Cumberland Times-News

Basketball

May 13, 2011

Chicago off to 1st conference final since ’98

— ATLANTA — Turns out, the Chicago Bulls are more than just a one-man team.

Derrick Rose sure had plenty of help in this one.

Next up: the Eastern Conference final, against Miami and the Big Three.

Carlos Boozer scored 23 points, Rose doled out 12 assists in more of a supporting role and the Bulls cruised past the Atlanta Hawks 93-73 on Thursday night, wrapping up the East semifinal in six games.

“It’s huge for us to get this far,” Rose said. “We’re happy to get the conference finals, but we’re not planning to stop right there.”

The Bulls haven’t been this far since 1998, when Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were on their way to a second three-peat. Pippen sat near the Chicago bench, relishing a new generation that’s carried his old team into contention for another championship.

“When we showed up for training camp, we knew we could be special,” Rose said. “We were ready to put in the work and not be concerned with statistics. We just were concerned with winning each night.”

As if to prove his point, Rose took a playoff-low 14 shots and finished with 19 points, his second-lowest total of the postseason. This was a textbook performance by the guys around him, each of them comfortable in a supporting role, each of them willing to do the dirty work at the defensive end.

The most impressive number: Chicago had assists on all but seven of its 31 baskets. Or, come to think of it, maybe it was this stat: The Hawks shot just 37 percent (27 of 74) and rarely got an open look.

“If anything, our defense won this game,” said Rose, who had been averaging nearly 30 points a game in the playoffs.

At the other end, Boozer kept winding up with the ball with no one around, and kept knocking down jump shots. He went 10-of-16 from the field, grabbed 10 rebounds and handed out five assists.

“D-Rose gets so much attention,” said Boozer, who had been bothered by a toe injury and come under criticism at home for inconsistent play. “The 15-footer was open for me. I shot it.”

Luol Deng hit some big baskets early and finished with 13 points, plus five steals. Joakim Noah scored 11 and stifled the Hawks with three blocks. Omer Asik chipped in with two swats of his own. Keith Bogans made only one basket, but it was a big 3-pointer as the Bulls put it away in the third quarter.

And, boy, did everyone play some defense.

“What goes underrated about them is the depth of their team,” said Atlanta’s Al Horford, who had a miserable night and a tough series overall. “They just wear on you. They just kept coming, kept coming every game. It seemed like their starters were fresh.”

The Bulls fell on hard times after the glorious M.J. era, including three straight 60-loss seasons. But they have put together a deep, talented team that won more games than anyone during the regular season.

Yep, even more than the ballyhooed Heat, whose collection of stars runs three-deep with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, who came together in south Florida knowing anything less than a title would be considered a failure.

First, they’ll have to get by the Bulls.

Game 1 is Sunday in Chicago.

“It’s going to be a great matchup,” Rose said. “We’re fine with being considered the underdog.”

Atlanta had hoped to extend this series to a Game 7, feeling the pressure would be squarely on the Bulls if it came down to a winner-take-all. But Chicago squashed those hopes right from the opening tip. The Bulls never trailed, and the lead was 10 by the end of the first quarter.

The Hawks had been in that position before. They fell behind by 15 in Game 5, then fought back to lead early in the fourth quarter. Chicago dominated down the stretch for a 13-point win, but the Bulls weren’t about to cut it that close again.

With the loss, Atlanta extended an infamous playoff mark: The Hawks have never advanced past the second round since moving from St. Louis in 1968.

Joe Johnson led the Hawks with 19 points. Josh Smith was the only other player in double figures with 18. The Hawks went 1-of-11 from beyond the 3-point arc.

“They just got on a roll,” Johnson said. “Boozer probably had his best game that he played all series. ... You have him scoring and playing big like that, obviously they’re going to be tough to beat.”

Deng went down early, landing hard after Smith got a piece of him going for the block. Deng was OK, staying in the game to shoot a pair of free throws after a timeout.

Then Atlanta got its own scare early in the second quarter. Jeff Teague, the fill-in point guard who had been the surprise of the series, had a nasty fall along the baseline. He went straight to the X-ray room, his right arm dangling limply beside him as he trotted off in obvious pain.

Nothing was broken, but it turned out both wrists were sprained. He returned late in the second quarter all taped up, but it didn’t help much. During breaks, he rubbed at the tape and kept flexing his wrist. The second-year player wasn’t a factor, scoring just 4 points on 2-of-6 shooting.

“It was pretty bad,” Teague said. “It was pretty tough to hold the ball. There was no way I could shoot the ball.”

But he was hardly the only one who struggled. Horford, who had been named to the All-NBA third team earlier in the day, went 2-of-10. So did Jamal Crawford, the victim of persistent double-teaming ever since he had a big game in Atlanta’s surprising Game 1 win.

Chicago led by as many as 17 in the first half, with Boozer leading the way. He had 13 points, four rebounds and two assists at the break.

Atlanta made a late surge, the crowd on its feet when Smith pulled off a spectacular dunk on a lob from Johnson — despite getting a shove from Noah as he was soaring toward the hoop.

But a big call went against Smith, costing the Hawks a chance to cut the gap to single figures before halftime. He scored off another fast break, and the referees had to confer before ruling the Rose had drawn the offensive foul. Smith grabbed his head in disbelief and pleaded with the officials, to no avail.

Chicago settled for a 45-35 halftime lead and never let the margin below double figures over the final two quarters.

Notes: The Hawks stuck with their big lineup, starting Jason Collins at center for the third straight game and bringing F Marvin Williams off the bench. Williams failed to score in 15 minutes. ... Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau on Atlanta C Zaza Pachulia, who’s been accused of going down a little too easily trying to draw fouls: “He sells. That’s all I’ll say: he sells.” ... Chicago’s Taj Gibson had 10 points and four rebounds in less than 14 minutes.

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