CHICAGO -- After the Bulls' uninspired loss in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, many in NBA circles speculated that their youth was finally catching up to them. It was supposedly a classic case of inexperience wilting under pressure, a young team failing to live up to its high expectations.
Chicago silenced those thoughts, at least temporarily, on Tuesday. The Bulls pulled away from Atlanta for a 95-83 victory, taking a 3-2 series lead. Game 6 is Thursday in Atlanta.
"You have to get comfortable being uncomfortable," coach Tom Thibodeau said. "I thought we stayed together, made some timely baskets and then we got some stops."
They also displayed the ability to close, something that was lacking early in the postseason. They struggled with a scrappy Pacers team in the first four games of the first round before thumping it in Game 5. They allowed Atlanta to respond to a 99-82 Game 3 blowout loss with a decisive win of its own, swelling the inconsistent Hawks' confidence.
Now the Bulls have responded. And they're a mere one game away from their first post-Jordan era trip to the Eastern Conference finals.
It starts with the MVP. Rose punished Atlanta for 33 points and nine assists, including a devastating 11 points in the fourth quarter, when Chicago outscored Atlanta 26-15. He proved to be virtually unguardable, making multiple circus-type layups that have become his calling card.
"He's so fast and explosive that no one man can guard him," Atlanta guard Jeff Teague said. "It takes a collective effort."
Rose was a mainstay in the paint. Fifteen of 22 shots came from inside five feet, and more important, he was efficient, shooting just shy of 46 percent (11-of-24). He also drew 13 trips to the free-throw line.
"It forces the defense to collapse, creates easy opportunities for others and leads to some second shots," Thibodeau said. "I thought it was huge."
The Bulls should be wary of automatically deferring to Rose, though, as Chicago tends to become one-dimensional. Rose accounts for 31.3 percent of the team's playoff scoring, a marked increase from his 25.1 percent clip in the regular season. He's also taken 242 postseason shots -- the most in the NBA.
"I think you guys measure his shots all the time," Thibodeau said. "Tonight, we needed him to shoot like that for us to win."
Deng was phenomenal, bouncing back from a subpar Game 4 for 23 points in 46 minutes. He scored the team's first seven points, setting the tone early and countering any momentum Atlanta had gathered after its series-evening win on Sunday.
The Bulls also benefited from some unlikely production. Keith Bogans went on a personal 8-0 run in the first quarter, burying two three-pointers and a reverse layup in just over a minute, and Taj Gibson was dominant in the fourth, going 5-of-5 from the field. Gibson and Omer Asik both received key minutes down the stretch, a result of their on-court chemistry with Deng and Rose.
"They had a good rhythm with their bench guys," Hawks coach Larry Drew said. "If role players are going to get the job done, leave them in there and let 'em play."
Perhaps most significant was the continued re-emergence of Carlos Boozer. After awakening from his turf toe-induced slumber for 18 points in Game 4, he produced 11 points and a game-high 12 rebounds in Game 5, showing signs of the All-Star the Bulls desired upon his acquisition. At full strength, he transforms the Bulls into a completely different team.
"He has the most playoff experience, and very successful playoff experience, on our team," Thibodeau said. "As he continues to get healthier, he'll play better and better."
The Hawks, for their part, showed impressive toughness in defeat. They answered each Chicago run with one of their own, battling back from a 32-21 first-quarter deficit to gain the lead by the early fourth. The enigmatic Josh Smith followed his terrific Game 4 with a 16-point showing, and Al Horford had 12 points and 10 rebounds. Atlanta also received an unlikely 13 points from Zaza Pachulia, a drastic upgrade over his postseason average of 2.8.
The biggest threat for Atlanta was again Teague, though, as he kept the game close with a barrage of driving layups. He finished with 21 points on 8-of-11 shooting, upping his series field-goal percentage to 55.7. He even resembled Rose in spurts, including a coast-to-coast layup with 7:23 in the third quarter, showcasing quickness and attacking ability that injured starter Kirk Hinrich lacks.
"He's just playing with a ton of confidence and a ton of energy," Smith said of the second-year guard. "He's been giving us his best effort every night."
Rose would disagree. After suffering heartbreak in the epic seven-game series with the Celtics two years ago and a humbling beatdown by the Cavaliers in last season's playoffs, Rose is ready for his team to live up to its championship potential.
"The next game," Rose said, "is the biggest game of our life."