It was such an under-the-radar trade at the deadline, lost in the Carmelo-to-the-Knicks mega-deal and the Deron Williams-shocker, but the Hawks made a major upgrade by acquiring Kirk Hinrich. He's a solid defender who plays smart on defense and is an able distributor who can often keep you honest by hitting shots. I think he was the key for the Hawks against the Magic.
Can he be the key to the Hawks pulling another upset?
The Bulls won two of the three meetings this season. The game they lost, they actually led by double digits at half time. The games they won, they won by a lot. But this is the playoffs—where all bets are off and the Hawks know this, but they also have to know they have their work cut out for them.
Here is what they have to do.
1. Share the ball
The Hawks were 12th in the NBA during the season in assists, which isn't terrible, but they could have been much better. They are primarily a jump-shooting and isolation offense, which plays in to the Bulls' hands perfectly as they try to force teams to become jump-shooting teams. But they also repeatedly use too much of the shot clock on those isolations then take terrible shots (yes, Josh Smith I am talking to you).
In fact, Josh Smith is one of the laziest offensive players I have ever seen. If he just developed some dribble moves, he could get to the rim at will, and he is unstoppable at the rim. Instead, he dribbles back and forth before taking a fadeaway 18-footer, which is why he got benched in Game 3 against the Magic.
That will not work against the Bulls. The Bulls rotate very well to open shooters, make you take contested shots, and take away your weak side movement—which the Hawks are very poor at anyway (moving without the ball).
The Hawks can't make it easy for the Bulls. They have to move without the ball, set screens off the ball, rotate to the weak side, drive and penetrate; all of the good things that good offenses do in the NBA. If they don't make the Bulls work on defense, and let the Bulls constantly get set in the halfcourt and settle on one guy with the ball, this will be a very short series.
2. Play physical
The Pacers set the standard for beating the Bulls, or slowing them, and the Hawks must follow suit. They need to get physical with Carlos Boozer in the post, push him out to the perimeter and make him a shooter. Getting physical with him will also make him jittery on layups as he missed a number of them when wide open because he expected the contact.
This will be tough for the Hawks since they lack the big man depth that the Pacers have. Josh Smith was their starting power forward during the season, and only Jason Collins is a truly physical post presence. Al Horford is a good defender, but he is awfully foul-prone. Since he is the Hawks' best post player on offense, the Hawks usually don't like him on active offensive players.
On the perimeter, the Hawks need to abandon the Kirk Hinrich-on-Derrick Rose strategy. Hinrich lacks the lateral quickness to effectively guard Rose (in the two games they played after the Hawks traded for him, Rose scored 34 and 30 points) and he can't really stay in front of him or push him towards help.
He was successful against Jameer Nelson, because Nelson is a jump-shooter at heart where Rose is a penetrating point guard. Joe Johnson is capable of bothering Rose with his length and athleticism, but he often becomes disinterested on defense, which is when Rose will explode.
The most important thing is to NEVER let Jamal Crawford try to defend Rose.
3. Al Horford needs to stay on the floor
As I mentioned, he is foul-prone and Larry Drew has a bad habit of sitting guys with two fouls until the third quarter. That will doom the Hawks if Horford picks up two fouls in the first few minutes of the fourth quarter. Horford is so important to the Hawks. He is their best rebounder, which is huge for a team that was 28th in the NBA in rebounding at less than 40 a game. The Bulls were second, and first in offensive rebounds.
He is also their best offensive scorer in the post, which they will need desperately in this series to calm down the shoot-happy Hawks. He will be matched up against either Joakim Noah or Carlos Boozer, and both are bad matchups for him.
Noah is very good at drawing fouls, as he is so active on the boards and he moves very well on offense. However, Horford has been able to score against him, so he will need to stay out of foul trouble to continue the trend.
Boozer likes to get physical on offense, using his strong upper body to bull you in to position and then use his fine array of post moves to score. It will be important for Horford not to bite on pump fakes, and not to allow Boozer good position prior to entry passes. The Bulls also love to re-post if the initial entry is unsuccessful, so Horford needs to be aware that the Bulls will look for the mismatch and exploit it as much as possible. He needs to play smart.
Prediction: Bulls in 5
On paper, this is a very lopsided matchup. The Hawks just dribble around and take shots, playing in to the Bulls' strengths. The Hawks are a bad rebounding team, while the Bulls are one of the best in the NBA. The Hawks are a decent defensive team, but they are not physical which is what the Bulls struggle against.
The Hawks don't really force turnovers, which is the best way to attack the Bulls defense in transition. The Hawks' best defender is uninterested most of the time, and their hardest working defender is too slow to stop Derrick Rose. In addition, the Hawks are definitely a team that quits, and they expended a lot of emotional energy against the Magic. This has all the makings of an ugly series if you are a Hawk fan.