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Bulls ready to show LeBron James, Heat that battle has just begun

Derrick Rose (1) has shown he has knack doing whis necessary whe will need it against LeBrJames (6) Heas Bulls

Derrick Rose (1) has shown he has the knack of doing what is necessary to win, and he will need it against LeBron James (6) and the Heat as the Bulls advance to the conference finals. “It’s going to be a dogfight,” Kyle Korver predicts. | Getty Images

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Updated: June 14, 2011 12:34AM

ATLANTA — There was at least one way to interpret LeBron James’ public display of emotion after his team knocked off the Celtics on ­Wednesday night: He believed the Heat had cleared its biggest hurdle.

If I might take that interpretation to its logical conclusion, King James believes that by comparison, the Bulls will be relatively easy.

James took a knee on the court, put a hand over his eyes and paused to consider the magnitude of what his team had just accomplished. One couldn’t help but think of Michael Jordan crying while clutching the championship trophy.

Except that LeBron had just won an Eastern Conference semifinal series.

Maybe James is right about the degree of difficulty going into the conference finals, but surely the Bulls noticed how he carried on after ridding himself of the bad memories of Celtics series past. Surely they noticed it looked as if they were bit players in the LeBron James Show.

Mountain or molehill?

At his postgame news conference, James talked about his poor performance against Boston last year, his stressful offseason and his decision to leave Cleveland for Miami.

He sure sounded like a guy who had just climbed the highest mountain.

I’m confused. Does that make the Bulls a foothill or a molehill?

We’ll begin to find out Sunday at the United Center. The Bulls finally knocked off the Hawks 93-73 on Thursday, and the Heat might have paid attention long enough to notice how the Bulls did it. They played defense with a fury.

Oh, and that Carlos Boozer guy, the one who had been reported missing, showed up and scorched the Hawks for 23 points. The Heat might have noticed that too.

The Bulls have a chance against Miami in the conference finals if Boozer can play like that. They certainly will have some motivation. The Heat doesn’t just act like the best team in the NBA; it’s playing like it.

“It’s going to be a dogfight of a series,’’ Bulls forward Kyle Korver said. “They’re a great team, and they’re playing about as well as they can play.’’

Derrick Rose had 19 points on 8-of-14 shooting, a far cry from his big scoring nights in this series. But he saw all he needed to see when Boozer opened the game hitting shots. That’s the kind of unselfish player Rose is. He’ll score 44 points if he senses nobody else on the roster has a clue how to put the ball in the basketball. He’ll gladly pass it if somebody wants to help out with the scoring.

There’s no doubt the Heat had an easier time of it in the semifinals than the Bulls did. Miami dominated the Celtics while the Bulls struggled with the Hawks. The Heat raised its game in the playoffs. The Bulls were inconsistent in that department.

But if you’re looking for good omens, look no farther than Thursday. The Bulls played like the locked-in team they had been in the regular season. A lot of that had to do with Boozer, who started shooting the outside jumper early and never stopped. High-arcing shot after high-arcing shot swished perfectly.

But for all that, Thibodeau used the same fourth-quarter lineup Thursday night as he did in Game 5: Rose, Luol Deng, Omer Asik, Taj Gibson and Ronnie Brewer. That might not scare James, but the Hawks certainly didn’t know what to do with it.

The Heat has James and Dwyane Wade, the two prime free-agent catches of last offseason. Late Thursday night, the questions were already starting: Whom do the Bulls have besides Rose?

Bulls tightened the screws

“I trust in my teammates,’’ Rose said, a bit defensively. “… I think my teammates are damn good.’’

And they play defense. They held Atlanta to 36.5 percent ­shooting in Game 6. The Hawks had to work hard for every shot, and many of those shots were of the ugly variety. As the series wore on, Joe Johnson looked more and more human.

“They played him very, very physical,’’ Hawks coach Larry Drew said. “… They made it really ­difficult for him.’’

The top-seeded Bulls were ­supposed to get to this point, but it has been a fight all the way through the playoffs, first with the Pacers and then with the Hawks. The ­season has been a tough road, period. They went through long periods without Boozer and Joakim Noah because of injury.

“We’re a team,’’ Noah said. “We’ve been through a lot. We dealt with adversity throughout the year, injuries, people doubting certain players, and we just stuck together through it all.

“To be in this position right now, to fight for a championship, it’s an unbelievable feeling.’’

It was a shirtless, defiant Noah who had set the tone for this Bulls season after James had made his nationally televised “Decision.’’ While the world talked about the superteam Miami had put together, Noah declared he was happy with his team. He also said he would see the Heat down the road.

Well, here they are, the Heat and the Bulls together, down the road. The Bulls won all three regular-season games against Miami. Does LeBron remember any of that?

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