UPDATED TO REFLECT KIRK HINRICH’S STATUS
Here’s where cold reality tends to descend. Two years running, the Hawks fought through Round 1, pronounced themselves full of confidence and vowed to make an even bigger statement in Round 2. Then they got swept.
Now they’re here again, and an even bigger chill has fallen: Kirk Hinrich, the man designated to defuse Chicago’s Derrick Rose, is listed as “doubtful” for the series with a bad hamstring. The only way for the Hawks ever to reach the Eastern Conference finals, a place they’ve never been, might be if the league grants them a bye.
Last spring the Hawks were swept so egregiously from Round 2 they fired Mike Woodson and promoted his assistant. That bit of personnel shuffling paid no dividends during a regular season that saw them slide from 53 victories to 44, but in Round 1 of these playoffs the new head coach found a way to do what his predecessor could not. Larry Drew beat Orlando, which had beaten the Hawks by an aggregate 101 points last spring.
The Hawks beat Orlando because they had better players — take away Dwight Howard, and the Magic would be the post-LeBron Cavaliers — and a sound defensive scheme. The Bulls don’t have one massive center, but they have Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer down low. Jason Collins will hold lesser value in Round 2.
Neither will the Hawks find the wing mismatches they exploited in Round 1. The Bulls’ shooting guard is Keith Bogans, who does more defending than shooting. He’ll make it harder on Joe Johnson and perhaps Jamal Crawford than the Magic did. Luol Deng is the small forward, and he’s the Bulls’ second-best player.
And then there’s Rose, the presumptive NBA most valuable player. The thought of him working against Jeff Teague, who didn’t log 10 minutes in the six games against Orlando, is terrifying.
At full strength, the Hawks are a fair match for the Bulls in size and skill. In terms of cohesion, the Hawks aren’t close. The Bulls went from 41-41 last season to 62-20 by committing themselves to new coach Tom Thibodeau’s vision. (Thibodeau made his reputation as Doc Rivers’ defensive coordinator in Boston.) Chicago ranked second among NBA teams in points yielded, first in defensive efficiency.
Some might see the ouster of their nemesis as reason to call this Hawks’ season a success. Such a pronouncement would be premature. As nice as beating the Magic was, the Hawks had already proved they’re good enough to play beyond Round 1. The bigger issue — the reason Woodson was fired and Hinrich imported at great cost — has become Round 2. But now Round 2 seems, once again, a bridge too far.
The Hawks were counting on Hinrich to be their playoff stopper, and he fared well enough against Jameer Nelson. Without him, any expression of optimism is a flight of fancy. And that’s too bad. The Hawks were the No. 4 seed in 2009 and were swept by the 66-win Cavaliers, but three-fifths of the starting lineup was hurting. They were the No. 3 seed last year and were swept by the 59-win Magic. Now they’re in against the team with the NBA’s best record.
If there’s any sliver of hope, it’s that the Bulls are new to this. Chicago hasn’t been past Round 1 since 2007 and hasn’t won Round 2 since Michael Jordan took his sixth title, and these Bulls didn’t exactly overwhelm the sub-.500 Pacers to get here. But if there was one player the Hawks couldn’t afford to lose for this series, it’s the one they’ve lost.
I really liked the Hawks’ chances against Orlando because every matchup save one favored them. There were times in the Magic series when they functioned at a high level, but the Bulls have done that all season. The Bulls have achieved the mesh that has so far eluded the Hawks. But matchups and mesh won’t matter nearly as much as the results of two MRIs: The one done on Rose’s sprained ankle Monday turned out OK; the one performed Friday on Hinrich’s hamstring did not.
With Hinrich, the guess was that the Hawks would make a bit of noise before losing in six. Without him, they’ll do well to win once.
By Mark Bradley