The last time Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls faced off against the Atlanta Hawks at the Highlight Factory, the Chicago guard was a man on a mission.
Tucked in the back of his head was one of the Bulls' most embarrassing losses of the season -- a game where Chicago came to Atlanta and blew a 20-point lead behind a career-best night by Al Horford. Rose vowed that that would never happen again. His Bulls followed with an easy 114-81 drubbing of the Hawks the next time the two teams were on Atlanta's home floor.
That loss typified what a puzzling season it has been for the hometown Hawks. One night, the team will look like world-beaters, the next they'll look like the dregs of the league, dropping another game on their home court like they're the Sacramento Kings.
As a result, the Hawks have had problems establishing that respect level around the so-called experts that write and opine all that is the NBA.
Let's face it. Much like a character in a kid's bedtime story book, when the Hawks are good, they are very, very good and when they are bad, they are very, very bad. There's not much in between for Atlanta's basketball team.
However, as the Orlando Magic and their scribes found out, those who take the Hawks lightly do so at their peril. And much like with Orlando, outside of Chicago's superstar in Rose, the Hawks matchup somewhat well with the Bulls and could pull off an upset here.
But with Kirk Hinrich likely out for the entire series with a severe right hamstring injury, it's not going to be easy.
Expect to see a lot of much-touted-by-the-fans, but not-loved-by-the-coaches Jeff Teague at the point in this one. The second-year Hawk will have a pivotal assignment -- keeping up with Rose, who may notch the league's MVP award.
Also fronted against Rose will be Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford. Also expect another player that we didn't see much of in Atlanta's series against the more physical Orlando Magic to get some playing time in this one.
As much as Zaza Pachulia and Jason Collins were used to pester, annoy and disrupt Dwight Howard, Damien Wilkins will be called upon in spurts to do the same to Rose's game. The nephew of Hawks legend Dominique Wilkins does have the ability to shut down an opponent defensively in short spurts.
Should Hawks coach Larry Drew go back to his "small" lineup and start Marvin Williams at the three instead of Collins at center, the most intriguing matchup of the series will be that between former Florida Gator teammates Horford and Joakim Noah.
Whether he admits it or not, Horford has a tendency to elevate his game against his former teammate and singlehandedly willed Atlanta back in the first game of the regular season set between the two clubs, abusing Noah for most of the night in the comeback.
Atlanta should also have advantages in the "small" lineup with a healthy Josh Smith against a banged up Carlos Boozer, who is expected to play in Game 1 even though he's suffering from turf toe and at the shooting guard where Johnson faces Keith Bogans.
But those matchup advantages are moot if Rose does what he's capable of and seizes control of the game.
Not many people expect much from Atlanta in this series. The pundits will likely be selecting against them as the No. 1 seed Bulls have become the che trendy pick in the East. But this is still a relatively young Chicago team that is not very battle tested this late into the postseason.
Atlanta has been to the second round in each of the last three seasons. Yes, they haven't won a game in the last two Eastern Conference Semifinal appearances, but just getting there matters at this stage in the game.
Hawks don't have much reflectivity when penetrated by radar and this Hawks team relishes the role of flying under it as underdogs. Look for a competitive series, which the Hawks can steal if they win one of the first two games in the Windy City.
Prediction: This may come back to haunt me, but I am picking the Hawks. The very, very good Hawks team can beat the Bulls -- when they want to. And the determination to win seems to be there for this Atlanta team, which has the intangible edge in playoff-tested experience over Chicago.
Much like in the Orlando series, Atlanta will eke out a win in one of the first two games up in Chicago and hold onto home court at Philips Arena.
Hawks in Six.
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