Like the Indiana Pacers before them, the fifth-seeded Atlanta Hawks strutted into the United Center looking as though they had not a care in the world.
Playing as the heavy underdog, the Hawks capitalized on yet another sluggish start from the Chicago Bulls, weathered a feeble comeback attempt, and came away with a convincing 103-95 victory Monday night in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Leading the Hawks’ effort was a standout showing from the game’s highest-paid player, Joe Johnson, who poured in 34 points on 12-of-18 shooting and made all five of his 3-point attempts. Johnson’s performance came just over a year after his veritable no-show in a first round beating at the hands of the Orlando Magic, the team these Hawks ousted a round ago.
Joining Johnson in the assault was former Bull Jamal Crawford, who lived up to his billing as a deadly heater off the bench, tallying 22 points on 8-for-16 shooting. Al Horford did yeoman’s work in the post, ending the night with nine points and 13 rebounds. Mercurial forward Josh Smith shot just 3 of 11 but grabbed six rebounds and swatted four momentum-swinging blocks.
For the Bulls–the league’s top-rated defensive squad in the regular season–giving up 103 points to the upstart Hawks was one thing. Quite another was the manner in which the Hawks got their points. Up and down the floor, the Hawks launched contested runners off the glass and moonball-arcing jumpers that found the bottom of the net at a 51 percent clip.
Chicago did not seem to alter its play from its less-than-inspiring five-game victory over the Pacers even one iota. They dug themselves into an early hole and though they claimed a six-point lead in the third quarter, the fact remains that these Hawks represent a much more formidable foe than the overachieving Pacers.
It really could not have started much worse for the Bulls, who trailed by 10 after the first period and saw Derrick Rose, who will reportedly be named the league’s Most Valuable Player any day now, miss his first seven shot attempts. Rose figured to shine on Monday night, as the Hawks were without the services of former Bull Kirk Hinrich, and while he finished with an impressive-looking 24 points and 10 assists, he had to work very hard to get to those totals and never quite seemed to settle in. Complicating matters even further, Rose turned his previously injured ankle late Monday and will be re-evaluated tomorrow.
At the risk of oversimplifying a 48-minute contest, the Hawks truthfully took control in the opening minute and a half of the fourth quarter. After a see-saw affair for three quarters, the Hawks clung to a one-point advantage to open the final frame. Traditionally, this has been money-making time for the Bulls, as Rose has emerged as one of the game’s premiere closers.
But on Monday night, the Hawks simply would not be intimidated. Johnson swiped the ball from Luol Deng to open the quarter and promptly sunk a 3. Following a C.J. Watson miss, Jeff Teague finished an impressive drive. Taj Gibson then turned the ball over to Crawford, who followed with a 3. It was that quick. The Hawks exited that stretch with an 80-71 advantage, providing them the cushion they needed to cruise to an eight-point win.
Jeff Teague (10 points, 5 assists) did an admirable job filling Hinrich’s shoes defending Rose. Having played only nine minutes in the Hawks’ first-round series, the speedy guard was a big part of the reason Rose did not find the net in the first quarter. In the face of that adversity, Deng kept the Bulls afloat for much of the first half and finished with 21 points and six rebounds. Joakim Noah chipped in with 11 points and nine rebounds while Carlos Boozer, in the face of much criticism of his lackluster performance against Indiana and hobbled by bad toe, managed 14 points and eight boards.
Critics of the Hawks play have, in the past, accused them of poor shot selection (true), undisciplined play (mostly true), and the inability to convert in crunch time (perhaps not as true as we once thought). While it may sound like a sweeping cliche, these are the playoffs and teams like the Hawks–filled with talented shooters and dynamic athletes–will always be dangerous.
Hawks fans have to be pleased by the aloofness with which their team seemed to play in a tough road win, while Bulls fans had better hold out hope that Rose and the gang brought their gloves and their wits, because they are decidedly in for a fight.