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Bulls Mon May 02 2011

Bulls' Quest Continues Against Atlanta

With the first round done and dusted, albeit with more difficulty than most people expected, the Bulls begin the Eastern Conference semifinals tonight at home against fifth-seeded Atlanta. The athletic Hawks knocked off Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic to get here, so they're eminently capable of challenging a top seed like Chicago. But if anyone can take apart an opponent, it's NBA coach of the year Tom Thibodeau.

This is the point at which earning that No. 1 seed pays off, as the Bulls get to watch the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat face off in what will almost certainly end up being seven games of tough, competitive, high-pressure basketball. That's not to say the Bulls can take it easy, however, as the Hawks will definitely present a few challenges along the way.

1. Battle on the boards

Carlos Boozer has a painful toe injury, but he said this morning he plans to play in Game 1. The bigger question is, healthy or not, how effective will he be? The Bulls power forward averaged 10 points and 10.2 rebounds in the first round, shooting 35.8 percent from the field -- not quite what the Bulls expected they'd get when they signed him for $75 million last summer.

Joakim Noah, the other banged-up big man, has seemed to regain the form that abandoned him near the end of the regular season, as he had a couple great games against Indiana and averaged 12 points and 10.6 rebounds in the series -- and of course, played far better defense than Boozer. His energy in particular will be a huge asset against an Atlanta team that's known to take entire quarters off.

But nevertheless, the matchups here are the toughest for the Bulls, as Al Horford and Jason Collins must be respected down low after they helped the Hawks get past Howard. They didn't shut him down, but mentally their confidence must be sky-high right now. Horford had a heck of a game against the Bulls this year with 31 points and 16 rebounds, in a game that both Noah and Boozer played. Simply put, if Boozer doesn't find his game, Horford alone will be good enough to steal a game or two for Atlanta and drag this series out.

2. Rose blooming in full

It was funny this week to see pundits ask "Who's going to guard Derrick Rose if Kirk Hinrich can't play?" Hinrich has done a lot for Atlanta, most notably on the defensive end, since coming over from Washington mid-season, but it's hard to imagine he alone could have stopped the presumed MVP.

He could have helped, but after straining a hamstring in the Hawks' series-clinching victory against Orlando, Hinrich is doubtful to play against the Bulls at all.

Rose isn't taking that news lightly, proclaiming that Jeff Teague will still present a challenge, but let's get real: Derrick Rose has the chance to truly go off this series, probably increase his scoring average to 30-plus per game. He alone can do so much to control these games, as long as he plays with his full arsenal of skills. He dropped six 3-pointers in one quarter against Hinrich and the Hawks back in March, so if he has the open looks because defenders are playing off him, he'll get his points there. If they play him close, he's got the first step to get inside the lane over and over again, where he'll force Horford & Co. to foul him, making Noah and Boozer's job a little easier.

We've said all season long that as Rose goes, so do the Bulls, but the matchups he'll see this series present a great opportunity for the young point guard to reach new heights.

3. Find your shooting touch

In Josh Smith and Joe Johnson, the Hawks actually have a great pair of players capable of outplaying Luol Deng and the ever-rotating Cerberus of Keith Bogans, Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer. Depending on Rose's freedom, the ball might be getting dished out to the wings and if so, the Bulls need to hit their shots because Smith and Johnson are certainly capable of hitting theirs. Johnson averaged 18 points a game against the Magic in the first round and Smith is a momentum-swinger with incredible athletic ability.

Deng has been outstanding for the Bulls all season and I see no reason for that to stop, particularly on the offensive end. His length will do a lot defensively to limit the Hawks' good looks, and as long as Thibodeau has the freedom to keep rotating in the offensively-minded Korver and the defensively-sound Bogans and Brewer, the Bulls should take this category, though not by much.

The biggest issue for Atlanta, other than Hinrich's injury, is their general attitude. They had a 3-1 lead against the Magic and the chance to close them out, but proceeded to play a completely lackluster Game Five, content to give the Magic that game and then win the series in Atlanta.

The team-first mentality that Thibodeau has instilled in Chicago is leaps and bounds above the mindset in Atlanta, and that will show itself clearly as the series goes on. It's hard to call a second-round series an easy one, particularly with the struggles the Bulls had against the Pacers, but make no mistake: This is a huge advantage for the Bulls to be playing the Hawks and not Miami or Boston. If they can play to their potential every night, they'll get the chance for some good time off before what would be an epic conference finals.

 
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