Bulls get Atlanta Hawks in second round


Apr 28

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Let’s take an early look at the Bulls and Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference semifinals starting Monday (7 p.m.) at the United Center.

The Bulls won the season series 2-1 and the teams didn’t play for the first time all season until March 2, unusual on the NBA schedule. The Hawks won the first game in Atlanta behind a dominant performance from Al Horford, who had 31 points and 16 rebounds.

The Bulls then blew out the Hawks in the next two games, 94-76 back home March 11 and 114-81 in Atlanta March 22. Derrick Rose had at least 30 points the last two games, and now it is unclear the condition of former Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich, who was carried off late in Thursday’s Hawks clinching win after scoring on a driving layup. The Hawks said after the game Hinrich suffered a hamstring injury and would have an MRI Friday.

Without Hinrich, who was acquired for Mike Bibby, the Hawks effectively have no point guard as backup Jeff Teague rarely plays. The Hawks generally use fellow former Bull Jamal Crawford as the backup point guard, though Crawford usually shoots. Crawford had a big first round averaging 20.8 per game coming off the bench and shooting 51.9 percent on threes.

The Bulls surely will be cautious and respectful, but this appears to be as good a matchup as the Bulls could get after a tough first round series. The Hawks aren’t a particularly physical team with only backup Zaza Pachulia playing tough. He’ll likely commit a flagrant foul or two in the series, and the Bulls probably would do well to use Kurt Thomas when Pachulia is in the game.

Thomas played well against the Hawks this season, averaging four points and eight rebounds playing in two games. Omer Asik also did well against Atlanta, averaging five points and four rebounds in just under 14 minutes per game. Despite playing so little, Asik was second on the Bulls in offensive rebounds against the Hawks.

The Bulls dominated Atlanta on the boards in the series with a 14-rebound per game margin. The Bulls had an 18-rebound edge the last two games when they won.

The Bulls held the Hawks to 42.7 percent shooting while shooting 47 percent and averaged eight more assists per game. The Hawks’ only edge against the Bulls was in three point shooting as they were an impressive 46.9 percent in the three games. Though Atlanta averaged just 80 points in the three games.

Rose, typically, led the Bulls in the three games at 25.3 per game with Luol Deng playing well, averaging 20 points against the Hawks. No other Bull averaged in double figures against Atlanta as Carlos Boozer averaged 8.5 points and five rebounds while missing one of the games with a sprained ankle.

Boozer struggled in the first round against the Pacers, shooting just 35.8 percent. The Hawks started Jason Collins at center in the only game they won, and they went with that lineup in beating the Magic. But back in that first game it was less for matchups as Josh Smith was out injured. Horford started at center for Atlanta in the last two games against the Bulls and the Hawks were dominated on the boards. They’ll likely try to stay bigger against the Bulls as Horford at center and Josh Smith at power forward didn’t work for them.

Frankly, I don’t see how the Hawks can get a game. Maybe they get one because you can miss shots. I may record the series and watch it after it’s over and watch the Celtics and Heat, instead.

I thought Magic coach Stan Van Gundy made a salient point about the Hawks in his post game following the Magic’s elimination. I still thought they’d win after being down 3-1 because I think so little of the Hawks.

Van Gundy was too discreet to phrase it that way, but basically Van Gundy said they were front runners. You know, get them behind and they give up.

“Five of the six games they had double figure leads,” said Van Gundy. “We got them down one time (and won easily, Game 5). If you get them down they are not good coming from behind. They are great from out in front.”

That’s possibly one small issue with the Bulls. The Bulls tend to ease into games and don’t have many quick starts. They did so against the Pacers in Game 5 and blew them out. Rose tends to feel out games and usually doesn’t score big early. The Bulls may have to push him to be more aggressive to start.

The Hawks aren’t a particularly creative team. They primarily play a drive-and-kick game and isolation, so much so that even among team members they call Joe Johnson, Iso-Joe.

Their offense doesn’t appear that much different from what the Bulls ran under Vinny Del Negro with a lot of high screen/roll action, isolations and kick out to the wings standing in the corner.

This will be the fifth time the Bulls face a Hawks team in the playoffs. The first time was against the old St. Louis Hawks, who swept the Bulls 3-0 in the Bulls first season in 1966-67. That remains the only NBA expansion team and coached by legendary Johnny Kerr to ever to make the playoffs. In the only home game in that series, played in the old Coliseum at 15th and Wabash, the Bulls drew about 3,700. Jerry Sloan was hurt in the first game and the Bulls never recovered.

The Bulls lost to the Atlanta Hawks in five games in the Western Conference semis in 1970. The Bulls were hurt early in that series by Pogo Joe Caldwell, who was known for jumping over a car. Yes, everything has already been done. The Bulls won one game behind one of my favorites, Shaler “Super Shay” Halimon. The Bulls drew about 8,000 for those home games.

Then in the opening round of the 1993 playoffs, the Bulls swept the Hawks on the way to their third title. The average winning margin was 16.3. And they won in five in ’97.

Once again, the Boozer matchup will be crucial. If the Hawks play Collins at center and Horford at power forward, Boozer will guard Collins in likely a cross match as Collins will defend Noah. But if Horford plays center, Noah will guard him with Boozer on Josh Smith, who likes to float outside and shoot jumpers. Which, actually, is fine because he’s a lousy shooter and it makes his teammates mad. In the game in Chicago, Hawks players were screaming invective at one another in the team huddle. The Bulls used to have some problems defending Smith. But under new coach Larry Drew he’s much less in control and doesn’t play as much defense and try to get the team in transition, which is when the athletic Hawks are best.

Unless it’s a tear, I can see Hinrich playing. But those kinds of hamstring injuries can take weeks to get better and it is difficult for anyone to stay with Rose, let alone a player slowed by a sore hamstring. It’s a tough break for Hinrich, who escaped the Wizards gulag during the season and was obviously looking forward to if not returning to the Bulls as a teammate at least as an opponent in the playoffs.

Since the three games against the Bulls, the Hawks put Marvin Williams, a career underachiever, on the bench, to go with their big lineup with Collins at center. Given the first round series win, I don’t see them going back to Williams, who averaged his usual seven points against the Bulls.

Wow, have there been some bad No. 2 overall picks in the draft. Hello, Darko and Hasheem and Marvin.

Horford led the Hawks in scoring against the Bulls thanks to that one game while Joe Johnson was invisible, averaging 13.7 points on 39 percent shooting. No Hawk averaged five assists against the Bulls, though only because hardly anyone passes.

Here’s a look at the three games:

— March 2: Hawks 83-80 in Atlanta

The Bulls started the game scoring the first 14 points and led by 17 at the half, 50-33. Rose had one of his poorer games with 12 points, 12 assists and six turnovers as the Hawks did a good job attacking him late with a small lineup and playing zone. I thought the Pacers would try it, but never did. I expect the Hawks to as they aren’t very good man defenders. They ranked 18th in defensive field goal percentage and tied for 28th in blocks, meaning little threat at the rim. They pressured Boozer quite a bit in that game as he finished with 11 and seven, and constantly shaded toward Rose with two and three defenders. They challenged Noah to shoot by playing well off, thus dropping a defender into Boozer’s lap. And they pulled out the game, beating the Bulls down the stretch as they overcame a Bulls seven-point fourth quarter lead. Atlanta got to the basket at the end on a nice pick and roll for Horford and a fast break after forcing Rose into his sixth turnover. Plus, Horford played angry, as he often does against Noah. “Al would probably never admit it, but I think it’s personal. You always want to bring it against your former (teammates), and he does it every time,” Marvin Williams said after the game. That was the Bulls last big loss, though. They were 15-14 on the road and 41-18 at the time. On that road trip, they then won in Orlando and Miami and finished the season 11-1 on the road and 21-2 overall.

— March 11: Bulls 94-76 in Chicago

The Hawks played a half, leading 50-48 at halftime as Rose was two of 11 in the first half. Shots not dropping? Drive. Rose was 14 of 15 at the line and had 18 of his 34 points in the third quarter when the Bulls blew open the game. They held the Hawks to 10 points and 26 overall in the second half, the basketball version of a shutout. With Boozer out, coach Tom Thibodeau started Kurt Thomas at center and Thomas did a good job pressuring and taking Horford out of his game as Horford had just six points and seven rebounds, 25 points fewer than in the previous game. Thomas had 13 rebounds, almost twice as many as Horford, in a 50-28 demolition on the boards. The Bulls also had a big edge in the paint, 36-22 as that’s their formula to play the Hawks: Drive the ball and let them shoot jumpers. They generally oblige.

— March 22: Bulls 114-81 in Atlanta

This was one the NBA needed to stop early as the Bulls despite playing the second of a back to back scored 72 points in the first half. The Bulls would lead by 47 until the Hawks bench guys led by Teague got some scores. Though the game got ridiculous at the end as the Bulls were dribbling out the clock to end the game so as not to further embarrass the Hawks. So Hilton Armstrong comes in to steal the ball to score. It was a team wildly out of control with Smith firing crazy jump shots over much smaller defenders while down 30. Sure, you look better when you get things together and win a series. But that Magic team was in full collapse and it’s difficult to see the Hawks being able to execute much against any sort of disciplined defensive pressure. Rose had 30 in that game and Deng 27. The Bulls had a staggering 48-18 edge in points in the paint. No, the Hawks didn’t even try to compete in that game at home. The league was starting, finally, to take notice of the Bulls and Brent Barry on NBA-TV later that night offered this about the Bulls: “They played with this spirit that made you jealous you were not part of something like that. Even when you are playing on a team that is mediocre in the NBA, when you see that kind of camaraderie, see that type of college atmosphere, you want to be part of something like that and that’s what really the Chicago Bulls, in essence, are doing.”

Seemingly right to the conference finals.

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