By Steve Aschburner, for NBA.com
Posted Apr 30 2011 1:54AM
CHICAGO -- Had Orlando guard Jameer Nelson simply kept his mouth shut after a nationally televised late-season game or, better yet, had the courtside microphone missed his throwaway remark to Chicago's Derrick Rose, the Atlanta Hawks might not have survived the NBA playoffs' first round.
Had an Orlando Sentinel columnist named Mike Bianchi not referred to the Hawks as "Birdbrains" the other day in predicting an Atlanta collapse in Games 6 and 7 of their best-of-seven series, the slighted troops in coach Larry Drew's locker room might not have been sufficiently riled to close out the heavily favored Magic in six Thursday night at Philips Arena.
Come on now.
To hear the Hawks players talk about the motivation they drew from such silly, bulletin-board junk is to soon heap more upon them: If they are that emotional and sensitive, they cannot be taken seriously going forward in this postseason. If getting routed by Orlando last year in the Eastern Conference semifinals -- by an average margin of 25 points, worst in NBA playoff history -- wasn't "dissing" enough, then Atlanta has either miserable recall or some seriously messed-up priorities.
Nelson's innocuous comment to Rose back on April 10 -- "I'll see you in the second round" -- put a bigger chip on the Hawks' shoulders than the drubbing of last spring? Bigger than the confidence gained from beating the Magic three times in four regular-season meetings this season? Bigger than the opportunity to topple not just a higher seed -- No. 5 beating No. 4 -- but an opponent favored by almost every pundit?
If all of that is true, then the Hawks already are cooked for Round 2. Because what goes around comes around and Chicago is the team nursing a grudge right now.
At the end of the teams' third and final clash this season -- they crammed all three into 21 days in March -- the Bulls were letting the clock run out on what would have been a 36-point blowout victory. Only Hawks backup Hilton Armstrong didn't concede; he stole the ball away from Chicago's C.J. Watson and launched a 3-point shot that made it 114-81 instead.
It was a silly move and a breach of sporting protocol, something that angered some Bulls at the time but soon enough was brushed aside. Had it gone the other way, though, the Hawks -- judging by their thin skins against Orlando -- probably would cue up video of that play on their Jumbotron before Games 3 and 4 of this series.
Chicago, more likely, will stay in brushing-aside mode and concentrate over the next two weeks on doing just that to Armstrong, his teammates and coaches and all else Atlantian.
1. Will Derrick Rose's ankle hold up?
However clingy the Indiana Pacers were in the first round, Chicago earned itself a breather by ending that series in five games. That opened a stretch of six days from Tuesday night till the opener against the Hawks at United Center Monday -- including a rare two-day respite from practice that must have felt to Bulls workaholic coach Tom Thibodeau like root-canal surgery and a tonsillectomy on consecutive afternoons. Besides, Rose is 22. It was a basic left ankle sprain. He'll be fine.
2. Won't old teammate Kirk Hinrich know Rose inside and out in their matchup?
Sure he will. But there are three issues that might outweigh that and even the regard the Bulls have for Hinrich, particularly as a tough defender. First, knowing and doing are way different things. Second, Rose will know just as much about Hinrich's tendencies. And third, Hinrich was carried off the floor late in his team's clincher Thursday night, apparently straining his right hamstring. Even the MRI exam set for Friday won't be able to predict the Atlanta guard's rate of recovery -- and he's two steps slower than Rose when healthy (uh oh, more bulletin-board junk?).
3. Which staff will be bothered more by Hawks forward Josh Smith?
Smith, who arguably will be the most talented player in this series (yes, counting Rose too), can give opposing coaches fits in figuring out how to cope with his many skills at both ends. Then again, he gives Drew and the Atlanta staff fits, too, by breaking plays, by settling for perimeter shots, by making lukewarm defensive stands and so on. For a team that too often ranks as the playoffs' least focused, Smith is the blurrer-in-chief.
4. Is Carlos Boozer going to participate in this postseason?
That would be nice for the Bulls, who saw their pricey power forward shrink both in stature (against the Pacers' longer frontline) and in impact (constant early foul trouble sapped his aggressiveness). Boozer shouldn't struggle as much against his Hawks defenders, but he's walking gingerly now with a case of turf toe, which we can safely assume did not come from giving himself a kick in the pants.
5. Whoever wins this series, will anyone notice?
The quick answer is no. This half of the East bracket cries out "undercard" compared to the glamour and curiosity coming from Boston-Miami. There's a good chance the Hawks will have Celtics-Heat playing on the flat screens in their locker room rather than Chicago breakdowns. Equilibrium will be regained only if a) Atlanta pulls off a big upset here, or b) Chicago gets back to its 62-victory form after a "grindy" series vs. Indiana.
Beyond the sheer prospect of losing to the Pacers or seeing Rose go down -- and stay down -- after a collison with Jeff Foster or Tyler Hansbrough, Chicago's greatest concern might have been the opportunity other playoff coaches would have to go to school on Indiana's defense. The Pacers mixed up their looks well, especially after Game 2. At various times, they walled off the basket and dared Rose to absorb contact or they sent double-teams out high to shake loose the ball. All the while, Indiana coach Frank Vogel used diverse individual shadows, from long-and-lean Paul George to bulldog Dahntay Jones. Rose averaged 27.6 points anyway, but he shot 37.1 percent in the series and had 3.8 turnovers to go with his 6.2 assists. Trouble is, Atlanta doesn't have that many arrows in its quiver, in terms of perimeter defense.
The Bulls feel that they can't get much worse from Boozer (10.0 ppg on 35.8 FG% and only 3.7 FTAs), while "finding" Joakim Noah as an offensive factor (12.0 ppg). Al Horford has enjoyed his matchups against Noah, an old Florida teammate, but that will just shift the burden to Jason Collins or Smith on Boozer. Luol Deng continues as an unsung Bull at both ends, averaging 18.6 ppg against Indiana and moving without the ball in ways that might shake off Atlanta's less-driven defenders.
Atlanta doesn't rely as much on isolation plays and clearing out as it did before Drew took over for Mike Woodson, but it still does plenty. That isn't the sort of stuff that will keep Thibodeau and his squad awake at nights. Joe Johnson is a dangerous scorer with a backstory in this series: The Bulls would have been perfectly happy had he signed with them in July as a free agent, rather than LeBron James or Dwyane Wade. The reason is clear now -- Johnson can score but he doesn't have to dominate the ball, something that might have impeded Rose's breakthrough season. But Johnson averaged 18.0 ppg against Orlando (Jamal Crawford led with 20.5) and was at 13.7 ppg on 39.1 FG% in the three March meetings with Chicago. His Bulls counterparts -- Keith Bogans, Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer -- should be sufficiently driven to contain him, since they wouldn't be on the roster if Johnson had gotten their money.
Horford led Atlanta in those games at 17.0, making 22 of his 35 shots. But Chicago did better when veteran Kurt Thomas guarded him, and the Hawks averaged just 80 points against the Bulls. Marvin Williams, who hit some key 3-pointers vs. Orlando, again figures to benefit as the Atlanta option most neglected by Chicago.
Regardless of Johnson's season averages in general or against Chicago, all it takes is for him to heat up in one game to alter a series. He came up big in Game 4 against the Magic, scoring 10 of his 20 points in the last four minutes to spark the 3-1 series lead.
Rose began the season with doubts about his ability to take and benefit from contact in the lane; so many of his athletic, twisting drives seemed designed to avoid contact and his free-throw totals showed it. But now he gets those calls -- and he sinks his free throws -- so it is his durability that matters more now.
It is impossible to overstate Smith's importance to Atlanta in this series. The Bulls aren't considered to be a very athletic team, so that is one area in which Smith can shine -- if he just cuts to the basket to use his advantages, rather than loitering near the arc. He figures to have some monster blocks in the series, too, but the Hawks merely hope they outnumber his defensive lapses. ... For Chicago, Kyle Korver is the one guy who can consistently get points three at a time. He shot 10-of-17 from out there against Indiana for 58 percent of his scoring in the opening round.
Atlanta erased a 17-point deficit in its first meeting with Chicago this season, outscoring the Bulls 50-30 after halftime for its lone victory in the series. And Thibodeau's team has had a knack for slow starts, allegedly "playing down" to the competition. Not that any of them will refer to the Hawks that way, given those guys' penchant for finding slights. The thing is, they had better find something. Atlanta's attack doesn't figure to challenge Chicago's stifling defense enough and, on the other side, the Hawks will be counting on Collins, Zaza Pachulia or Etan Thomas to meet Rose at the rim. Let's just say that Rajon Rondo, James or Wade can safely tell the league's likely MVP, "See you in the conference finals." Bulls in five.
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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