You couldn't ask for a better performance that what the Bulls pulled off Thursday night at Phillips Arena, absolutely dismantling the Atlanta Hawks, 93-73. Carlos Boozer had his best game in months with 23 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, and at one point almost had fire begin shooting out his backside after going 6-7 in the first half. Derrick Rose distributed the ball like a First Team All-NBA point guard should -- which he was named earlier in the day -- notching 12 assists to go with 19 points and five rebounds.
The Bulls have slowly but steadily improved throughout the postseason, and tonight's performance stands tall above every one that preceded it. Going into Phillips Arena and crushing a tough team in their own gym was a sight to see, and has to lessen some of the doubts about this team that emerged during the Indiana and Atlanta series. Chicago shot 53% from the floor, but more importantly were stifling on defense, holding the Hawks to 38% shooting and only 34 points in the paint.
The Hawks were kept out of the middle almost the entire night, leaving Joe Johnson (7-18), Jamal Crawford (2-10) and, surprisingly, Al Horford (2-10) to hoist contested jumpshots, and when they didn't fall early Atlanta's intensity began suffering on both ends of the court.
The Bulls are at their very best when they are playing balanced team basketball on both ends, as they were tonight. Tom Thibodeau has to be a proud coach for the unselfish attitude and effort his team put forth for 48 minutes. When the offense became too Rose-centric early on in this series, the team struggled to score baskets as Atlanta was allowed to key in on the all-world point guard. When Deng started chipping in offensively in Game 5 and Boozer followed in Game 6, the Bulls' spacing improved significantly and the ball started hopping to the open man, as Thibodeau would say.
Defensively, the Bulls were through the roof. Thibodeau extended his bench once again and got great minutes from Omer Asik and Taj Gibson, setting the tone for a night of domination from the Bulls' bigs. Luol Deng continued his role as the glue of the team, hitting a few big shots in the third quarter to quell the Hawks' final push, and playing just a shade under 40 minutes despite a scary fall on his lower back and elbow early in the first quarter.
Whenever tested this year, the Bulls have answered the call every single time. In their biggest game of the year, Chicago didn't just show up, they came with an intensity, focus and execution we haven't seen since the runaway freight train that was the Bulls' regular season.
The contrast between the Bulls' post-game celebration tonight and the Heat's after beating the Celtics on Wednesday couldn't have been farther apart. While LeBron James and Dwayne Wade celebrated like they'd won the NBA title, Rose and the Bulls looked like they'd been there before. Granted that may have no bearing on the result of their upcoming series, but it bodes well that the Bulls have their eyes on a higher prize.
The Eastern Conference Finals will be a story of contrasts. From the team-centric Bulls to the twin superstars of James and Wade, from the grinding defense of Chicago to the track meet transition game of Miami. From Thibodeau's experience to Heat coach Erik Spoelstra's innovation. If you enjoy basketball in any way, this next round of the playoffs should be one to set the DVR for.
Game 1 against the Heat will be Sunday night at the United Center, in what looks to be an epic series for the right to play in the NBA Finals. Make sure to look to SBNation Chicago for the series preview and all your Bulls playoff coverage.