Friday, April 29, 2011
Posted: 9:30 a.m.
By Aggrey Sam
With Thursday night's series-ending win over Orlando, Atlanta moved on to the second round, where they will take on the top-seeded Bulls. After falling to their division rival in a historic sweep a year ago, the Hawks avenged the embarrassing defeat and shocked observers by utilizing a one-on-one defense strategy against Magic All-Star center Dwight Howard to win the first-round matchup in just four games.
Former Bulls guards Jamal Crawford and Kirk Hinrich were key to Atlanta's success, as Crawford's prolific scoring off the bench certainly tilted the scales in the series, while Hinrich's defense on point-guard counterpart Jameer Nelson was crucial. Unfortunately for both Hinrich and Atlanta, the veteran guard suffered a right-hamstring injury just after making a clutch layup late in Thursday's win.
READ: NBA releases Bulls vs. Hawks schedule
While Hinrich, who will reportedly have an MRI Friday, wasn't expected to shut down Bulls point guard Derrick Rose, he's the only player on the Hawks roster with any semblance of hope of defending him. Against Orlando, Atlanta sent out a legion of big men--Jason Collins, Hilton Armstrong, Josh Powell and classic playoff irritant Zaza Pachulia--to guard Howard, but surely first-year Hawks head coach Larry Drew understands simply sending Rose to the line isn't the answer (as the Pacers quickly found out in the first round) and regardless, there isn't a similar army of backup point guards available to wear him down, as Crawford and seldom-used second-year reserve Jeff Teague are the team's only alternatives behind Hinrich.
Rose isn't the only mismatch the Bulls pose against Atlanta. Of the three regular-season matchups between the two teams, all in March, Chicago easily won the final two contests, after blowing a huge halftime lead at Philips Arena to narrowly lose in the first game.
The Bulls dominated the backboards--as they did against most opponents--for the most part and with the Hawks playing an isolation-heavy offense based around the one-on-one abilities of Crawford and All-Star swingman Joe Johnson, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau's help-ready scheme is perfectly suited to defending them. Atlanta's other All-Star, undersized center Al Horford, lit up the Bulls as the protagonist in Atlanta's comeback win, but wasn't a major factor in the other two affairs.
Not only are the Bulls a tough matchup, but in the chess match that is the postseason, the Hawks must now switch gears after focusing on Howard and Orlando's cadre of long-range specialists. Additionally, Atlanta doesn't enjoy a consistent home-court advantage at "The Highlight Factory"--a famously late-arriving crowd--puzzlingly either getting blown out or losing to inferior guests on occasion, while other times rising to the challenge against elite competition, such as the come-from-behind win over Chicago.
WATCH: One-on-one with Bulls VP John Paxson
From the Bulls' perspective, one thing the series will provide is a chance for much-maligned power forward Carlos Boozer to get back on track. Throughout the first-round series against Indiana, criticism of his performance only increased, despite Chicago putting away the Pacers in five games.
Boozer's right-toe injury, regardless of skepticism of its timing, should have adequate time to heal, especially with the team taking two days off from practice after advancing to the second round (the likes of Rose, Luol Deng and Keith Bogans are others who were in need of a break to rest nagging injuries), but more important is him regaining his confidence, as well as that of his teammates and coaches, who are saying all the right things publicly, but have to be alternately concerned and disappointed at his playoff production thus far. Matched up with an Atlanta frontline ill-equipped to defend him--opposing power forward Josh Smith is one of the league's most athletic players, but lacks Boozer's strength, while Horford will likely be matched up with a lesser offensive threat to keep him out of foul trouble; the same Hawks centers who sacrificed their bodies to guard Howard won't be able to use the same tactics to successfully defend a well functioning Boozer's blend of finesse and power--this series is ideal for the free-agent acquisition to recover his swagger, while not having to guard an offensive focal point.
If Boozer doesn't regain his past form, backup Taj Gibson will likely be up to the challenge. Gibson matches up well with the athletic Hawks and his confidence is soaring after playing productive minutes in Boozer's stead, despite Thibodeau limiting his minutes as the Pacers series first got underway.
Outside of Crawford--who likely becomes a starter if Hinrich is out--Chicago possesses a major advantage in depth and while Thibodeau has mostly observed the postseason custom of playing his starters more minutes, Atlanta is a team the Bulls can wear down with their manpower, perhaps giving "The Bench Mob" one more opportunity to show its value. Besides defensive question marks at point guard and in the post, the Hawks are also susceptible on the wing, presenting Deng with a chance to build on his solid first-round efforts, not to mention sharpshooter Kyle Korver, whose movement without the ball is different than the spot-up philosophy undertaken by Orlando.
Overall, this series, which begins Monday night at the United Center, is a better matchup--at least on paper--for the Bulls than were the scrappy, underrated Pacers. Given Atlanta's inconsistent nature and the possibility of Hinrich being out or at the least, limited, expect Chicago to close things out in five games on the way to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they will take on the winner of the highly-anticipated Celtics-Heat series.
Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.com's Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.