The Bulls put plenty on display Friday at the United Center: Incredible defense, holding Atlanta to 26 second-half points. Another MVP-caliber performance from Derrick Rose, who produced an effective 34 points on a poor-shooting night.
The convincing 94-76 victory over the Hawks carried the Bulls within a half-game of Boston for first place in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics lost in Philadelphia on Friday.
But the most telling sign may have been the postgame news conference. Even after an epic defensive performance in the second half, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau showed no signs of happiness.
"You want to play 48 minutes," Thibodeau said. "I liked our defense in the second half. I didn't like the last 1:16."
The Bulls reserves gave up 3 easy baskets in the final minute; otherwise, Atlanta managed just 20 points in the first 23 minutes of the second half.
Then there was that first half, when the Hawks scored 50 points. Inside the Bulls' locker room, two stats were circled on the dry erase board -- 52.5 percent shooting and just 3 Atlanta turnovers by halftime.
"I prefer the games in which we play defense early, because I think you're playing with fire when you let a team like that shoot the percentage we allowed in the first half," Thibodeau said. "They've already gotten their confidence. Now your job is much harder."
Just a quick reminder: the Bulls beat a good team by 18 points. They've also won 10 straight at the United Center, their longest streak since 1998.
But the Bulls (46-18) have moved into the NBA penthouse this season with an unrelenting attention to detail, and Thibodeau wasn't about to let that slip.
"Even though Thibs is annoying sometimes, I think we respect how much effort he puts into it," center Joakim Noah said. "When you see a coach put that much into it and you see him put his heart and soul in it, you can't be too mad at his intensity."
Rose hit just 2 of 11 shots in the first half and couldn't get his outside shots to fall against the tough defense of former teammate Kirk Hinrich. So Rose switched tactics and put on a clinic in how to get to the basket.
He drew Hinrich's fourth foul with 6:45 left in the third quarter while the Bulls' lead was 6. Hinrich's absence opened more paths to the basket. Rose repeatedly went at Josh Smith and Zaza Pachulia, used his body to prevent shot blocks and also got to the foul line 15 times.
"I always say I've got to learn to get fouled; just attack and put pressure on them," Rose said.
Added Hinrich, "I was trying to stay out of foul trouble, but he's great."
Another good story Friday was Luol Deng, who produced 18 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists, after being listed as a game-time decision because of a thigh bruise.
"He does so many things for us. In my eyes, he's an all-league defender," Thibodeau said. "He guards everybody. And he plays a complete game. He scores, he rebounds, he passes. Today playing nicked up, you can't say enough about his leadership."
The reserves had another good day. Ronnie Brewer, Taj Gibson and C.J. Watson scored 8 points each and combined to knock down 12 of 18 from the field.