Rose helps Bulls close out Hawks with cold-blooded execution
ATLANTA -- With 4:57 remaining in a series that produced some intriguing storylines if not last-second drama, Derrick Rose slapped palms with C.J. Watson and headed for the Chicago bench. He walked down a line of teammates, grabbed his black sweat jacket and sat down to witness reserves on both teams determine the final score.
When the buzzer did sound, and the scoreboard read Bulls 93, Hawks 73, there were no cathartic screams as there were in Miami the previous night. The Bulls disposed of the Hawks in six games, and there is more work to be done.
"We have a goal, and that is to continue toward a championship," said Taj Gibson in a satisfied but not overly celebratory Bulls locker room. "We're excited, but we have a long way to go."
If you want to stir some emotion on the Bulls' side, simply hint that Rose is a one-man show and that Chicago's fate against Miami and beyond rests entirely on No. 1.
"Anybody that knows basketball knows our supporting cast is there every time," said Luol Deng, who filled up the box score with 13 points, five rebounds, five assists and five steals. "We play great team defense.
"Offensively, people always are looking for something to say. We came in here and Derrick scored 44 (in Game 3) and we won by a lot. Tonight, he didn't have as much (19), and we won by a lot. In both games, it was our defense that won it, not really our offense."
Defense, and the rejuvenated Carlos Boozer, were the primary factors in this one-sided series-clinching win. The Bulls held the Hawks to 37 percent shooting and didn't allow the home team to cross the 50-point barrier until just over two minutes remained in the third quarter. The Hawks shot three air balls -- on one possession -- and connected on just 1-of-11 three-pointers.
"You cannot settle against a team like this," Hawks coach Larry Drew said. "They zero in on that pretty well. We did not respond to their defense tonight."
At the other end, Boozer poured in 23 points on 10-of-16 shooting, burning the Hawks over and over with jump shots off pick-and-pop plays with Rose.
"Derrick gets so much attention, both guys go to him and I'm wide open," Boozer said.
Rose was a willing distributor, especially in the first half, when he was the team's fourth-leading scorer with seven points. He finished with 12 assists, and the Bulls as a whole had a stellar 34 assists on 41 baskets.
"We shared the ball, we took care of it, we had a good all-around game," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said.
Chicago's reliance on Rose was brought up several times in the postgame Q&A's, but there was ample evidence in Thursday's romp that the Bulls can have success looking elsewhere. In addition to Boozer and Deng's productive nights, Thibodeau even went with a five-man bench unit of Gibson, Kyle Korver, Omer Asik, Watson and Ronnie Brewer for over five minutes to start the second quarter, and lost nothing off Chicago's 10-point lead. The play of the night may have been made by the combination of Keith Bogans, Boozer and Asik, who combined an offensive rebound and some nifty passing to lead to an Asik three-point play.
The second-round win, Chicago's first since Michael Jordan's final Bulls team in 1998, sets up a battle of the Eastern Conference's top two seeds. The last time the Heat faced the Bulls, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade both missed shots in the final six seconds and the Bulls survived 87-86, sweeping the season series 3-0. After the game, coach Erik Spoelstra famously leaked that players were crying in the locker room following the Heat's fourth consecutive loss.
If Miami has been crying recently, they have been tears of joy after dispatching Boston in Game 5 on Wednesday. James and Wade were particularly strong in the closing moments of Games 4 and 5 against the Celtics, solving the late-game problems that plagued the Heat in all three losses to the Bulls this season. The Heat had the ball down two, three and one on the final possession in those three games against Chicago and failed to score each time.
"They are a lot better now than when we played them," Deng said. "They just beat a great Boston team. If that game was at the beginning of the year, I don't think they would have won it."
The Bulls leave behind an Atlanta team that has lost in the second round three straight seasons. The question is, did the Hawks make progress this season? After deciding to keep the core of the team together and replace coach Mike Woodson over the summer, the Hawks had an up-and-down regular season that produced nine fewer wins. This playoff showing, despite Thursday's grim ending, was the best of their four-year run and gives the impressions that progress is still being made. Jeff Teague has certainly been a find at point guard, and the trio of Joe Johnson, Al Horford and Josh Smith will continue to keep the Hawks near the top of the Eastern Conference.
"This team has more than second-round talent," Smith said. "We're a veteran group. We maybe need a little more added help, and we'll be fine."
Chicago was more than fine Thursday, sealing the series with coldblooded execution. The Bulls never let the Hawks threaten in front of its sellout crowd, showing a level of focus that will be needed in the next two weeks. Rose closed his night with a promise.
"The next series," he said, "is going to be fun."