The thorn in Derrick's rose
By Homer D. Sayson
11 May 2011
It was supposed to be a given, the No.1 seed, the Beast in the East who won 62 of 82 regular games, taking on a lowly No.5 seed that barely made the playoffs with 44 wins.
But what was presumed to be a coronation is slowly unfolding as a stiff competition. No thanks to these Atlanta Hawks, a stubborn underdog unwilling to follow the script.
And so stands this best-of-7 Eastern Conference Semifinals match-up between the Bulls and the Hawks, tied at 2-2 with Game 5 set Tuesday night at the United Center in Chicago. It's a shocker to say the least.
Led by 6-foot-3 league MVP Derrick Rose, the Bulls were thought to be too fast and too quick. The Bulls have surrendered a meager 89.9 points per game in this postseason and were thus regarded too tough for the freewheeling, jumpshooting Hawks.
But the Hawks have ignored both the stats and the grim prognosis. Projected to last no more than Game 5, the Hawks have valiantly extended this Round 2 showdown to at least a Game 6. Up against the NBA's No. 1 defense, the Hawks had the audacity to score 103 points in Game 1 and 100 in Game 4. They shot a combined field goal average of 51.5 percent in those twin triumphs.
So what's up with these Bulls?
Rose, who holds a series average of 31.8 points and 9.3 assists, remains the most fateful barometer of his team's success or failure. When he shoots well and scores big, like the 44 he dropped in Game 3, the Bulls win. When he struggles, as shown in Game 4, when he missed 20 of 32 shots, the Bulls lose.
Electrifying as he clearly is, D-Rose needs help. And he's not getting much in way of a reliable second scorer.
Luol Deng was superb in the opening two games of the series at the United Center, scoring 21 in Game 1 and 14 in Game 2. But he turned magician in Games 3 and Game 4 and disappeared at the Philips Arena in Atlanta. The 6-foot-9 Deng managed just 20 points on the road, making only 8 of his 24 shots.
Aaaah, there was a Carlos Boozer sighting in Game 4 --- 18 points and 6 rebounds. But ooohh, the 6-foot-9 Boozer continues to underwhelm overall as he still has that nagging turf toe. Ergo, the Bulls and their anxious fans aren't counting on their $80 million power forward to save the day.
MEANWHILE, the Hawks are getting more and more confident as this series drags, particularly Josh Smith. "There are people who don't understand the game, who don't know the game. That doesn't faze me," he said.
"My teammates matter more than anybody else. They believe in me. They have confidence in my game. When I was in my rut, they told me to stay positive, to stay in the game, just do what I'd been doing all season long. I stayed with it and had the game I had tonight," Smith told reporters.
Smith, a 6-foot-9 240-pound forward, is only 25 years young. He is much maligned for being a softy and as of late been needled frequently for his underachieving playoffs averages that pale in comparison to his gargantuan $11.7 million salary this season.
But when Game 4, rolled along, Smith bounced back with a ruthless vengeance. He scored 23 points, grabbed 16 rebounds and dished 8 assists. Smith was also hyperactive on defense, snatching a lone steal and blocking a couple shots in 44 minutes of action.
With his mojo back, the Hawks hope Smith will stay as the thorn in both the Bulls' and MVP Derrick's rose.
MAKE no mistake, though, the Bulls are still favored to punch a ticket to the Eastern Conference Finals againt either the sinking Boston Celtics or the rising Miami Heat. After all, two of this series' remaining three games will take place at the raucous United Center in Chicago.
For the Bulls to take Game 5, it cannot stagger into a slow start, like they did in Games 1 and 4. And their defense can't let Atlanta have it's way on offense, 23 assists and 40 of 81 field goals made in Game 4.
Reinforced by their newfound swagger, the Hawks have more than just a puncher's chance in this pivotal Game 5. But bravado alone can't get the job done.
The Hawks need to shoot well from the field. They must limit their turnovers and create a lot of ball movement against the faster, quicker Bulls defense. The Hawks don't have to win the rebounds battle, but they can't afford to be outrebounded badly like they did in Game 2, 58-39.
Unless they resort to something violent and illegal, the Hawks can't stop D-Rose. But they can contain him, force him off the paint, turn him into a jumpshooter, and pray hard that he misses a lot more shots than he makes.
Will the Hawks continue to fly high? Or will the Bulls stampede, derailed in Atlanta, will move on as planned.
Game 5 tonight. Should be a good one. (HDS)
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