Since Tom Thibodeau’s defense kicked in after a 9-8 start this season, the only opponents to shoot better than 50 percent against the Bulls — with one exception — have been lesser teams the Bulls didn’t get up for: the Clippers (.507), Knicks (.532), 76ers (.563), Raptors (.581), Pistons (.514) and Raptors (.506). The lone exception was the Trailblazers, who shot 51.5 percent in a 109-103 victory in Portland.
And almost every time, the Bulls responded. After the Raptors shot 58 percent against them, the Bulls held the Heat to 41 percent and won 93-89. After the 76ers shot 56 percent against them, the Bulls held the Celtics to 38 percent and won 90-79. This team is like a precocious child. But when they realize they’re at the dinner table, they know how to behave.
More than that, the Bulls’ defense predictably had trouble going from one extreme to the other. After facing high heat from the Indiana Pacers — five straight fastballs — in their previous series, the Hawks made their knees buckle with a Grade A curveball.
‘‘They are a one-on-one team,’’ Bulls guard Keith Bogans said. ‘‘You have to defend one-on-one against this team, and not just one or two possessions. Every possession down the floor is an isolation play.’’
The Bulls aren’t the only team to run into this problem. Against the Magic in the first round, the Hawks shot 51.4 percent in Game 1 and 41 percent the rest of the series. Against the Bucks last year, the Hawks shot 54 percent in Game 1 and 44 percent the rest of the series. Against the Heat in 2009, the Hawks shot 46 percent in Game 1 and 42 percent the rest of the series. Against the Cavaliers in 2009 the Hawks shot 44 percent in Game 1 and 37 percent the rest of the series.
Teams adjust against the Hawks and under Thibodeau the Bulls are well-equipped to make the same adjustment. The Pacers made 35 of their first 67 shots against the Bulls in the first round (52 percent). They shot 39 percent the rest of the way. The Bulls are tough to figure, but they learn well.
This isn’t quite uncharted territory for Thibodeau, either. In his three seasons with Boston, the Celtics had their share of subpar defensive efforts in the playoffs. But they responded. In 15 playoff games where the Celtics allowed 100 or more points in regulation, the Celtics allowed an average of 87 points the following game (and went 12-3, winning the last nine in a row).
And for what it’s worth, the bigger the stage, the better they were. Even when the Celtics lost Game 7 in last year’s Finals, the Lakers shot only 32 percent and scored 83 points.
And in 2008 when the Hawks — with Joe Johnson, Al Horford, Marvin Williams and Josh Smith starting — beat the Celtics 103-100 in Game 6 of their first-round series in Atlanta, the Celtics responded like the champions they were to become, winning 99-65 in Game 7. The Hawks, who shot 48 percent in Game 6, shot 29 percent in Game 7.
‘‘We just have to play our game,’’ Bogans said. ‘‘We didn’t play our game [in Game 1]. It’s very frustrating. But it’s a series. We learn from this one and get ready to play Wednesday.’’