Atlanta Hawks power forward Josh Smith (5) works against the defense of Chicago Bulls forward Luol Deng (9) and Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose (1) in the first quarter.
Derrick Rose simply had to run the show. The MVP had plenty of help in this one, and the Chicago Bulls are off to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since M.J. was at the controls.
Carlos Boozer scored 23 points and Rose doled out 12 assists, pushing Chicago out to a big lead in the first half that carried the Bulls past Atlanta 93-73 in the Eastern Conference semifinals Thursday night. They finished off the Hawks in six games.
Chicago advanced to its first conference final since 1998, when Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were on their way to a second three-peat. The Bulls fell on hard times after that glorious era, including three straight 60-loss seasons, but they have put together a deep, talented team that won more games than anyone during the regular season.
Yep, even more than the ballyhooed Miami Heat, whose Big Three are waiting in the next round, with a spot in the NBA Final on the line. Game 1 is Sunday in Chicago.
Rose was right in the middle of things, of course. He scored 19 points in addition to setting up all those baskets, but this was a textbook performance by the guys around him, each of them comfortable in a supporting role, each of them willing to do the dirty work at the defensive end.
The most impressive number: Chicago had assists on all but seven of its 31 baskets. Or, come to think of it, maybe it was this stat: The Hawks shot just 37 percent (27 of 74) and rarely got an open look.
That wasn’t the case for Boozer. He kept winding up with the ball with no one around, and kept knocking down jump shots. He went 10-of-16 from the field, grabbed 10 rebounds and handed out five assists.
Luol Deng hit some big baskets early and finished with 13 points. Joakim Noah scored 11 and stifled the Hawks with three blocks. Omer Asik chipped in with two swats of his own. Keith Bogans made only one basket, but it was a big 3-pointer as the Bulls put it away in the third quarter.
And, boy, did everyone play some defense.
Atlanta had hoped to extend the series to a Game 7, feeling the pressure would be squarely on the Bulls if it came down to a winner-take-all. But Chicago squashed those hopes right from the opening tip. The Bulls never trailed, and the lead was 10 by the end of the first quarter.
The Hawks had been in that position before. They fell behind by 15 in Game 5, then fought back to lead early in the fourth quarter. Chicago dominated down the stretch for a 13-point win, but the Bulls weren’t about to cut it that close again.
With the loss, Atlanta extended an infamous playoff mark: The Hawks have never advanced past the second round since moving from St. Louis in 1968.
Joe Johnson led the Hawks with 19 points. Josh Smith was the only other player in double figures with 18. The Hawks went 1-of-11 from beyond the 3-point arc.
Rose had been averaging nearly 30 points a game in the playoffs. No need for heroics in this one; he took just 14 shots, his lowest of the postseason, and wound up with his second-fewest points.
That’s OK. He got to spend the final minutes on the bench, celebrating with his teammates.
Deng went down early, landing hard after Smith got a piece of him going for the block. Deng was OK, staying in the game to shoot a pair of free throws after a timeout.
Then Atlanta got its own scare early in the second quarter. Jeff Teague, the fill-in point guard who had been the surprise of the series, landed on his right arm along the baseline. He went straight to the X-ray room, his arm dangling limply beside him as he trotted off in obvious pain.
It was only a sprain, but Teague had it taped heavily when he returned late in the second quarter. During breaks, he rubbed at the tape and kept flexing his wrist. The second-year player wasn’t a factor, scoring just 4 points on 2-of-6 shooting.
But he was hardly the only one who struggled. Al Horford, who had been named to the All-NBA third team earlier in the day, went 2-of-10. So did Jamal Crawford.
The Bulls raced out to a big lead for the second game in a row, led by Boozer. He had 13 points, four rebounds and two assists in the first half as Chicago led by as many at 17.
Atlanta made a late surge, the crowd on its feet when Smith pulled off a spectacular dunk on a lob from Johnson -- despite getting a shove from Noah as he was soaring toward the hoop.
But a big call went against Smith, costing the Hawks a chance to cut the gap to single figures before halftime. He scored off another fast break, and the referees had to confer before ruling the Rose had drawn the offensive foul. Smith grabbed his head in disbelief and pleaded with the officials, to no avail.
Chicago settled for a 45-35 halftime lead.
A moment of silence was held in advance of the singing of the national athem in honor of NBC Chicago's Daryl Hawks, who died in Atlanta Thursday morning.
|Coach Tom Thibodeau and MVP Guard Derrick Rose talk about their Eastern Conference Semifinal win and the next challenge they face.|