Bulls-Hawks Preview

After getting past the Indiana Pacers and Orlando Magic, the Bulls and
Atlanta Hawks will matchup in the second round of the Eastern Conference
playoffs starting Monday, May 2 at the United Center (7pm CT). The 1-5
matchup doesn't have the flare that the Miami Heat (2) and Boston
Celtics (3) series has, nor should it last as long.

It took the
Bulls five games to eliminate the Pacers, while the fifth-seeded Hawks managed to
get by the fourth-seeded Magic in six. A five-seed defeating a four-seed isn't normally viewed as a catastrophic upset,
however, with the way the Hawks finished the season -- losing their final
six games -- not many saw the upset coming.
Credit the Hawks, though. They played with plenty of swagger against
the Magic, who swept the Hawks in the 2010 playoffs. Not many folks picked
the Hawks, but they stunned the Magic in Game 1 and never let up.

Despite
several dramatic moments, the series between the two teams was very
hard to watch. Neither team played smart basketball, as both had a
tendency to attempt shots early in the shot clock and were primarily
jump-shooting teams. The Hawks and Magic have many flaws -- but the
Hawks had less. And that's why they won the series.

The Bulls had
some trouble with the pesky Pacers the first four games, but enough was
enough, said the Bulls, as they blew out Indiana 116-89 in the
series-clinching Game 5.

Kirk Hinrich--Game 6.jpg

Kirk Hinrich, who played seven seasons in Chicago, is doubtful against the Bulls in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

     

Some may view the Bulls' struggles in
Games 1 through 4 as a negative as they head into the second round, but
for a team as young and inexperienced as the Bulls, it's good to face
(and get through) adversity early. As long as they don't face some in
round two and beyond, Bulls fans will be breathing easy.

Let's take a look at the best-of-seven series between the top-seeded Bulls and fifth-seeded Hawks: 

Regular Season Meetings: The
Bulls won two of three against the Hawks in the regular season,
however, the two teams didn't meet until March 2, which is unusual in
the NBA schedule. Still, the Bulls had success against the Hawks -- even
in their lone loss.

Game 1:
The Bulls lost the first game of the season series 83-80 in Atlanta. It
was an uneven game for the Bulls, who led by as much as 19 points. The
Hawks got 31 points and 16 rebounds from Al Horford, who had his way
with Joakim Noah, his former teammate in college, and Omer Asik. Kurt
Thomas was a DNP-CD -- keep that in mind.

Derrick Rose struggled
mightily in that game, although you couldn't tell from the 12-point,
12-assist stat line. However, he committed six of the 16 turnovers by
the Bulls and shot 5-for-21 from the field (0-for-6 from three). Kirk
Hinrich, whose status is doubtful (per Yahoo! Sports) heading into Game 1, did a tremendous job on Rose even though he struggled offensively (three points).

"I made some careless passes," Rose said after the loss, per Yahoo! Sports. "The game was definitely on
me.
... But I guarantee it won't happen again."

True to his word, it didn't.

Game 2
The Bulls blew out the Hawks 94-76 in their second meeting about a week
after losing by three points. Rose was sloppy in the first meeting, but
dropped 34 points in this one.

Then, the Bulls reeled off 14
consecutive points; 12 of the 14 points coming from Rose. Although Rose
shot just 9-for-24, he went 14-for-15 from the free-throw line and took
the game over when the Bulls trailed early in the second half.

After
blowing a 19-point lead in the first game, you knew Rose and the Bulls
would come out with a better effort in the second meeting. Better yet,
they built on it in the third and final meeting.

Game 3:
The Bulls and Hawks matched up for the final time in the regular season
on March 22 -- oddly enough, they played all three games in March. This
one was all Bulls from the beginning, as they held a 10-point lead
after one quarter and a 29-point one at halftime.

Rose scored 30
points in 29 minutes and added 10 assists. Unlike the first two games,
Rose was very efficient in this one, shooting 11-for-20 from the field
including six three's. It was another game to put in Rose's MVP résumé,
as the game was nationally televised and got to the point where Rose
began getting loud "M-V-P! M-V-P ..." chants.

In Atlanta!

Luol Deng chipped in 27 points in 33 minutes -- with 11 of the 27 points coming in the first quarter.

If
the first three games are any indications -- the Bulls' wins came by an
average of 25 and a half points -- then there's nothing to worry about
in this best-of-seven series.

Starters Breakdown:

PG--Derrick Rose vs. Kirk Hinrich: Hinrich is reportedly doubtful for
the semifinals against the Bulls due to a "significant strain" to his
right hamstring, per Marc Spears of Yahoo! Sports.
Sixth man extraordinaire Jamal Crawford would take Hinrich's spot in
the starting lineup, but he's a major downgrade defensively. They can go
with Joe Johnson on Rose and Crawford on Bogans, though. Will the Hawks
use the Pacers strategy -- double-team Rose? We'll see. Still, Rose
averaged 28 points against Indiana. He's pretty good, and should have
his way with Hinrich, Crawford, or Teague. Edge: Bulls

SG--Keith
Bogans vs. Joe Johnson: Bogans was good for the Bulls in the close-out
Game 5, scoring 15 points on 5-for-7 from three, but don't expect Bogans
to hit double-digits much, if at all. Johnson averaged 18 points in the
first round, behind Jamal Crawford's team-leading 20 points. The Bulls
did a good job defensively on Johnson during the regular season, who
averaged 14 points on 39 percent shooting against the Bulls.
Nonetheless, Johnson is a very quality scorer and will be atop the
Bulls' game plan to defend the Hawks. He can, however, shoot the Hawks
out of games. Edge: Hawks

SF--Luol Deng vs. Josh Smith:
Smith effects the game on both ends of the court for the Hawks; he's
also very exciting to watch when he has his head on straight. He's a bit
inconsistent, though: He averaged 14 points in the first round but
scored below 10 in two of the six games. Deng, meanwhile, averaged
nearly 19 points in the first round. With Carlos Boozer struggling, the
Bulls needed to provide an offensive punch for the Bulls, and it should
be much of the same against the Hawks. Hawks: Bulls

PF--Carlos
Boozer vs. Al Horford: With the Hawks running Jason Collins at center,
Horford is back to his position of choice, power forward. Don't expect
Boozer to be defending Horford much during the series, as it will likely
be Joakim Noah to begin games. Kurt Thomas did not play in Game 5
against the Pacers, but it's possible Tom Thibodeau did that
intentionally to save his legs for round two against Dwight Howard or
Horford, who scored a combined 20 points against the Bulls in the final
two regular season matchups after having a monster game during the
teams' first meeting. Horford averaged 12 points and 10 rebounds in the
first round, shooting 40 percent in the first round, which was a bit
higher than Boozer's 36 percent shooting. It's tough to give Boozer the
edge, but he isn't as bad as his first round showing. Edge: Hawks

C--Joakim
Noah vs. Jason Collins: Collins, a seven-footer, is simply starting
because of his defense and size, which enables the Hawks to use Horford
at power forward. However, he's putrid offensively, scoring eight points
in total in the first round. Noah should have his way on the glass and
on the break -- there's no chance Collins can run with him in
transition. Because of that, it's totally possible we'll be seeing
Collins on Boozer and Horford on Noah. Those matchups make plenty of
sense for both teams: Collison can defend the more skilled low-post
threat in Boozer, while Horford can use his superior speed (compared to
Collins) to run around with Noah, who had a very solid first round,
averaging 12 points and just under 11 rebounds. He's brought the energy
and defense for the Bulls through the first round; we should see much of
the same in round two. Edge: Bulls

Bench: The Bulls bench
didn't play a major role in the first round -- each reserve saw a dip
in minutes compared to the regular season with the exception of Kyle
Korver, who averaged 10 points and 21 minutes versus the Pacers.

Thibodeau
has his rotation set, and you won't be seeing a Boozer benching despite
his struggles, however, Taj Gibson is becoming a major contributor for
the Bulls. If Boozer continues to struggle, Gibson will get plenty of
minutes, and we saw some of that in Game 5 as Gibson played 30 minutes
compared to Boozer's 15 and a half.

The Hawks don't have a deep
bench, but they have Crawford, last season's NBA Sixth Man of the Year.
That Hawks bench gets significantly weaker if Crawford's forced to move
into the starting lineup. Without Crawford's 20 points, the Hawks bench
averaged 10 points in the first round.

Other reserves who the
Bulls will be seeing a lot are Zaza Pachulia and Marvin Williams,
although neither are effective offensively. The Bulls bench clearly has
an edge depth-wise, and should have the edge overall if Crawford moves
to the starting lineup. Edge (assuming Hinrich out): Bulls

Coach: Hawks
coach Larry Drew has done a solid job taking a 44-victory Hawks team
past the first round, especially considering the way they finished the
season. His counterpart, Thibodeau, will likely win Coach of the Year
after leading the Bulls to 62 wins this season.

It's funny,
because had the Hawks, for example, been swept by the Magic, Drew's job
would have been in jeopardy. Oh, how things change so quick.

Thibodeau
has done a good job with the Bulls from day one, instilling focus and
toughness. He's made plenty of in-game adjustments throughout the season
and will have the Bulls ready for the Hawks.

And also do his usual gushing of the opposing team. But that's why he's so good. Edge: Bulls

X-Factors: Boozer
averaged just 10 points in the first round for the Bulls, and is coming
off a two-point, five-rebound game. He struggled versus the Pacers in a
head-scratching way -- Boozer didn't have much lift on his layup or
jump-shot, and simply didn't look like the player who averaged nearly 20
points and 10 rebounds before the All-Star break.

It didn't get
much better for Boozer. In Game 5, Boozer injured his right big toe and
sat out the final 18 minutes of the game. After getting an MRI on
Friday, the original diagnosis of turf toe was confirmed, according to
the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson.

Thibodeau
expects him to play, but hopefully for the Bulls, it's at a higher
level than his first round performance. The Bulls can still win with
Boozer scoring 10 points, but it'd be nice for Rose to get some help in
the second round so he can save some juice for a potential Eastern
Conference finals series with the winner of the Miami Heat-Boston
Celtics series.

For the Hawks to have a legitimate chance of
winning this series, Johnson will need to have a monster series against
the Bulls. In the regular season, Johnson averaged 18 points, his lowest
since the 2004-05 season with the Phoenix Suns.

He's still
capable of putting up big numbers on any given night, but his game has
slowed down this season, as he shot under 30 percent on three-pointers
this season, his lowest since his rookie season and nearly seven points
below his career average (37 percent).

The Bulls will give
Johnson several looks -- from Bogans to Deng to even Korver. If the
Hawks want to stay in the series, they'll need Johnson to go for 20 plus
points on a nightly basis. He struggled against the Bulls during the
regular season, so they certainly have a game-plan to defend the
five-time All-Star.

At this point, it doesn't look like Johnson,
who signed a six-year, $119 million contract this past offseason, has
it in him anymore. Unfortunately, the same can be said about Boozer.

Series Prediction: Hinrich
or not, this should be a fairly quick series for the Bulls. The Hawks
simply have too many flaws, as their undisciplined, one-on-one style of
basketball plays right into the Bulls' hands.

The Bulls came out
in the close-out game versus the Pacers very focused and brought the
energy from the beginning. Expect much of the same in this series. Now
that they have their playoff jitters behind them, the Bulls should blaze
past the Hawks with relative ease.

The Hawks could get one game,
however, with Hinrich listed as doubtful for the series, the Bulls
could bring out the brooms. A strained hamstring is a tough injury; the
Hawks are calling it a "significant" straight, but don't rule out
Hinrich at some point in this series. Maybe not Game 1, but Game 3 or 4
could be a possibility for Hinrich. It would be a shame if Hinrich is
unable to play in a game against his former team.

Hinrich's spot
in the starting lineup would likely be taken by Crawford, with the
backup minutes going to Jeff Teague, who had more DNP-CD (four) than
games played (two) in round one.
 
It could take the Bulls five
games to get past the Hawks, but assuming Hinrich is a no go, do you really think the Hawks
can scrape out even one win? Doubt it. Pick: Bulls in four.

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