Bulls’ talents overtake Hawks


May 13

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Nobody said it among the Bulls Thursday after they defeated the Atlanta Hawks 93-73 to move onto the Eastern Conference finals starting Sunday night in the United Center against the Miami Heat.

Of course, had anyone said it coach Tom Thibodeau would have wrestled him to the ground before having the chance. And one look at Thibodeau and you know he could. So I’ll say it, though with a disclaimer.

Play like the Bulls did in closing the series over Atlanta 4-2 and they will beat the Heat.

In some respects, this has the look of the 2004 Finals, garish stardom against boring stuff like rebounding and bench play. It has happened.

“I thought our guys did a great job of being ready,” said Thibodeau. “We’ve taken the next step, and now there’s another step to be taken. Tonight we played a good all around game. Carlos (Boozer) certainly is looking better. He’s looking healthier and playing better because of it. Derrick (Rose) did a good job of finding the open man tonight when he was doubled, and he and Booz really had it going tonight. We try to hang our hat on defense. We’ve prided ourselves all year on being a defensive team first. You have to be able to count on your defense and rebounding.”


It, however, was a thing of beauty and once again bollixed up an athletic Atlanta team that had dominated Orlando. Sure, the lately maligned Boozer came up with a game high 23 points and 10 rebounds.

“Boozer probably had his best game that he played all series,” said Joe Johnson. “Rose puts so much pressure on the defense. You almost have to stop him and let everyone else have the ball. But Boozer made a lot of shots. You have him scoring and playing big like that, obviously they’re going to be tough to beat.”

Rose, to his nature, was thrilled others were performing (the front court three hit 10 of their first 12 shots) and finished with a quiet 19 points and 12 assists. Taj Gibson came off the bench with 10 points in just under 14 minutes, and the Bulls had an astounding 34 assists on 41 baskets.

But it was again a brilliant defensive effort, virtual textbook with the lane closed so well you could barely get a thin slice pizza into it. The doubles were quick and relentless on Johnson and Jamal Crawford, the duo mostly invisible again shooting nine for 28 with almost as many turnovers as baskets and Crawford shooting 33 percent for the series. The close outs on the shooters were relentless, like sprinters bolting from the blocks, And the individual efforts were spectacular, like Rose hustling back to take a charge late in the first half that canceled out a three point play that could have cut the Bulls lead to seven.

That would turn out to be perhaps the game’s pivotal play and last run, if that is what it was, for the Hawks.

The Bulls blew open the game after halftime with play like this: Noah blocked Johnson and tipped the ball ahead to Keith Bogans, who then found Rose streaking alone for a rim rocker and 52-37 lead less than three minutes into the second half.

By late in the quarter it was 19 and 26 midway through the fourth as at home in a closeout game the Hawks never truly threatened.

Thibodeau likes to talk about defense on a string, and it was played out as well as he plans it Thursday. Noah blitzed Johnson every time he tried to postup Bogans, who also was relentless in chasing and bothering Johnson. Stars don’t like that. It’s Keith Bogans, after all. He’s the annoying fly of the defense. He doesn’t seem like much, but he just won’t go away and you just want to scream!

Early on the Hawks tried to go to Josh Smith against Deng, and though Smith got two scores, the Bulls’ help eventually had him fading away for those long jumpers, three wild ones from three land.

Then came the Bulls bench to open the second quarter and there was no rest for the Hawks. They needed this one, obviously, and stayed with Smith and Johnson while the Bulls went with five reserves.

Before the starters returned, the Hawks missed eight of nine shots with Omer Asik with another strong game blocking Johnson and then recovering to force Crawford into a miss on the same possession. Zaza Pachulia drove, but Gibson thwarted him at the rim and Pachulia threw up a wild miss.

As the Bulls were pulling away to a 70-53 lead after three, Asik went straight up on a Pachulia attempt to avoid the foul and force the miss, drew Pachulia into an offensive foul with a wild elbow over the frustration of being unable to ride out the rookie and even converted a hammer dunk after flying out of bounds to save the ball and getting a pass back from Boozer, which resulted in a three point play. And even the made free throw.

The Bulls basket protection was impressive as Asik and Gibson went at everything and the Hawks never could seem to even find a comfortable shot, moving farther and farther from the basket.

“What goes underrated about them is the depth of their team,” said Al Horford, whom Noah drove to distraction and frustration and seven points and four rebounds.

Horford made third team All-NBA Thursday, but Noah badly outplayed him in this series as Horford averaged just 10.7 points on 44.6 percent shooting, well below his season averages.

“They just wear on you,” said Horford. “They just kept coming, kept coming every game. It seemed like their starters were fresh.”

It’s the edge few consider and is difficult for many to understand. There were several questions to Bulls players after the game about being able to match up with the Heat because, well, you know, Miami has three stars and the Bulls have one, Rose.

Predictably, Bulls players demurred, talking about themselves as a team. Rose said he thought his teammates were “damned good.”

“We’ve done it as a team all season,” said Boozer. “We’re not a one man show, though our man is pretty good. We have an unsung hero in Luol Deng who’s played great D all series, all season, who makes big shots down the stretch of games. We rely on everybody. Not one or two guys (Miami reference?). It’s everybody, a great coach who puts us in the right position to be successful and we play together out there.”

That was the difference alluded to by Bulls players after Thursday’s Eastern Conference semifinals clincher. Yes, Miami has the stars. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are nonpareil. No one questions that.

The Heat is renowned for its defense because of the closing speed which James and Wade can play at. And they will be favored, which suited Rose fine.

“It’s going to be a great matchup. It’s going to be fun,” Rose said. “We’re fine with being the underdog, if we are.”

Most national observers and analysts already are picking the Heat, particularly coming off that impressive five-game win over the Boston Celtics. But the Heat don’t really have much answer for the size of Noah and Asik, or for the athleticism of Gibson off the bench even though they are playing Udonis Haslem. And that’s with Kurt Thomas in reserve. If the Bulls can defend like they did against Atlanta, well, you’re going to want to watch this series.

“I feel like this is a dream come true,” said Noah, who that humid night after LeBron James’ “Decision” TV show was at the Berto Center, shirtless, not surprisingly, telling reporters he liked the way the so called decision went for the Heat and Bulls.

Bring it on?

“The more you advance the more you realize you want more,” said Noah. “It’s going to be an exciting series. People are going to be excited in Chicago playing Miami in the conference finals.”

And it was the Bulls big free agent, Boozer, who came up the biggest in the biggest game thus far, the closeout to the conference finals.

“Huge,” said Rose about Boozer. “He made simple plays where if they were off of him, shoot the ball. We always tell him that. Tonight, I think, raised his confidence. I think it’s going to help us for the next series.”

Subject to criticism for his play, questioned about his toe injury and place in the starting lineup, Boozer shot 10 of 16 and got the Bulls off fast with nine points and three rebounds in the first quarter and 21 through three.

“We all knew it was coming for him,” said Luol Deng with another all around effort, defending Johnson and getting 13 points, five rebounds, five assists and five steals. “He was due for a game like that. Carlos has been working hard and it paid off.”

Deng, perhaps as much as anyone, reflected what this Bulls team was about, less the glamour and flash of Rose than the blue collar workmanlike effort that is doubted but effective.

There wasn’t any big celebration for the Bulls as the game ended, neither on the court or in the locker room. It was much like any game. Noah, typically, was more gregarious and enthusiastic than anyone.

“We’re really happy with what’s going on now,” Noah said. “Just the way Carlos played. He’s someone who’s been through a lot, injury and adversity and to have a game like this. The way he played tonight showed how important he is to the team. You couldn’t before the season started write it any better. To be in this position to play against those guys in the conference finals is a dream come true.”

Of course, Noah always is like that.

Across the locker room, Deng sat with his feet in a bucket of ice, his post game companion. His elbow was wrapped thickly as he’d taken another hard fall, blasted down by Josh Smith on a drive. He stayed down a bit late in the first, but got up and made one of two free throws somewhat unsteadily for a 20-11 lead. Though later with the Bulls pulling away Deng came over a screen losing Smith on a curl, his favorite play. Johnson stepped up, but Deng, of all guys, double pumped and seemed to hang and then finished the 13 footer for the 54-41 lead. When I ran into him after the game, the first thing Hawks president Rick Sund said to me about plays the Bulls were making was Deng’s hanging jumper.

Deng’s back was still bad and now his finger was wrapped, too, from the fall.

More questioned than any Bull, with the team the longest, Deng hasn’t missed a game all season and in a rare game for him played fewer than 40 minutes. About 30 seconds fewer.

He and Noah are the only ones left from the 33-win season of 2007-08, and Deng wasn’t even playing the next season when Noah began to star in the great playoff series with the Celtics. Still, Deng sat quietly and reflected, certainly proud, though not satisfied.

“I don’t want to get caught up in this,” he said. “My goals are so much bigger. But this is special, the ups and downs we’ve been through, not making the playoffs, everything that’s been written about me. Now to be able to come back and work hard and be able to play all 82 games and get this far. It’s been a special year. I always knew from my upbringing I’m a tough guy. I never questioned my toughness. I was just unlucky.

“I went through some things, but honestly I feel everything I went through made me who I am today,” said Deng. “I never want to go through them again, but I came out better for it and that really makes me appreciate it.”

Studs Terkel, the great Chicago writer, would have loved this team. Because it is about Working. It is about that ethic. Can you have that with the glory of a league MVP like Rose? Yet, this is a kid who chases the tough rebound, who sprints back after turnovers or to catch fast breaks like it’s the playground and if you lose you wait. Nothing tougher than that.

“We know it’s going to be hard,” said Rose. “But this year was not easy. To us, we’re not here by surprise. If anything, our defense got us here and that’s what we’ll continue to do, playing defense. It’s not surprising to me where we’re at right now. At the beginning of the season, when we came to camp everyone was positive, just (wanting to know) what they have to do to win the game. No one cares about stats, just helping out, doing whatever it takes to win the game.”

It’s back to that greater than the sum of its parts thing.

The Bulls cannot match the starting talent of the Heat, though Boozer playing like he did Thursday evens the playing field some.

“I felt good,” said Boozer. “Day by day, I’m getting better. D. Rose gets so much attention, I was just taking what they were giving me (mostly jump shots off the pick and pop). We know how deep we are. The second unit has been a plus for us all season. They played great in this series. We’re improving. The defense was better this game than the game before. It’s all of us doing our jobs. We haven’t peaked yet.”

I don’t think this was meant as trash talking, but Boozer did add: “They’re a very good team. They are well coached with two great players, D-Wade and LeBron. It should be a great series. We look forward to it. They just got done beating the (former) champions in Boston. We look forward to the challenge.”

I’m sure that just was an oversight when Boozer forgot to mention Chris Bosh. Though Boozer does live in Miami in the offseason and the talk in some quarters last summer was Wade had promised to bring Boozer to Miami with James. Is Boozer getting ready? Was Thursday a start? The Bulls would like to think so.

The Heat has the bigger names and the media following. The Bulls seem like the team everyone wants to pat on the head and congratulate for a nice job so they can move on. It’s been like that all season, even when the Bulls were sweeping the season series 3-0 from the Heat.

“Our confidence is very high. We know we have something special in front of us,” said Rose. “We still have to put the work into it and play hard. It’s huge for us to get this far. We’re happy to get the conference finals, but we’re not planning to stop right there.”

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