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Bulls’ defense stifles Hawks’ top players

Hawks guard Jamal Crawford Bulls center Joakim Noah fight for loose ball. | John Bazemore~AP

Hawks guard Jamal Crawford and Bulls center Joakim Noah fight for a loose ball. | John Bazemore~AP

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Updated: June 14, 2011 12:35AM

ATLANTA — Win or lose in this series, the Bulls have had to confront the reality that the Atlanta Hawks team they’ve faced in this playoff series isn’t the same one they faced in the regular season.

It’s better.

‘‘We had respect for them from the beginning of the series,’’ Bulls guard Derrick Rose said before Game 6 on Thursday night at Philips Arena. ‘‘They’re a good team. They have a lot of good isolation players. And they make things tough on people.’’

But even Rose’s respect was tinged with a back-handed compliment: ‘‘They have a lot of good isolation players.’’ That’s been the knock on the Hawks as a playoff contender. Too much isolation. Too much one-on-one.

Even after losing the opener, all the Bulls had to do was ‘‘lock in’’ on a predictable offense and they would regain control of the series. And that’s what it looked like when the Bulls held the Hawks to 39 percent shooting in Game 2 and won 86-73.

But since then, stopping the Hawks wasn’t so easy. The Hawks became less and less one-on-one and more and more resilient. They didn’t look so much like an isolation team. They looked like a playoff team.

‘‘It has [been a mischaracterization],’’ Hawks coach Larry Drew said. ‘‘But part of that is true what they’re saying. We have a tendency to revert back to that.

‘‘In my years here, we’ve played a ton of isolation basketball. One of the things I’ve tried to do is take out some of the predictability about where the ball is going, so teams can’t load up. When we move the ball we become very effective.

At times you can get away with [isolation] against a team that’s not so good defensively. But against a team as good as Chicago is, you have to get away from just isolating. You have to move the ball, force the defense to shift and then you attack.’’

As the Hawks found out in Game 6, that’s easier said than done. The Bulls defense is ranked No. 1 in the NBA for a reason — they can adjust to whatever you throw at them. And when they’re really on their game, like they were Thursday night, they can make you a one-on-one, isolation team whether you like it or not.

That’s what they did Thursday night. They forced the Hawks to work for everything they got in the early going and then made them work even harder. That’s why the Hawks shot a respectable 47 percent (8-of-17) in the first quarter, then a not-so-respectable 29 percent (6-of-21) in the second.

By denying back-door cuts and aggressively shutting down passing lanes, the Bulls suffocated the Hawks’ offense and robbed them of their only hope to force Game 7 and turned them into an isolation team.

They ended up shooting 37 percent (27-of-74) overall and 9.1 percent (1-of-11) on three-pointers. And the result was as predictable as the Hawks’ offense: Bulls 93, Hawks 73.

‘‘I thought our defense was really good tonight,’’ Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said in a typical understatement.

It was much, much better than really good. It was as good as its been in an important game all season against a desperate team playing for its playoff life at home. Good enough that the Miami Heat had to notice.

The Hawks have had dangerous players throughout this series, but none of them made an impact in this game. Joe Johnson scored 19 points but shot 7-of-18. Al Horford, named to the All-NBA third team, scored seven points on 2-of-10 shooting. Guard Jeff Teague, an unexpected thorn through the first five games, scored four points on 2-of-6 shooting.

‘‘We got away from the things we’re [good] at,’’ Horford said. ‘‘We got some good looks and when they didn’t fall, things just snowballed on us. You have to give them credit. We were fighting. But they outplayed us.’’

The Bulls struggled more than expected in this series. ‘‘They were a load,’’ Thibodeau said. ‘‘They gave us everything we could handle.’’ But just when you wonder if they’re really a championship contender, they reach into their pocket and play defense like nobody else in the NBA does.

‘‘They don’t care about their man being open. They help each other,’’ said Smith when asked what makes the Bulls’ defense so good. ‘‘They understand the ball has to be stopped first and they do a great job of being on a string, helping each other out and communicating.

‘‘When you’re able to sacrifice for your teammates and able to [defend] that extra, extra pass, that’s what makes you a good defensive team.’’

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