Posted May 13 2011 2:34AM
ATLANTA -- What the Chicago Bulls did Thursday night in eliminating the Atlanta Hawks from the Eastern Conference semifinals had very little to do with the Hawks, ultimately, and almost nothing to do with the conference semis.
Oh, it was a necessary step, an unchecked item on the to-do list and not even an easy one at that. For five games, Atlanta had bobbed and weaved with the Bulls, staying closer than expected, winning twice, throwing some scares their way through sheer physical prowess (mostly Josh Smith) and some under-scouted pluckiness (Jeff Teague).
But in Game 6, the Bulls did more than put an end to all that pestering. They got the Hawks down early and kept them there -- by 10 points after one quarter, still 10 at the half, by 17 after three and a robust 20 at the end, 93-73. More so, though, they found and darn near flaunted the level of play and style that got them those 62 regular-season victories, that boosted them -- not Miami, not Boston -- to the top of the East's playoff bracket.
They got people excited again about the games we'll all be seeing when the Bulls and the Heat meet, starting Sunday at United Center, for the right to advance to The Finals. Which was fine, the Bulls supposed, because they're pretty excited about how they're playing and where they're headed too.
Already, Chicago is in a conference finals for the first time since Michael Jordan went statue in Salt Lake City, Game 6, June 1998.
"It's not surprising to me at all," Derrick Rose, the NBA's MVP said. "At the beginning of the season, all the guys that came in for training camp, I could tell they wanted to win. Everybody's just positive on this team. They don't care about their stats or anything. They just want to win a game and work to win a game. It's helping us out, to where our confidence is very high.
"We know we have something very special in front of us. But we still have to put the work into it."
Rose scored 19 points, his second lowest output of the playoffs, and on 8-for-14 shooting, he fell short of 10 field goals for the first time in the second-round series. And it mattered not one bit. The ball was "hopping," as Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau said, moving side to side, inside-out, sometimes inside-in. With 34 assists, the Bulls matched their single-game high from any of their first 92 games (82 plus 10 in the postseason), a lethal ratio on 41 field goals.
Power forward Carlos Boozer, stymied previously by the aching big toe of his right foot, came unchained in this one. His shot was magnificent, high and true and splashing through the net the way Bulls management and Chicago fans imagined when he signed up as a big-money free agent. He played off Rose perfectly, found teammates with the ball, didn't hesitate to shoot after a scolding or two from his point guard -- in all, with 23 points and 10 rebounds, Boozer added a dimension that, after an underwhelming postseason through 10 games, could alter all sorts of things vs. Miami.
But wait, there was more: Luol Deng survived a nasty spill -- he took inventory afterward of a banged left elbow, sore tailbone and bruised right index finger -- to finish with 13 points, five rebounds, five assists and five steals. Center Joakim Noah found space to play nice (11 points) alongside Boozer. The bench was crisp, scored 24 points and got good minutes again from the trio of Taj Gibson, Omer Asik and Ronnie Brewer.
More than anything, though, Chicago flexed its defense on Atlanta when the Hawks least could afford it. It held the home team to 36.5 percent (27-for-74) from the field and didn't let the Hawks crack 60 until just 5:13 remained and the gap already was 26 points. Joe Johnson missed 10 of 15 shots while it still mattered and Jamal Crawford was 2-for-10. Besides Johnson and Josh Smith (seven field goals each), no Atlanta player could muster more than two.
Now, Atlanta isn't the most disciplined team in remembering to move and share the ball, which plays right into a good defense's hands. But the net Chicago threw over the Hawks was a glimpse at how they'll try to choke off Miami.
The Heat have LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. But the Bulls, beyond Rose, have a team defense that makes every guy on the roster feel like an All-Star. When they're playing it right.
"If anything, we communicated a little bit more," Rose said of the Chicago's constricting defense. "Let guards know if their bigs were behind them, so they wouldn't get any easy layups. Close it down the middle when the double-teams came. ... And just playing with our hands as well as our feet."
The Hawks, stopping after two rounds for the third consecutive spring, went about as far as they could or should have, given their No. 5 seed, some inconsistent decisions, holes in their roster and a defense that occasionally thwarts. By contrast, the Bulls have the ability to shut down NBA opponents, which is a superstar trait even if it's not embodied in any one person.
Rose is the only all-NBA player on Chicago's roster. And he's fine with that, even with the rock stars coming to town.
"I'm not worried about that," he said. "I trust in my teammates and that's the biggest thing. Where anybody any night can have a big night. I think my teammates are damn good.
"Knock down shots, pass the ball well to each other, run our offense great. Play well with one another on the offensive end. Back doors. We just hustle, that's the big thing, on both ends. Just make sure we play aggressive."
It might not have been vital for the Bulls to play so well in eliminating Atlanta -- they could have ground their way to a victory as they had in previous games so far against Indiana and Atlanta. Or even dinked around and needed a Game 7. But the fact that they did, at precisely the right time, heightens everything. For everyone, including those who will frame Miami vs. Chicago as a referendum on herding mega-talents vs. building a complete team.
"We know how deep we are," Boozer said. "I think all of us have to do our jobs. We've been a team all season. It hasn't been a one man show -- but our one man is pretty good!
"But it's been a team effort. We go top to bottom, 1 through 15. Don't forget, we have an unsung hero in Luol Deng. He played great defense this series, all season long. He's been a monster for us making big shots down the stretch in games. We rely on everybody."
So now we will get it, in best-of-seven format. On one side, two Hall of Famers, one All-Star and assorted others from the spare parts bin. On the other, five men and a net.
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