The Chicago Bulls were turned down by LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
Now, they'll have a chance to beat 'em.
With MVP Derrick Rose in more of a supporting role, the Bulls cruised into the Eastern Conference final with a 93-73 rout of the Atlanta Hawks on Thursday night, wrapping up the series in six games.
But Rose will surely play a leading part in the next round, when the Bulls take on Miami's super trio of James, Wade and Chris Bosh. Game 1 is Sunday in Chicago.
"It's going to be a great matchup," Rose said. "We're fine with being considered the underdog."
The Bulls made a serious bid to sign James and Wade last summer, hoping they'd team with Rose in their own version of the Big Three. Of course, those two wound up in south Florida with Bosh, a group that knows anything less than a championship will be considered a failure.
But, first, they'll have to get by the Bulls.
Chicago, it turns out, won more games than anyone during the regular season with one star and plenty of guys around him who play their parts to perfection.
That was never more apparent than the series-clinching win against the Hawks.
Carlos Boozer scored 23 points on 10-of-16 shooting, grabbed 10 rebounds and handed out five assists. Luol Deng hit some big baskets early and finished with 13 points, plus five steals. Joakim Noah scored 11 and stifled the Hawks with three blocks. Omer Asik chipped in with two swats of his own. Keith Bogans made only one basket, but it was a big 3-pointer as the Bulls put it away in the third quarter.
And, boy, did everyone play some defense.
"What goes underrated about them is the depth of their team," said Atlanta's Al Horford, who had a miserable night and a tough series overall. "They just wear on you. They just kept coming, kept coming every game. It seemed like their starters were fresh."
Rose was hardly invisible, scoring 19 points and dishing out 12 assists. But he took a playoff-low 14 shots and finished with his second-lowest scoring total of the postseason, content to let his teammates carry the load.
"D-Rose gets so much attention," said Boozer, who had been bothered by a toe injury and come under criticism at home for inconsistent play. "The 15-footer was open for me. I shot it."
Chicago shared the ball on offense, earning assists on all but seven of its 41 baskets. And the Bulls never let up at the defensive end, limiting the Hawks to just 37 percent on 27-of-74 shooting.
"They just got on a roll," said Joe Johnson, who led Atlanta with 19 points. "Boozer probably had his best game that he played all series. ... You have him scoring and playing big like that, obviously they're going to be tough to beat."
The Bulls haven't been this far since 1998, when Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were on their way to a second three-peat. Pippen sat near the Chicago bench, relishing a new generation that's carried his old team into contention for another championship.
"When we showed up for training camp, we knew we could be special," Rose said. "We were ready to put in the work and not be concerned with statistics. We just were concerned with winning each night."
Atlanta had hoped to extend this series to a Game 7, feeling the pressure would be squarely on the Bulls if it came down to a winner-take-all. But Chicago squashed those hopes right from the opening tip. The Bulls never trailed, and the lead was 10 by the end of the first quarter.
With the loss, Atlanta extended an infamous playoff mark: The Hawks have never advanced past the second round since moving from St. Louis in 1968.
Besides Johnson, Josh Smith was the only other Atlanta player in double figures with 18. The Hawks took a big blow in the first half when point guard Jeff Teague, the most surprising player in the series, took a nasty fall along the baseline.
He went straight to the X-ray room, his right arm dangling limply beside him as he trotted off in obvious pain. Nothing was broken, but it turned out both wrists were sprained.
Teague returned late in the second quarter all taped up, but it didn't help much. He scored just 4 points on 2-of-6 shooting.
"It was pretty bad," Teague said. "It was pretty tough to hold the ball. There was no way I could shoot the ball."
But he was hardly the only one who struggled. Horford, who had been named to the All-NBA third team earlier in the day, went 2 of 10. So did Jamal Crawford, the victim of persistent double-teaming ever since he had a big game in Atlanta's surprising Game 1 win.
Chicago led by 17 in the first half. Atlanta made a late surge, the crowd on its feet when Smith pulled off a spectacular dunk on a lob from Johnson — despite getting a shove from Noah as he was soaring toward the hoop.
But a big call went against Smith, costing the Hawks a chance to cut the gap to single figures before halftime. He scored off another fast break, and the referees had to confer before ruling Rose had drawn the offensive foul. Smith grabbed his head in disbelief and pleaded with the officials, to no avail.
Chicago settled for a 45-35 halftime lead and never let the margin below double figures over the final two quarters.
"We're happy to get to the conference finals," Rose said, "but we're not planning to stop right there."
NOTES: The Hawks stuck with their big lineup, starting Jason Collins at center for the third straight game and bringing F Marvin Williams off the bench. Williams failed to score in 15 minutes. ... Chicago's Taj Gibson had 10 points and four rebounds in less than 14 minutes.
- Joe Johnson
- MVP Derrick Rose
- Jeff Teague
- Luol Deng
- Dwyane Wade
- F Marvin Williams
- Josh Smith
- Carlos Boozer
- Chicago Bulls
- point guard
- Atlanta Hawks
- LeBron James
- Chris Bosh