By John Carroll
The Chicago Bulls are the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference. They earned this seed because they are well coached, they are extremely disciplined defensively and they have one of the NBA’s best players in Derrick Rose. The Bulls won 60 plus games this in Thibodeau’s first year as head coach of the Bulls. He has taken a young and talented roster and given them the defensive blueprint that is necessary to win playoff games. After defeating the Indiana Pacers in the first round we will get a clearer understanding of how good the Bulls really are versus the Atlanta Hawks.
The Hawks are a talented team that should be able to match the Bulls at every position except point guard. They are a young, athletic team that is capable of pulling off an upset in the playoffs. Unfortunately the Hawks lack discipline on both offense and defense and the focus required to beat the Bulls in a seven game series. The Hawks are a 1 on 1, isolation team that feeds off the scoring of Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford. They tend to get frustrated by teams that can defend and they will have to work extremely hard versus the Bulls to get great shots.
Five Keys to Series:
Rose, Rose and more Rose: The Atlanta Hawks do not have anyone that can defend Derrick Rose. The only person that had a chance to contain him was Kirk Hinrich and he may not even play due to an injury. The Hawks may have to use Jeff Teague, a rookie or insert Jamal Crawford into the starting point guard role. He averaged 25.3 points during the regular season versus the Hawks. The Indiana Pacers had to utilize two very strong and athletic bodies in an attempt to slow down Rose in the first round. Paul George and Dahntay Jones totally committed to defending Derrick Rose. They were physical with him and worked hard to contain his dribble penetration. The Hawks do not have anyone that has shown the willingness to defend a player with Roses abilities. Rose is a strong, ultra quick guard who finishes everything around the rim. He will get anywhere he wants versus the Hawks and score at will. The Hawks will have to shrink the court in an attempt to stop his penetration. That strategy should open up looks for Luol Deng, Kyle Korver, and Keith Bogans. The Hawks ranked 28th in the NBA in blocked shots, therefore when Rose does get into the paint he should be able to finish easily. The Hawks must have a solid defensive game plan, and be aggressive and exact in their pick and roll coverage of Rose or he will torture them in this series. The Hawks have utilized their zone defense during the regular season and they may need to utilize it because they are not a very good man to man defensive team.
Smaller Lineups It will be interesting to watch the matchups on the frontline in this series. How will Larry Drew matchup versus Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer. He used Jason Collins in the first round series versus the Orlando Magic because of the size of Dwight Howard. If Larry Drew decides to go with his usual lineup we will see Collins versus Noah and Horford versus Boozer. However if during this series he goes smaller and plays Horford at center and Josh Smith at the power forward it will be interesting to see the possible Boozer-Smith matchup. Smith loves to float outside and shoot perimeter jump shots. He is a mediocre shooter and the Bulls game plan would be to give him room and make him into a jump shooter. Smith is at his best in 1-1, transition basketball or isolations where he can take a bigger, slower power forward off the dribble. Boozer has not been effective versus the Hawks this season. He played in only 2 games versus the Hawks and averaged only 8.5 points per game. Look for Boozer to be much more productive in the post season versus the Hawks.
Rebounding: The rebounding statistics in the three regular season games between these two teams are staggering. There is a 14 rebound per game margin between the Bulls and the Hawks. In the last two games they played in the regular season they were a plus 18 margin. Al Horford has been the only consistent rebounder for Atlanta, while Joakim Noah, Kurt Thomas, and Taj Gibson are players the Hawks will have to find and lay a body on when the ball is up on the glass.
Atlanta’s Offense: Atlanta is an athletic team that loves to get out in transition. In the half court they are not a very creative team. They will play drive and kick basketball. But they are primarily a 1-1 isolation team that tries to attack mismatches. Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford were tremendous in the first round versus Orlando putting up big numbers every game. However in this series versus the Bulls they will be going against one of the toughest defensive units in the NBA. They will not be able to play isolation basketball and score as easily as they did versus Orlando. The Hawks have a tendency to go thru long scoring droughts when they go 1-1 and have poor shot selection. In this series if they are stubborn and do not get great ball movement they will struggle to score and will shoot a low field goal percentage.
Mental Toughness: One thing to watch in this series will be how resilient and mentally tough the Atlanta Hawks are. They had a good matchup in the first round. They won Game 1 of that series and seized control of the series. They were able to defend both Dwight Howard 1-1 in the low post, and shut down Orlando’s 3 point shooting. This will be a completely different series. Many people feel that the Hawks are an undisciplined team that does not possess the mental toughness to go deep into the playoffs. They had a lead in five of the six games with Orlando. When Orlando got them down big in Game 5 they folded. They must show some resiliency in order to win this series. They are going to have to defend, be exact in their pick and roll coverage versus Rose, and rebound the ball. They must not get bogged down offensively playing 1-1 basketball. When they have dry spurts in a game or if they lose the first two games in this series they must show some resiliency. They cannot become unraveled like they did last year in the playoffs. Everyone knows that the Hawks can play when they are in front but the question is whether they can play from behind.
Prediction: Chicago in 6