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Biggest challenge yet

Top-seeded Bulls prepare for Heat

By Andrew Seligman
Associated Press / May 14, 2011

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DEERFIELD, Ill. — Derrick Rose saw the talent, saw the attitude, and saw no reason this couldn’t be a special season for the Chicago Bulls.

Well, 62 wins and two playoff series victories later, it’s still going strong. The Bulls knocked off Atlanta Thursday and now comes their toughest test: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals.

“We know that we have something special in front of us,’’ Rose said.

Not since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were wrapping up their second championship three-peat in 1998 have the Bulls advanced this far. Not that it’s been easy, though.

Indiana put up a fight in the first round, before bowing out in five games. So did Atlanta, before the Bulls beat them, 93-73, in Game 6 Thursday.

“This is playoff basketball,’’ Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said yesterday. “Games are always going to be tough. They’re going to be tight games. You have to be able to rely on your habits, the things you’ve been doing all season long.’’

What they did during the regular season worked quite well.

After a massive roster overhaul that came on the heels of back-to-back 41-win seasons and first-round playoff exits, the Bulls won more regular-season games than any other team, locking up home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.

The moves that sparked the turnaround are well-documented, from the firing of Vinny Del Negro and hiring of Thibodeau — the coach of the year — to the execution of their backup plan after James, Wade, and Chris Bosh wound up together in Miami.

The Bulls instead got power forward Carlos Boozer and a cast of role players that gave them one of the league’s deepest rotations. Of course, it helped that a certain point guard from the city’s South Side continued his rapid rise.

Right from the start, Rose wondered why he couldn’t be the MVP. It turned out there was no reason why. Now, the question is: Can he and the Bulls beat the Heat?

“They have great players on their team,’’ Rose said. “Great passers. They have great shooters on their team.’’

The Bulls boast the youngest MVP in Rose, who at age 22 delivered one of the best all-around seasons by a point guard and became the only Chicago player not named Jordan to win the award. He averaged 25 points and 7.7 assists, making him the only player this season to rank among the top 10 in both categories.

“We’ve been a team all season,’’ Boozer said. “It hasn’t been a one-man show. But our one man’s pretty good!’’

Boozer wasn’t bad, either, in the clinching Game 6 win against Atlanta and that was a good sign for the Bulls.

Boozer scored 23 points on 10-of-16 shooting, grabbed 10 rebounds, and handed out five assists in what was easily his best performance of the postseason after being limited by a turf toe on his right foot.

If he keeps that up, he’ll be hearing more “Booz!’’ than boos from fans who had been making it clear they weren’t pleased.

“Offensively you could see he got his bounce back,’’ Thibodeau said.

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