Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NBA Playoffs 2011 [Print without images]

Tuesday, May 3, 2011
Johnson, Hawks keep earning respect

By Michael Wallace
ESPN.com

CHICAGO -- Before we get to why it happened -- breaking down details of just how the Atlanta Hawks dumped the league's No. 1 overall playoff seed into a 1-0 series deficit with Monday's victory over the Chicago Bulls -- you must understand how it was even possible.

You must comprehend the depths of the defiance that's fueling the Hawks in these playoffs.

You must appreciate what motivated Atlanta to turn a Chicago coronation -- with Tom Thibodeau presented with his NBA Coach of the Year award before Game 1 -- into a Windy City near-catastrophe.

You must get to the bottom of why Derrick Rose will proudly receive his well-deserved most valuable player trophy on Tuesday as he smiles through that bitter taste still lingering from Monday night.

To do all of those things, you must get to know Jeff Teague, who set the tone for the Hawks' 103-95 victory an hour before the game even started at the United Center. And you must take Joe Johnson at his word that he's found new life in these playoffs as a closer.

Standing shirtless in front of his locker before taking on the biggest assignment of his two-year NBA career, Teague recalled the last time he faced the daunting task of matching up with Rose.

It was the summer between his high school junior and senior seasons, in a final four game of a high-profile AAU tournament in Las Vegas. Rose shared the backcourt with Eric Gordon.

Teague was playing alongside, uh, well ...

"No one nearly as good as them," Teague remembered Monday as he took over the starting job in place of injured veteran Kirk Hinrich.

Jeff Teague & Derrick Rose
Jeff Teague got a chance to shine against Derrick Rose, just like AAU days.

Before that tournament, Teague had solid scholarship offers from Indiana, Dayton, Southern Illinois and a few other lower-level to mid-major Division I basketball programs. After that tournament, he was ACC material and would end up attending Wake Forest.

"That game, that tournament, really is what put me on the map," Teague said, admitting that Rose probably wouldn't even remember facing him that day in Vegas. "I guess I made a name for myself."

Six years later, another matchup with Rose provided an opportunity for Teague to do the same thing.

"First thing I told him out there was to be Jeff Teague," Hawks coach Larry Drew said. "Don't bow down to anybody. He stepped up big, this being the playoffs, playing defense against the MVP of the league and running the offense. When he came into the locker room, I gave him the game ball."

How's that for timing?

The night Thibodeau is saluted as the league's top coach, it's Drew who orchestrated yet another Game 1 upset on the road against a higher-seeded team to give the Hawks their first playoff victory in the second round since 1997. And on the eve that Rose is expected to pick up the league's MVP award, it's Teague who came out of nowhere to help hound the explosive Bulls guard into a 2-for-10 start from the field that led to an 11-for-27 finish from Rose.

Yes, Rose is deserving of the MVP because, even on bad nights, he's capable of producing the kind of totals he had Monday: 24 points, 10 assists and five rebounds in 41 minutes. But knowing the type of competitor and leader Rose is, the guess is he'd rather have what Teague left the building with Monday.

A game ball. A Game 1 victory. A 1-0 series lead. The upper hand early in this best-of-seven series for the right to advance to the Eastern Conference finals.

The Hawks again did what they've done in just about every game in these playoffs. They built a double-digit lead early, exploited favorable matchups with their length, athleticism and quickness on the perimeter, knocked down jumpers and, most of all, avoided the type of dumb shots and mistakes that have been known to doom them in key moments.

With 10 points, five assists, just one turnover and a near wire-to-wire defensive effort against Rose, Teague got it started for the Hawks. And then Johnson took over from there and put the finishing touches on what should qualify as one of the most impressive victories of these playoffs.

As hard as it might be for some, it's about time for the critics to start giving the Hawks some credit. What happened here Monday was no fluke. It was a flurry. And if the Bulls aren't careful, they could end up facing the same fate as the Orlando Magic.

Johnson had 34 points, was 12-of-18 from the field and made all five of his 3-pointers. He delivered dagger after dagger after Hail Mary dagger to keep the Bulls at bay every time they threatened. This was the same Johnson that struggled during the season against Chicago's vaunted defense and averaged just 13.7 points on 39 percent shooting in three games.

On Monday, Johnson delivered a dose of the same postseason potion Dwyane Wade dumped on Boston in Miami's Game 1 victory after his similar regular-season struggles against the Celtics.

The performance was more than clutch for Johnson. It was also a relief. Having endured a season of injuries and uncomfortable scrutiny that came with signing the league's richest contract in free agency last summer, Johnson needed a performance like Monday's.

It's been a rebirth of sorts.

"It's big," Johnson said. "The regular season is over. We've started a new season, the playoffs are a whole different season. I just want to come out and be aggressive and make plays. Collectively as a team, we've been great in the postseason. We've been the underdogs. But we approach every game with the confidence that we can come out and win."

That confidence for the Hawks is exuding from every pore. So far, they're answering the critics and banishing the non-believers.

That columnist in Orlando who called them "birdbrains" and guaranteed a series victory -- even after the Magic had fallen into a 3-1 hole?

"In your face," Hawks forward Josh Smith responded.

That playful comment from Magic guard Jameer Nelson, who told Rose late in the regular season that he'd see him in the second round of the playoffs?

The Hawks staff on Monday stuffed an envelope with two tickets and placed Nelson's name on the cover before leaving them at the United Center's will-call box.

That spotlight that was to shine so brightly on the Bulls' coach of the year and MVP candidate early this week in Chicago?

Teague, Johnson and the damn-they-did-it-again Hawks bullied their way into the glare.

"We're just going to try to ride this out," Johnson said. "We're a confident group. As long as we got each other's back, that's all that matters. We couldn't care less what anybody thinks about us."

Yes, it's just one game.

But that's the same thing Orlando said.

No, the Hawks aren't going to keep knocking down shots like that.

Go ahead. Try to convince yourself that scoring 103 points, shooting 51.3 percent and outrebounding the league's best defending team was all just one big aberration.

"We brought that on ourselves," Thibodeau said. "There was not one aspect of our defense that was good. Once they have that lead and got their confidence, they are hard to slow down."

Somewhere, Magic coach Stan Van Gundy is shaking his head because he said the exact same thing.

This series is far from over. But it's time to start giving the Hawks some respect in these playoffs. Even if you don't, they'll take it. That's what defines defiance.

Move over Memphis. You've got company.