CHICAGO -- Minutes before tip-off of Game 2 against Atlanta, Derrick Rose was presented the MVP trophy at midcourt, the youngest player to win the NBA's most coveted honor. Chants of "M-V-P" bellowed from the rafters. The United Center rattled with anticipation. "In a league of very valuable players, you are the most valuable," commissioner David Stern offered upon handing over the award.
Then the game started, and Rose demonstrated exactly why he's so deserving of the title.
Rose was his typically productive self Wednesday, racking up 25 points, 10 assists and six rebounds in a convincing -- and unmistakably critical -- 86-73 win over the Hawks. He silenced any questions about his ankle injury with an arsenal of moves, from a layup that split Jeff Teague and Marvin Williams to open the fourth quarter, to a beautiful chest pass to Carlos Boozer that led to a layup and helped put the game out of reach. He was, quite simply, the best player on the floor.
"My confidence is real high," he said after top-seeded Chicago tied its second-round series with No. 5 Atlanta. "The way that they're playing me, I'm going to continue to shoot."
More specifically, he'll try to get to the free-throw line. After going 16-of-18 from the stripe in the final two regular-season meetings against the Hawks -- both Chicago routs -- Rose drew no trips in Game 1, relying instead on a steady diet of jumpers and ill-advised threes. He returned to form in Game 2, attacking the rim early and often to earn six free-throw attempts.
Rose's improved play also opened the floor for teammates. Joakim Noah, relatively stifled in Game 1, bounced back with a 19-point, 14-rebound performance, nearly compiling a double-double in the first half alone. Luol Deng added 14 and 12 of his own, further cementing his reputation as Chicago's glue guy.
"You can't say enough about Luol," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. "Every night, he gets big rebounds for us. He's clutch."
Chicago's league-leading defense responded with signature Thibodeau toughness. After allowing Atlanta to shoot 51.3 percent in Game 1, the Bulls held the Hawks to 33.8 percent shooting in Game 2, including a stingy 23.1 percent from three. They prevented Atlanta from finding a rhythm all night.
But it was hardly a flawless showing by Chicago. Despite outplaying the Hawks in seemingly every facet, the Bulls led by just six points, 77-71, with four minutes remaining. Similar to the Indiana series, Chicago failed to display the killer instinct of the Lakers or Celtics squads of recent years, something that could prove costly as the playoffs progress.
They also received limited production from Boozer, who went just 4-of-12 from field and repeatedly had shots blocked. Far from providing the 20-point, 12-rebound showings Chicago expected when it signed him as a free agent last summer, Boozer's been an injury-riddled nonfactor, spurring rumors that Taj Gibson will see additional time.
"People have to understand he's giving us all he's got," Noah said in Boozer's defense. "He's an unbelievable presence and we know that we need Carlos to get to where we want to go."
Meanwhile, Atlanta was markedly less prolific than in Game 1. Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford totaled only 27 points on the heels of their combined 56-point outing in Game 1. That's less than stellar for the team's top two leading scorers and a number that has to be improved as the series shifts to Philips Arena for Game 3 on Friday.
The Hawks will also have to up their effort on the glass, as they were manhandled on the boards. They pulled down 39 rebounds to Chicago's 58, a discrepancy not lost on Hawks coach Larry Drew.
"They made a more assertive effort to get to the glass," Drew said. "We let them have their way in there."
The lone bright spot for Atlanta was the play of Teague, who, as in Game 1, showcased his comfort in a starting role. He was the Hawks' most consistent threat, contributing 21 points without a turnover, and even flashed an acrobatic, highlight-reel layup with 9:44 left in the fourth. He's dismissed any doubt that he's capable of replacing the injured Kirk Hinrich, of stepping up big in a series of this magnitude.
"I've always believed in this kid," Drew said. "I thought he played brilliant tonight."
The same can't be said for his team as a whole. The Hawks appeared flat and complacent with a visiting split. After surrendering the lead with 6:13 to go in the first quarter, they never recovered, trailing by eight to 12 points the rest of the way. It prompts the question: With the series now tied at one apiece, who really holds the edge?
That's arguably the Bulls, who, despite losing home-court advantage, essentially destroyed any momentum the Hawks built in their upset. Atlanta seemingly rolled over in the face of a deficit, a tendency it had displayed throughout the season. After the game, Johnson dismissed the notion.
"The game was never over," he said. "Down the stretch, offensively we didn't have the energy that we need."
The end result wasn't pretty, but it was Bulls basketball at its finest: efficiency on offense, relentlessness on defense. They controlled the tempo from the outset and snuffed out any prospect of an Atlanta comeback. To the relief of the Chicago faithful, they regained their role as favorites, reasserting the command they maintained over the Hawks before the postseason began.
The story of the night was Rose, though. Certainly not brilliant (he was 10-of-27 from the field and committed eight turnovers), he still approached a triple-double and demonstrated the leadership and maturity that earned him the brass he received before the game. The Bulls will go as far as he takes them, a fact he both acknowledges and shies away from.
Though honored, he's just relieved his recognition is now a thing of the past.
"I'm just happy it's over," he said. "Now we can just ball out."