ATLANTA — The Bulls have won 70 games between then and now, but in some ways on Thursday night, it felt as though no time had passed since the night of “The Decision.”
After LeBron James announced he'd be taking his talents to South Beach, snubbing the Bulls in the process, Joakim Noah stood outside the Berto Center on a warm July evening and suggested that everything worked out perfectly.
Noah wore the same smile in the locker room at Philips Arena after the Bulls dispatched the Atlanta Hawks with a dominant 93-73 victory.
The outcome is in doubt, but this certainly feels like a perfect scenario — Bulls vs. the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. As it turned out, James and Dwyane Wade will start by lugging their talents to the United Center for Game 1 on Sunday night, because the Bulls earned homecourt advantage.
“I feel like this is like a dream come true,” Noah said. “But the more you advance, the more you realize you just want more and more. It's going to be an exciting series. I think people are going to be pretty excited in Chicago that we're playing in the conference finals against the Miami Heat.”
The Bulls produced a classic performance on Thursday against the Hawks, complete with shutdown defense, great ball movement and the return of Carlos Boozer.
Boozer hit 10 of 16 shots to finish with 23 points and 10 rebounds. Derrick Rose added 19 points and 12 assists. The Bulls piled up 34 assists as a team, while Atlanta shot 36.5 percent from the field.
The Bulls were relatively subdued following the series-clinching victory. They lingered on the court to greet the Hawks and the locker room was noisy only because of the swarm of media. Of course, subdued is Rose's natural state.
“We're definitely happy to be there, but we're not trying to stop there,” Rose said. “I think Thibs (coach Tom Thibodeau) is going to have a great game plan for us. They have a great team. They're playing well together right now. It's going to be hard, but this year wasn't easy.”
It will be an interesting matchup, no doubt. After Miami eliminated Boston on Wednesday, James talked about how he didn't think he'd ever get past the Celtics without more help from his teammates than he was given in Cleveland.
So while James sought out all-stars, Rose seems fine with being the main target on the Bulls. He essentially asked to be the league's MVP before the season, a wish that was granted.
“I think all of us have to do our jobs,” Boozer said. “We've been a team all season. It hasn't been a one-man show, but our one man's pretty good. It's been a team effort.”
Atlanta's Joe Johnson had an interesting take on what made the Bulls so difficult to deal with defensively.
“Rose puts so much pressure on the defense, so you almost have to stop him and let everyone else have the ball,” Johnson said.
That's basically what happened in Game 6. Atlanta went straight to double-teaming Rose after the opening tip. He took his time and got Boozer, Noah and Luol Deng involved. With Rose taking 4 shots in the first quarter, the Bulls opened a 27-15 lead and were never seriously threatened.
Boozer knocked down his jump shots and the Bulls used a steady diet of high screen-and-rolls by Rose and Boozer, something they haven't done much this season.
“D-Rose gets so much attention, so when he came off the pick, both of our men were going toward him,” Boozer said. “I just happened to be open.
“We haven't peaked yet. We're still getting better because our chemistry keeps growing. We get familiar with each other more and more every time we practice and play with each other. It's an exciting time.”
The Bulls won all three games against Miami during the regular season, but they were close games that could have gone either way. James and Wade have both played well in the playoffs.
“Before the season started, you couldn't write it any better,” Noah said. “Just to be in position to play those guys in the conference finals. But now we also realize it's going to be a war.
“They're playing at a pretty high level right now. They're more comfortable in what they're doing. But we are, too.”
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