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#1 Chicago Bulls (66-21) vs. #5 Atlanta Hawks (48-40)
The top-seeded Chicago Bulls (66-21) had a tougher time than expected in the first round but may have gotten a break here against the fifth-seeded Atlanta Hawks (48-40). The Bulls are coming off a grueling five-game series win over the eighth-seeded Indiana Pacers while the Hawks upset the fourth-seeded Orlando Magic in six. Chicago (-8.5 in Game 1) won the last two regular-season meetings with Atlanta by a combined 51 points and hosts the first two games of this second-round playoff series at the United Center, starting on Monday.
The Bulls won the first three games of their series against the Pacers by an average of five points, as leading MVP candidate Derrick Rose seemingly willed them to victory one way or another. While Rose did not shoot the ball well from the floor throughout the series, he certainly did his best to get to the free-throw line late when the games were on the line.
Rose averaged more than 16 attempts from the charity stripe through the first three games, scoring nearly 15 points there alone. That production dipped after he sprained his ankle early in Game 4, which Chicago lost 89-84 despite a monstrous comeback that saw the team cut an 18-point deficit to one in the final 15 seconds. Indiana tried hard to be physical with him, using larger defenders such as rookie Paul George and Dahntay Jones. Ultimately, the Bulls simply had too much talent with Rose averaging 28 points, and their superior defense allowed them to survive.
The Hawks performed much differently in knocking out the Magic, finding a way to shut down essentially everybody else besides All-Star center Dwight Howard. They were at least even or held an advantage at all of the other positions besides center and made sure to capitalize on those mismatches starting right away by stealing Game 1 at Orlando.
Atlanta surrendered a series-high 46 points and 19 rebounds to Howard in the series opener but still pulled off a 103-93 victory, setting the tone for the next five games. Neither team scored more than 88 points in the next three games before Orlando ended its scoring drought in a 101-76 rout in Game 5. The Hawks had no problem bouncing back at home 84-81 in Game 6 though and won all three of their home games as underdogs.
Two injuries are the early story to this series with Atlanta point guard Kirk Hinrich out due to a hamstring injury and Chicago power forward Carlos Boozer suffering from turf toe. Hinrich is a former Bull who was brought in prior to the trade deadline to help out defensively. His main role was going to be checking Rose, who will now be guarded by second-year player Jeff Teague.
Boozer's injury is not as severe, but his play in the first round remains a concern. Fortunately for Chicago, center Joakim Noah has stepped up his play lately offensively and second-year forward Taj Gibson has also provided quality minutes filling in for Boozer. That quality depth should be the deciding factor against a Hawks team that relies primarily on jump shooting.
Series Pick: Chicago Bulls (-805 at Bookmaker) in 5
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