ATLANTA (AP)—Larry Drew likes the look of these playoffs.
He’s feeling pretty good about his own team, too.
There are upsets all around in the NBA postseason. Top-seeded San Antonio has already been eliminated. The defending champion Los Angeles Lakers are in trouble. And Drew, the rookie coach of the Atlanta Hawks, sees no reason why his own team can’t go farther than anyone would’ve expected.
“This thing is wide open,” he said Thursday.
The Hawks have already knocked out Dwight Howard(notes) and Orlando, a team that swept Atlanta from the playoffs in lopsided fashion a year ago. They’re trying to follow a similar script in the Eastern Conference semifinals, having stolen a victory in Game 1 against the Chicago Bulls, a 62-win juggernaut during the regular season.
Even coming off a series-tying loss, the Hawks are exuding confidence as they return home for the next two contests. Game 3 is Friday, which shapes up as the most significant night in 14 years for a franchise that has largely been an NBA wasteland.
Chicago, of course, would prefer to follow the script. The Bulls won 18 more game than Atlanta during the regular season and are in no mood to be the fodder for another playoff upset.
After a shocking 103-95 defeat in the series opener, Chicago played with a sense of desperation Thursday night. The Bulls dominated the boards 58-39, turned the Hawks’ offense into a stagnant mess (34 percent shooting), hustled for seemingly every loose ball and pulled away for an 86-73 victory.
Indeed, the Hawks actually took some comfort from the way they lost.
Despite the obvious deficiencies, Atlanta was still in the game with about 4 minutes left, trailing by six and poised to pull off another upset. It didn’t work out, but the Hawks know they can stick with a team that put up the best record in the league.
“Whatever doubt might have been seeping into our guys’ heads, that doubt was erased after Game 1,” Drew said. “Even though we lost Game 2, there wasn’t a knockout blow. There was all this talk about how they would come out with all this energy and everything. Well, we didn’t feel that. … They didn’t put us away.”
At the end, they did.
Now it’s back to Atlanta to play in front of what figures to be a raucous sellout crown, an anomaly in this attendance-challenged city. This is the most important home playoff game for the Hawks since 1997, when they also were tied 1-1 in a second-round series against the Michael Jordan-led Bulls.
That one didn’t work out so well for Atlanta. The Bulls won Game 3—and the next two, as well—to knock out the Hawks on the way to Jordan’s fifth of six titles.
This is a different postseason landscape. No team has come across as unbeatable, not even the Miami Heat with their Big Three. The eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies knocked off the mighty Spurs out West, and just about every series has been competitive.
The Bulls struggled in the first round to put away Indiana—a team with a losing record during the regular season. If they didn’t before, they certainly realize now it’s not going to be a smooth ride to their first NBA title since No. 23 ruled Chi-Town.
Carlos Boozer(notes) is coming off another rough outing: 8 points on 4-of-12 shooting. That only tells part of the story, though. He got blocked four times in the second half by Josh Smith(notes) and booed by the home crowd.
Boozer sustained a turf toe injury on his right foot in the opening round against Indiana, and that certainly isn’t helping.
“Carlos is out there, he’s playing hurt,” forward Luol Deng(notes) said. “It’s one of those injuries that sounds, when you just say a toe, it doesn’t sound like much, but it’s an annoying injury. I know he’ll get his rhythm, but I thought last night he was diving on the floor. He was hustling. For us, he was really playing well.”
Rose also needs to get it going. He’s averaging 24.5 points a game but shooting just 39 percent, with 11 turnovers.
“I want to see him attack. He has to get to the line more,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “We have to create more space. We have to play with more pace. When we can get Derrick into the open floor, he has more scenes where he can get to the rim.”
Atlanta guard Jeff Teague(notes), filling in for the injured Kirk Hinrich(notes), has done an amazing job on the MVP in the first two games, cutting off his lanes to the basket and forcing him to put up more jumpers than he’d like. Teague also contributed at the offensive end, averaging 15.5 points and turning it over just one time in 84 minutes.
Johnson and Crawford dominated in Game 1, so the Bulls threw plenty of double-teams at both. Atlanta needs to get others involved in the offense, especially All-Star Al Horford(notes), and a more consistent performance out of the enigmatic Smith would sure help.
His inspired play in the third quarter helped the Hawks get back in the game, but Smith made just 4 of 14 shots—many of them out of his range—and looked downright sloppy turning it over four times.
Drew lectured Smith before practice Thursday.
“His shot selection was not very good. He was trying to do too much,” Drew said. “He admitted that was the case. He didn’t feel good about the way he played.”
AP Sports Writer Andrew Seligman in Deerfield, Ill., contributed to this report.