Derrick Rose is the probable NBA MVP. He has been dominant the entire season, making play after play when the Bulls needed him most throughout the year and during his team's first round series against the Pacers. As long as his sprained left ankle is healthy, he should be able to continue his stellar play against the Hawks. Having said that, Rose has said repeatedly that Kirk Hinrich guards him tougher than almost any other guard in the league. Hinrich knows Rose's moves, but Rose is a tough cover, even when you know what's coming. Hinrich said last month that guarding Rose was a "nightmare," but there's little doubt he will be fired up to face the team that traded him away last summer. Hinrich strained his hamstring in Thursday night's win over the Orlando Magic, so it will be interesting to see if he is able to play against the Bulls.
Johnson has the ability to score 25 points whenever he wants and can be dangerous out on the wings. The Bulls' 2-guards -- Bogans, Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Korver -- must do a solid job of defending Johnson or else the Hawks will keep feeding him the ball. The ironic twist is that Johnson was one of the guys Rose wanted the Bulls to go after hard during last summer's free agent period, but Johnson decided to sign the biggest contract of the summer and stay in Atlanta.
Thibodeau has called Deng "the glue" of this Bulls team time after time this season. He is one of the best defenders on the team and is good for almost 20 points every night. Smith is a superb athlete, but his jumper can still be shaky -- evidenced by his 3-for-14 performance on Thursday night. Deng is a more consistent player and that should come out during this series.
Boozer's confidence may be at a season-low after a bad series against the Pacers. Aside from a solid Game 2 performance, he did not play well and dealt with a lot of criticism from fans and media. Horford, on the other hand, finally helped slay the dragon that is Dwight Howard. He should have plenty of confidence against the Bulls -- especially considering he had one of his biggest games of the season against them in early March, going off for 31 points and 16 rebounds, torching both Boozer and Joakim Noah. If Boozer can break out of his funk in this series, it will go a long way toward winning back some of the fans he's already lost in Chicago. If he doesn't, the scrutiny surrounding him will only intensify.
Center: Joakim Noah vs. Jason Collins
Noah is finally starting to look like his old self , the guy who would have been an All Star this season had he not torn a ligament in his thumb. He had several big games against the Pacers and appears to be playing injury-free for the first time in several months. He should be able to handle both Collins and backup Zaza Pachulia, both of whom aren't threats on the offensive end. If Noah plays with the energy he showed against Indiana, the Bulls should be in good shape.
The Bulls' bench was one of the best in the league over the regular season, but Thibodeau showed during the Pacers series that he has cut down the rotations and the "Bench Mob" disappeared for a while. While the Bulls are still probably a deeper team, the advantage that might have been there in the regular season is probably gone now. Unless Noah gets into foul trouble, Kurt Thomas and Omer Asik aren't going to play much. Neither is C.J. Watson, unless Rose gets into foul trouble. So that leaves Korver, Taj Gibson and Ronnie Brewer as the only three who could see a lot of meaningful minutes.
Compare that to Jamal Crawford, Marvin Williams and Pachulia and that seems like a pretty even matchup. Crawford can go off for 20 points whenever he wants. He is one of the most dangerous reserves in the league, but the Bulls feel confident that Korver is in rhythm and will continue to give them a big boost. Gibson has a chance to be a major difference maker for the Bulls if Boozer's struggles continue.
Coaching: Tom Thibodeau vs. Larry Drew
Both coaches have done a great job in their first year as head coaches, but Thibodeau's playoff experience should be vital. He won a ring as essentially the defensive coordinator of the Boston Celtics, and he should be able to find a way to slow down the Hawks. After all, aside from a bad half in a game on March 2, the Bulls have absolutely crushed Atlanta this season. Drew found a way to get past Howard and the Magic, but the challenge of slowing down Rose may prove to be too great.
The pick: Bulls in 5.
The Hawks have a cadre of solid players. Horford is very good, so are Johnson, Smith and Crawford. Hinrich, if healthy, is going to give Rose some problems. The difference is that the Bulls have a team full of solid players as well ... and they have Rose. As was the case in Pacers series, Rose should prove to be the biggest difference in this one. The Bulls play disciplined basketball that should wear the Hawks out of the course of a seven game series.