Second round matchup with Hawks favors Bulls

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Second round matchup with Hawks favors Bulls

Friday, April 29, 2011
Posted: 9:30 a.m.

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

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.

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Isaiah Thomas carries Celtics at critical times to save series against Bulls

Isaiah Thomas carries Celtics at critical times to save series against Bulls

Isaiah Thomas carries Celtics at critical times to save series against Bulls

The Celtics season was unraveling, and their face of the franchise was stumbling down the stretch. The opposing Bulls had used a 40-18 run spanning the second and third quarters to take their first lead. Jimmy Butler was hearing “M-V-P” chants from the crowd of nearly 22,000 and the Celtics looked lost, just as they had at times in Game 1 and 2 losses.

And Isaiah Thomas, the MVP candidate who had carried the Celtics all season, was at the front of the miscues. In just 4 third-quarter minutes he missed two shots, turned the ball over three times and committed his third and fourth personal fouls, the latter occurring on a charge during a 3-on-1 fast break. Knowing he’d need his All-Star point guard down the stretch of what was quickly becoming a tight contest, Brad Stevens subbed out Thomas with the hope that the Celtics could keep close their eight-point lead at the time.

Instead, the Bulls kept their foot on the gas, eyeing a 3-1 series lead behind the driving force of Jimmy Butler. The Bulls’ own All-Star helped manufacture a 12-0 run that put the Bulls, down by as many as 20 late in the second quarter, ahead for the first time, 65-63.

Thomas reentered with the score tied at 63, missing his first shot that set up the Bulls’ go-ahead basket from Robin Lopez. Following that basket, Thomas strung together the most important stretch of basketball this season in a 4-minute span that saved the game, and potentially the season.

The Bulls’ lead was brief, as Thomas twice drove to the basket and connected on layups to put the Celtics ahead. Next he found Al Hoford on a pick-and-roll set that the duo had run to perfection in Game 3. Thomas then took two trips to the free-throw line, burying all four attempts, and capped the quarter with a pair of assists to Kelly Olynyk that pushed the lead to 10. All told, Thomas had a hand in all 16 of the Celtics points scored after the Bulls took their lead.

The Celtics managed to hide Thomas defensively – he finished with just the four fouls – and the Bulls only managed to get within five in the fourth quarter (with Thomas on the bench) before the All Star point guard closed the door to even the series heading back to Boston for Game 5 on Wednesday.

“The game was not going our direction and the worst that could happen is somebody fouls out of a game,” Stevens said. “Isaiah’s a big part of our offense and we needed to feel better about ourselves and we tweaked the defense a little bit there to try to protect him, but we didn’t feel like he could sit right there. Things were not going our way.”

Much of the night belonged to the Celtics, even if the Bulls did manage to erase the 20-point deficit. The Bulls’ defensive strategy in Game 3 to limit Thomas, who was second in the league in scoring, to just 18 points, his second lowest point total of the year. Thomas’ nine assists were crucial in Friday’s win, but the Celtics wanted him attacking the basket.

They set higher pick-and-rolls to allow Thomas room to take Robin Lopez off the dribble, and the Boston again playing a small-ball lineup the floor was spaced enough to allow Thomas to attack the rim; just two of Thomas’ 10 makes came outside the restricted area, and his 13 free-throw attempts were a stark contrast after he tallied zero in Game 3. Thomas was a team-high +17 in the nine-point win. His 33  points were the most he had scored in the series.

“It helps us feel a lot more confident when he’s on the floor because he’s able to make plays, not only for himself but other guys on the team,” Avery Bradley said. “Sometimes we need him getting in the paint, kicking it out, and hitting the next guy because it’s contagious.”

Thomas’ third-quarter stretch was his best, but not the only time he contributed. The 5-foot-9 Thomas scored 10 points in the first quarter as the Celtics pushed their lead to as many as 14 points. He hadded six more in the second quarter as the Bulls deployed three different point guards – Jerian Grant, Michael Carter-Williams and Isaiah Canaan – at him, as well as Jimmy Butler.

Thomas remained focused as the Bulls’ carousel of point guards with Rajon Rondo out continued to to turn.

“I just try to play the same way no matter who’s out there on the floor. I got a job to do and that’s score the basketball, make plays for others on this team and be a leader,” Thomas said, speaking to the media for the first time this postseason. “So it doesn’t really matter what the other team’s doing because I’ve got to do my job and I’ve got to do it at a high level for us to win.”

Thomas went for the kill shot in the fourth quarter and delivered. Two baskets from Game 1 hero Bobby Portis cut the Bulls’ deficit to five, prompting Stevens to sub in Thomas, Bradley and Jae Crowder earlier than he would have liked. No matter. Thomas drove twice to the basket on successive possessions and scored both times, including a three-point play. That pushed the Celtics’ lead back to 10 in just 90 seconds, and the Bulls didn’t get close than eight the rest of the way.

Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg vented frustration with the officials following the game, noting that Thomas becomes an “impossible guard” when he’s allowed to carry the basketball during his dribble. Thomas said he couldn’t remember a time this season when he was called for carrying – in reality he’s been called for it three times, though not since January.

It was a strategic tactic for Hoiberg to deploy, hoping for any chance to slow down Thomas. The Celtics point guard is heating up at the perfect time, and he’s doing so while still trying to find his three-point shot. Once that starts working the Bulls will need to once again adjust on the fly. As for Hoiberg’s comment, Thomas echoed during his postgame availability what he showed earlier on Sunday night.

“That,” he said with a smile, “is not the reason why I’m an impossible cover.”