Hawks’ confidence growing after split in Chicago

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ATLANTA (AP) - Larry Drew likes the look of these playoffs.

He’s feeling pretty good about his own team, too.

There are upsets all around in the NBA postseason. Top-seeded San Antonio has already been eliminated. The defending champion Los Angeles Lakers are in trouble. And Drew, the rookie coach of the Atlanta Hawks, sees no reason why his own team can’t go farther than anyone would’ve expected.

“This thing is wide open,” he said Thursday.

The Hawks have already knocked out Dwight Howard and Orlando, a team that swept Atlanta from the playoffs in lopsided fashion a year ago. They’re trying to follow a similar script in the Eastern Conference semifinals, having stolen a victory in Game 1 against the Chicago Bulls, a 62-win juggernaut during the regular season.

Even coming off a series-tying loss, the Hawks are exuding confidence as they return home for the next two contests. Game 3 is Friday, which shapes up as the most significant night in 14 years for a franchise that has largely been an NBA wasteland.

“We feel good about where we’re at,” said Jamal Crawford, the Hawks‘ super sub. “We feel like we took their best punch.”

Chicago, of course, would prefer to follow the script. The Bulls won 18 more game than Atlanta during the regular season and are in no mood to be the fodder for another playoff upset.

After a shocking 103-95 defeat in the series opener, Chicago played with a sense of desperation Thursday night. The Bulls dominated the boards 58-39, turned the Hawks‘ offense into a stagnant mess (34 percent shooting), hustled for seemingly every loose ball and pulled away for an 86-73 victory.

“We can always step it up. You can always improve in each game,” league MVP Derrick Rose said. “But we’ve got to continue to make hustle plays because it’s just going to get harder.”

Indeed, the Hawks actually took some comfort from the way they lost.

Despite the obvious deficiencies, Atlanta was still in the game with about 4 minutes left, trailing by six and poised to pull off another upset. It didn’t work out, but the Hawks know they can stick with a team that put up the best record in the league.

“Whatever doubt might have been seeping into our guys’ heads, that doubt was erased after Game 1,” Drew said. “Even though we lost Game 2, there wasn’t a knockout blow. There was all this talk about how they would come out with all this energy and everything. Well, we didn’t feel that. … They didn’t put us away.”

At the end, they did.

Now it’s back to Atlanta to play in front of what figures to be a raucous sellout crown, an anomaly in this attendance-challenged city. This is the most important home playoff game for the Hawks since 1997, when they also were tied 1-1 in a second-round series against the Michael Jordan-led Bulls.

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