The Atlanta Hawks defied expectations and soared past the fourth-seed Orlando Magic 4 games to 2 in the first round. Tonight they come to the United Center in Chicago for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. These squads met three times in the regular season, all within a 20-day span during the month of March. The Bulls took two of three, winning at home and splitting a pair of contests at Philips Arena. The last time these teams met on March 22nd in Atlanta, the Bulls routed the Hawks 114-81 along the way to a tremendous regular season finish. Freshly honored 2011 Coach of the Year Tom Thibodeau led the Bulls to the best record in the NBA (62-20) in his first year in the lead chair.
The number one seeded Chicago Bulls knocked out the scrappy Indiana Pacers 4 games to 1 in what wound up being a tougher than anticipated opening round. Soon to be named league MVP, third-year hometown hero PG Derrick Rose and company had their hands full with the never-say-die, eighth-seeded pros from the Hoosier state. The Bulls finished them off last Tuesday in the Windy City 116-89, but their other three wins in the series were much more competitive, with the Red & Black victorious by an average of only 5 points.
The fifth-seed Hawks ended their first round series on Thursday in Georgia with a Game 6 W (84-81) over the Magic, exacting a measure of revenge after getting embarrassingly swept 4-0 by O-Town in the 2010 playoffs. However, in the final moments of Atlanta’s closeout victory, savvy starting PG Kirk Hinrich severely strained his hamstring and will be out for this series. This is a tough blow for the Hawks because containing and slowing down the do-everything-in-fifth-gear D. Rose will be a key for Atlanta if they hope to pull off another big series upset. Eighth-year vet Hinrich spent his first seven seasons in the league as a Bull, so the savvy, hard-nosed defender knows Rose’s game in addition to being a perimeter threat with his 3-point shot.
Though the Hawks will sorely miss Hinrich, they are a talented and skilled group that has a number of athletic, one-on-one players who are capable of making shots. Tenth-year vet and 5x All-Star 6’7” small forward Joe Johnson led the Hawks in scoring and assists during the regular season, while 2010 Sixth Man of the Year 6 ‘5” Jamal Crawford has led during the playoffs with 20.5 ppg. The Hawks will go back to their original lineup of Al Horford at center, Josh Smith at power forward and Marvin Williams at small forward. Jeff Teague will get a big opportunity to play the point guard spot in place of Hinrich, while Crawford will come off the bench. It remains to be seen if the Hawks can come out with the same explosiveness they had in the last series and maintain the confidence they displayed.
The Hawks are not get-down-and-dirty like the Pacers, so this series should be less physical for the Bulls than the opening round. On the other hand, Atlanta possesses a smoother offensive arsenal, so the Bulls will have to rely more on their team defense, which ranked 1st in the NBA this past season, holding teams to only 43% from the field. Now that their opening-round jitters are behind them, the Bulls need to be consistent on defense, and they need to get PF Carlos Boozer more involved in this series. Boozer has been limited in practice since the last game of the Indiana series as he’s been struggling with turf-toe and will be a game-time decision this evening.
Dick Stockton, David Aldridge and I have the Atlanta Hawks @ Chicago Bulls Game 1 at 8:00 PM ET on TNT.