The Atlanta Hawks stared down Superman and they weren’t blinking against the Bulls, either.
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Joe Johnson scored 34 points and Atlanta beat top-seeded Chicago 103-95 on Monday night in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
As if the loss itself wasn’t bad enough, the Bulls got a scare when Derrick Rose came up limping after he turned his left ankle at the end of the game. Their MVP candidate stepped on Jamal Crawford’s foot as he dribbled out the final seconds and was helped off by teammates and a trainer.
”I should be OK,” Rose said. ”I’ll probably get treatment right now, go home, get some more treatment and be ready to go for (Game 2) Wednesday.”
There were several media reports Monday night that Rose would be announced as the MVP, making him the youngest player to receive the award and only the second Bull along with Michael Jordan.
That announcement is expected Tuesday, with the presentation at Game 2 on Wednesday. If the Bulls keep playing like this, that could be their final appearance at the United Center.
The Hawks went on a 15-2 run that bridged the third and fourth quarters to turn a 69-65 deficit into an 80-71 lead with 10:27 remaining.
Johnson hit three 3-pointers and scored 11 points during that stretch, and the Hawks hung on.
Johnson was brilliant, hitting 12 of 18 shots and all five 3-point attempts. Crawford scored 22 points, and Jeff Teague added 10 while starting at the point for the injured Kirk Hinrich and wound up getting the game ball from coach Larry Drew.
”We’re the team that nobody talks about,” Crawford said.
Well, this is a good way to get them talking – shoot 51.3 percent against one of the league’s stingiest defenses and take a series opener.
As alarming as all that was for the Bulls, though, the sight of Rose limping off sent a real shiver through Chicago.
”It’s tough when your best player is limping off the court with an injury that you know he’s had before,” center Joakim Noah said. ”It’s tough, but right now, we have a game on Wednesday in less than 48 hours.”
Rose twisted the same ankle in the opening round against Indiana, but even before he limped off the court, this certainly wasn’t his best night.
He scored 24 points, but he was just 11 of 27 from the field and did not attempt a free throw.
Luol Deng scored 21 points for Chicago while Carlos Boozer added 14 points and eight rebounds despite a turf toe injury on his right foot. But it was a rough night overall for the Bulls – particularly on defense.
”The intensity wasn’t right,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. ”The start of the game was poor in terms of ball direction, in terms of challenging shots, in terms of showing help. There wasn’t one aspect of the defense that was good. They’re too good of a team to play like that.”
Pushed by Indiana in a tough five-game opening series, they fought through a brutal first quarter to pull within one point at halftime and led by as many as six in the third quarter before this one slipped away.
Johnson started the go-ahead run with two free throws with just under a minute left in the third, and Zaza Pachulia hit two more with less than a second left in the quarter to put the Hawks ahead for good, 72-71.
Johnson then hit a 3 off a turnover by Deng to start the fourth. Teague added a floater and Crawford nailed a 3 to make it 80-71.
”I just want to come out and be aggressive and make plays,” Johnson said. ”Collectively, as a team, we’ve been great in the postseason. We’ve approached every game with intensity.”
The night started with a strong rendition of the Star Spangled Banner by Jim Cornelison, fans erupting as he belted out ”land of the free and the home of the brave” in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s killing. They also cheered loudly when Thibodeau was present the Coach of the Year trophy before the opening tip, but a slow start by the Bulls quickly killed the good vibe.
A team that catapulted to a league-best 62 wins on the strength of its defense watched as Atlanta hit 13 of 22 shots in the first quarter while grabbing a 28-18 lead. The Bulls, meanwhile, missed their first nine shots and were 6 of 21 in the quarter, with Rose missing all seven shots.
They settled for jumpers, particularly in the early going, and couldn’t pull this one out in the end.
”Nobody gave us a shot in this series,” Atlanta’s Josh Smith said. ”We’re here now up 1-0.”
NOTES: Boozer had strong praise for Thibodeau. ”So proud of him, well-deserved. Incredible coach. I told you guys all year long I was really impressed by his approach to the game, his preparation, the way he’s been able to use us all together – different guys from different teams, different talents – and put this team together the way he has, to make us be successful in this system.” … Besides having Teague start for Hinrich, the Hawks went with Marvin Williams at small forward after he came off the bench in the opening round.