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Rumors of Boozer's demise have been greatly exaggerated

by | CBSSports.com
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ATLANTA -- You've heard the criticism, and maybe you were the one saying that Carlos Boozer was done, that he was worthless, an injured shadow of his former self. Maybe you were pumped when he sat out the entire fourth quarter in Game 5 against the Hawks and watched as second-year power forward Taj Gibson showcased himself as a possible replacement for the 29-year-old Boozer.

Maybe you were the one who pointed at Gibson and said, "Get Boozer the hell out of the starting lineup and get this guy in there." You might have read the Chicago Tribune article that recently exclaimed that Boozer should be sent to the bench. Not in his uniform to back up Gibson, but in a presumably expensive suit on the inactive list.

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And I'm not saying you or him or anybody was wrong, because, for a guy in the middle of a $75 million contract, he's been awfully ineffective in the second half of the season. He had scored more than 20 points just three times since Feb. 24, and during the playoffs, he had accumulated a woeful 10.7 points-per-game average.

So yeah, Boozer was a bum. Or so we thought.

But then, Thursday night at Phillips Arena in Game 6 vs. the Hawks, Boozer was a force. A pick-and-pop master who hit just about everything he threw toward the rim. Thirty-four seconds into the game, he took a dish from league MVP Derrick Rose and slammed it with authority. Thirty-eight seconds later, Boozer connected on a 16-foot fadeaway.

And there you had it. Power and finesse from Boozer in less than 75 seconds -- a nice change of pace from inefficiencies and injuries -- and the Hawks were never a threat after Boozer's four-point surge. Seriously, Boozer had taken two shots, and Atlanta -- which rolled over 93-73 to send Chicago to the Eastern Conference finals against the Heat -- was done.

Rose's game, like usual, was pretty (19 points, 12 assists). Luol Deng continued to play solidly on offense (13 points, five rebounds, five assists). Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau put together a wonderful defensive game plan that stymied Atlanta from doing much of anything.

But the difference? The difference was the guy you've been bashing since he hurt his toe and injured his ankle. The difference was Boozer and his game-high 23 points and his 10 points and his five assists.

"I felt good," said Boozer, who then changed his mind only 17 words later. "I felt great."

The impact on his team was immediate and undeniable.

At the end of Game 5, if you'll recall, Boozer was reduced to a spectator for the entire fourth quarter, his warm-ups on as he and Joakim Noah cheered on as the Bulls pulled away from the Hawks. A few minutes later, in the locker room, Boozer looked over as the media showered attention on Gibson -- who was explosive in Game 5 in place of Boozer -- and smiled.

Like he knew something we didn't.

The Hawks certainly weren't aware of a change in the cosmic universe before Thursday's game. When Boozer picked Rose's defender, they expected him to roll toward the basket, like usual. As a result, the defender covering Boozer and the defender covering Rose both followed Rose. The problem with that strategy being that Boozer didn't roll to the basket. Instead, he shot it. And the ball kept falling through the net.

"Tonight, he was picking and popping, and when he starts hitting that 15 or 17-foot jumpshot, it makes it really tough," said Kyle Korver. "It's so big. When he plays like he does tonight -- when you're going to have to game plan for what he did tonight -- it just opens up the floor for everybody else. If we want to be a great team, he needs to play well."

Said Noah: "The guy was hurt, and you guys were so quick to hate on him, you know? To be in his position and to have a game the way he played today, I'm sure it will shut up a lot of the critics. The way he played tonight showed how important he is to this team."

Boozer's big day actually occurred at practice Wednesday. That's when he knew his injuries actually felt a little bit better. That's when he knew Thursday's game might be a little different. That's when he could stretch his legs and grin.

"I," Boozer said, "was looking forward to tonight's game."

Boozer then smiled sweetly at his postgame news conference. Wednesday, he knew something you didn't. On Thursday, he shared that knowledge. Namely, that you and I were wrong. That Boozer is still a major danger for his opponent. That he can help make Rose and Deng and Noah that much more dangerous. That he can help the Bulls win an NBA championship.

And at the very least, that he shouldn't be the guy who powerlessly wears a suit on the sidelines, on the inactive list and irrelevant.

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