The Atlanta Hawks were less than one quarter from becoming the team to beat in the Eastern Conference.
The Hawks already sent Miami's Power Trio to a stunning defeat on Monday night. Then after traveling from South Florida and playing on consecutive nights, Atlanta's defense squeezed the life out of the Bulls for three quarters.
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The Bulls trailed 56-37 with 2:42 left in the third quarter while a sellout crowd at the United Center sat in glum disbelief. The home team would have to hit a hot streak just to reach 60 points.
At that point in the game, it seemed as though everyone needed to face this obvious fact: Any Bulls-Heat playoff rematch would be a second-round series between the No. 2 and 3 seeds. The Hawks were clearly the class of the East.
Elite teams can summon some great escapes in the NBA, though, and the Bulls somehow pulled it off. They used a 25-6 run to tie the score at 62-62, fell behind again by 6, then rode the power of Derrick Rose and a surprising late-game strategy to knock off the Hawks 76-74 on Tuesday.
"I felt bad for our fans to see us that bad," Rose said. "The first half and the third quarter, it just wasn't there. It was embarrassing. We picked things back up and got on our grind."
Rose (30 points, 7 assists) almost single-handedly got the comeback started by knocking down 3 shots from 3-point range in the opening four minutes of the fourth quarter.
He seemed to deliver the game-winner with 9.9 seconds left when he finished an amazing driving bank shot. Atlanta's Josh Smith had been laying back trying to block Rose's shots at the rim.
This time Rose held the ball a little longer, waited to feel some contact from Smith, then shot the ball over defender's arms high off the backboard.
That shot was lost in the final shuffle, though, because Luol Deng was whistled for a foul with 7.7 seconds on the clock. Hawks center Al Horford hit just 1of 2 free throws, though, leaving the score tied.
That's when the Bulls went with the changeup. Deng was supposed to throw the inbounds pass to Rose. But when Jeff Teague didn't let him get a good look, Rose moved to the wing to set a screen and Deng threw it in to Joakim Noah.
Noah was on the floor for the first time since picking up his fourth foul and giving way to Omer Asik with 10:04 left in the third quarter, but that's another story.
Noah caught the pass, Deng curled around Rose and both Atlanta defenders stared down the Bulls' superstar, leaving Deng free for a backdoor cut. Noah made a nice pass and Deng dropped in the game-winning layup with 3.7 seconds on the clock.
"We run it every day in practice -- every single day," Rose said. "It works now. Lu got an easy basket. If Lu wasn't open, Jo hands it off (to Rose)."
Deng (21 points) and Rose played the entire second half and the Bulls' comeback lineup included Asik, Taj Gibson and Kyle Korver.
"We were searching," Thibodeau said.
"That group got some momentum going, so we were staying with them. I felt like they got us out of the hole, so they deserved the chance to finish it."
In the end, the Bulls got away with shooting 27.8 percent through three quarters. That's what the best NBA teams do, they just hope it's not required very often.