The Atlanta Hawks, who were expected to be an easy stepping stone en route to a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals, may have earned the respect of many unsuspecting NBA fans by challenging the top-seeded Bulls in a tough six-game series.
The Hawks found themselves in position to extend the series and possibly steal a Game 7 victory.
The Bulls, however, had different plans as they played one of their finest games of the postseason in Game 6.
Chicago jumped on the Hawks early on and asserted themselves as the aggressor. From the beginning, it seemed the team had its focus on returning home to face the Miami Heat, not the Hawks in a do-or-die Game 7.
The team turned in a near-perfect effort on their way to a 93-73 blowout.
Everyone seemed to be connected defensively. As a result, they were able to get out on the break and get easy buckets. They also executed with precision in the half court and were once again solid on the boards.
The all-important road win sends them to the Conference Finals for the first time since 1998.
The Bulls will also take with them a great deal of confidence. This confidence doesn't just come with having the league's best record, but it will help that they were able to address some of their concerns in recent weeks.
Most notably, there was a Carlos Boozer sighting in Atlanta. Bulls' fans everywhere had been disappointed in his lackluster effort and monumental struggles during the playoffs. Many feared that the 20 and 10 Boozer was no more.
For now, that rumor has been dispelled.
Boozer was spectacular. He finished the game with 23 points, 10 rebounds and five assists on 10 of 16 shooting. If this is any indication of the passion and poise he will play with moving forward, the Bulls should be in great shape.
Another positive sign was the efficiency and steadiness of MVP Derrick Rose.
Rose was able to control the pace of the game and take limited—yet effective—shots. He scored 19 points on just 14 shot attempts and also dished out 12 dimes.
Boozer's stellar play had a lot to do with that, which is what Chicago fans have been waiting to see. The well-orchestrated one-two punch finally produced a win in a big game.
Offensive efficiency to go along with an already elite defensive attack has the team looking like a true contender.
Now the table is set, and the Bulls vs. Heat rivalry will continue in a series that figures to be epic.
Having played one of their best games of the playoffs, the Bulls will go into Game 1 of the Conference Finals with lots of momentum. That momentum will be met with that of a very confident Heat team fresh off its ousting of the Boston Celtics—the previous Eastern Conference champion.
The upcoming series is loaded with storylines and star power.
The Bulls are content to remain soft spoken and continue doing the things that got them here. As was the case with the Hawks, what lies ahead will be no easy task.
Something tells me coach Thibodeau wouldn't have it any other way.
At the end of the day, what matters is who executes and adjusts the best in the game. Having beaten the Heat in all three regular season meetings, the Bulls are certainly confident in their ability to win.
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