Finally, the real Chicago Bulls showed up in the playoffs.
Naturally, Derrick Rose led the way.
Looking every bit like an MVP, Rose sliced up Atlanta for a career-high 44 points as the Bulls seized control of the Eastern Conference semifinals with their best performance of the postseason, romping to a 99-82 victory over the Hawks in Game 3 Friday night.
The Bulls lead the series 2-1, putting Atlanta in must-win position heading into Game 4 Sunday night.
Rose was dominant from the opening tip, slashing into the lane for a basket that prompted Atlanta to call a timeout before game was a minute old. He finished off the Hawks midway through the fourth with back-to-back 3-pointers, hopping down the court, serenaded by chants of ``MVP! MVP'' from a hefty contingent of Bulls fans.
The Hawks' fans began heading for home. Jeff Teague was about the only highlight for Atlanta, scoring 21 points. That wasn't nearly enough against the D-Rose onslaught. He made 16 of 27 shots from the field, including four 3s. He dished out seven assists, grabbed five rebounds, came up with a steal _ heck, he even blocked a shot.
After struggling to put away Indiana in the opening round and losing at home in the opener of this series, the Bulls looked every bit like the team that won 62 games during the regular season. While everyone will point to Rose's performance, the Chicago bench played a key role in a decisive second-quarter spurt. And everyone chipped in on the boards, leading the Bulls to a 47-34 edge that included 18 offensive rebounds.
The Hawks hadn't played a home playoff game of this magnitude since 1997, when this same scenario presented itself after Atlanta split the first two games in Chicago against the Michael Jordan-led Bulls in the East semifinals.
That one didn't work out too well for the Hawks, who promptly lost both games at the old Omni and were finished off in Game 5 back in ChiTown. Judging by the way things went Friday night, this series could be headed toward a similar result.
The Hawks stunned the Bulls in Game 1, and kept it close most of the way in Game 2 before losing by 13. Atlanta returned home with plenty of confidence, believing it survived Chicago's best punch and showed it could match up just fine with a team that won 18 more games during the regular season.
Not on this night.
Not against Rose, who finally seemed to shake off a nagging sprained ankle.
Coach Tom Thibodeau has called on his star to get more aggressive. The dynamic guard sure took that message to heart right from the opening tip, throwing an immediate damper on a raucous sellout crowd.
Luol Deng got it started by knocking down a 19-foot jumper. After Joe Johnson missed a long one for Atlanta, Rose slashed into the lane for his first points and a 4-0 lead for the road team. Hawks coach Larry Drew called a quick timeout, sensing this wasn't going to turn out well.
Rose was virtually a one-man team in the first quarter, scoring 17 points to push the Bulls to a 29-23 lead.
Teague, who wouldn't have been playing much if not for an injury to Kirk Hinrich, kept up his strong play from the first two games. He scored 11 of Atlanta's first 17 points but couldn't keep the Hawks in it all by himself.
And, boy, he sure could've used some help at the defensive end trying to guard Rose. Teague, who did a respectable job on the Bulls star in Chicago, was left standing in his tracks over and over, unable to keep Rose from doing pretty much whatever he wanted.
He burst into the lane when the Hawks left the slightest of openings. When Teague stepped back, Rose launched 3-pointers that hit nothing but net.
Chicago turned to its bench at the start of the second quarter, and those guys really delivered. Ronnie Brewer stole the ball from Jamal Crawford on the opening possession. C.J. Watson scored on a layup, then connected on a jumper to quickly push the lead into double figures for the first time while the starters rested. Taj Gibson chipped in with a block, stuffing Marvin Williams on a drive to the hoop.
The Hawks seemed to weather the storm, cutting it back to 35-29 on Johnson's turnaround jumper. But Kyle Korver responded like he does so often: A 3-pointer that sparked a 19-6 run to stun the home crowd and force Drew to call two more timeouts in a futile bid to slow the Bulls. Even though some of the starters returned, it was the backups who kept delivering, scoring 12 points during that span.
Atlanta put together a brief rally near the end of the first half, but only because the Bulls seemed a little winded from the way they were running up and down the court. The Hawks had the last shot with a chance to get within 11 going to the locker room, but even that ended ugly. Crawford had the ball slapped away, put up a long airball, then complained vehemently that he'd been foul.
That got him a technical, meaning Chicago went to the line for a free throw before the second half started. Rose made that one, then followed with a 3 in Teague's face. Keith Bogans made another 3, and just like that the Bulls had stretched it back out to an 18-point lead.
Chicago fans began chanting "MVP!" every time Rose touched the ball. The Atlanta fans got plenty of chances to boo, and much of their wrath was directed at Josh Smith.
The enigmatic hometown player did some good work on the inside, scoring 17 points and grabbing 13 rebounds. But he kept insisting on putting up outside jumpers that clanked off the rim time after time. Each time they did, the crowd screamed in disgust.
He was hardly the biggest problem, though. Johnson was held to 10 points on 4-of-12 shooting. Crawford managed only seven. It was those two who dominated Game 1.
Rose made that seem like a distant memory.