The Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks begin their Eastern Conference semi-final series tonight. The Bulls advanced by winning a flurry of close games against the Pacers before losing one and delivering a strong finishing blow in Game 5.
Atlanta had to go through Dwight Howard and company in Orlando, which they did, very surprisingly to many experts and fans. They seem excited to have the opportunity to take on the Bulls and extend their playoff run.
But they shouldn't be. The Hawks stand no chance in this series.
Matchups certainly favor the Bulls. Chicago's starting shooting guard, Keith Bogans, not only hits the occasional deep-range jumper, but also plays extraordinary defense game in and game out. It looks as if he will be defending the Hawks' top scorer in Joe Johnson. If Bogans can take Johnson out of the game, the Hawks will have to generate a lot of offense in other places, which they may not have the capability to do since the rest of the Bulls' defense isn't too shabby itself.
The only favorable matchup for the Hawks would be Al Horford against Carlos Boozer, considering Boozer struggled more against the Pacers than he had all season. If Horford cannot have a few lights out performances, then this will be a struggle for Atlanta.
Chicago was shocked by Atlanta in the first game of their three game series, losing 83-80 in a game which the Hawks shut down Derrick Rose to arguably his worst performance of the season. The young point guard shot 5-21 and only managed 12 points along with 12 assists. This came with six turnovers and six misses from long range.
The other two games were a different story. In Game 2, only nine days after the first contest, the Bulls coasted to an 18-point victory.
It got worse for Georgia's team in Game 3. The Bulls dominated every aspect, winning by 33 as their backups played the majority of the fourth quarter. During the last two games, Rose scored 64 points and seemed to be proving a point in order to make up for his lackluster performance in the opener.
This shows that the Bulls on an average to good night can beat the Hawks. Only at their complete worst will they lose, and still just by a slim margin.
Kirk Hinrich is a hard-nosed, smart player. He plays strong defense and adds three-point range to the Hawks. He also is a longtime Bull with knowledge of Derrick Rose's play, as he has witnessed it first hand. Hinrich is one of the main reasons that Rose was shut down in the first game between the Bulls and the Hawks. Without him being on the court, it takes away a leader along with knowledge of how the Bulls work, although a coaching change has been made since Hinrich's departure.
Winning the top overall seed wins a valuable prize; home court advantage throughout the playoffs. That's exactly what the Bulls did this season. The Bulls posted an outstanding 36-5 record in the United Center. With that kind of advantage, it will be difficult for any team to steal one from them in Chicago.
Atlanta, on the other hand, was 20-21 on the road. A losing record away from their building on top of an amazing record for the Bulls at home equals trouble for Hawks fans. In order to win the series, they have to defend home court flawlessly and steal at least one in Chicago. This seems unlikely.
Don't get me wrong, Larry Drew has done a great job with the Hawks. He led them to the second round of the playoffs in his debut season, but he hasn't won coach of the year. He hasn't been deep into the playoffs before as a coach. He hasn't been a part of a championship team.
Tom Thibodeau has. The Chicago Bulls coach has installed a mindset into his team that defense wins championships. They have accepted his style and have fed off of it. He makes sure his team gives maximum effort at all times in order to ensure victory, or to know that they gave it everything they had in a lost.
He isn't one to shy away when a call isn't what he wants, and he is one to make sure his player participates in the correct number of minutes. Thibodeau isn't hesitant to bench a player if they are having an outburst or doing anything he doesn't see fit. His coaching has cemented the Bulls as a championship contender in only his first year.
The Bulls went 62-20 during the regular season. Not all of those wins came easy. Chicago had to buckle down in the fourth and take care of business. They realize that the only thing that matters is winning. The Bulls were expected to finish either fourth or fifth in the East this season. They put that to rest at the All-Star break. They were expected to finish third in the East going into the second half of the season. That quickly was proven wrong.
The Celtics were supposed to finish out strong as the Bulls collapsed. Well, the Bulls just happened to pull away in the later weeks. Finally, the Spurs had the No. 1 seed all but locked up. What do you know? Chicago pulls a shocker and takes it.
These Bulls know how to win when they're not expected to, and even when they are.
Yeah, that sounds dumb, but think just about a week back to the Indiana series. The Bulls were losing in the fourth quarter of the first four games in that series. They still managed to have a 3-1 lead going into Game 5. Even in their one loss, they were down by double-digits with three minutes left and got the lead down to one before the Pacers delivered the finishing blow. The Bulls definitely know how to close out games.
Atlanta seemed to have no inspiration heading into the playoffs. They seemed to have reached a point where they couldn't fall or rise in the standings. So who cares? So what if they go down 2-0 before heading back to Atlanta in this series? Do they have the will to keep playing with 100 percent effort? These aren't good questions to have heading into the second round of the playoffs.