Perfect time for peak performance

ATLANTA -- Yep, Chicago fans are tough all right, the media unforgiving. And we've all been hard on Carlos Boozer, who proved Thursday night in Game 6 why we were right.

When Boozer is the player he can be, the player he was brought to the Bulls to be, the player signed to five seasons for $80 million, the Chicago Bulls are a legitimate contender for an NBA title.

"We're 10 times better," said Taj Gibson after Boozer's best playoff game as a Bull.

Coming just in the nick of time, Boozer's game-high 23 points on 10-of-16 shooting, 10 rebounds and five assists played a huge role in vaulting Chicago into the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 1998 with a convincing 93-73 victory over the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena.

It also had to send a chill through the Miami Heat, as a total-team performance led by Boozer showed just how difficult the Bulls can be to defend when a defense can't merely collapse on Derrick Rose.

"It's so big," Bulls guard Kyle Korver said. "When [Boozer] plays like he did tonight, when you can game plan for him like we did, it just opens up the floor for everyone else. If we're going to be a great team, he needs to play well. In a lot of ways, tonight was the game we wanted to play for the next series."

Boozer's slowly improving turf toe -- sustained late in the season and reaggravated during the first-round series against the Indiana Pacers -- felt the best it had felt on Wednesday and Boozer had said that he was "looking forward" to Thursday's game.

He demonstrated that immediately by scoring seven of the Bulls' first 11 points, hitting his first four shots, all jumpers, before missing a tip-in as the first quarter concluded with the Bulls having set a commanding tone with a 10-point lead. He then connected on his only two shots of the second quarter.

"I tried to play off D-Rose and take what was given to me. It felt great," Boozer said.

As opposed to his usual pick-and-roll with Rose, Boozer picked and popped, making you wonder just how much more effective he will be if he can add more of an inside game to his arsensal in the next round.

"[Rose] gets so much attention that whenever he comes off the pick, both men are going with him," Boozer said. "The 15-to-17-foot jumper was open and I just shot it."

His seven field goals Thursday were three more than Boozer made in the first five games of the series combined, though this was his second consecutive double-double after his 11-point, 12-rebound effort in Game 5.

Boozer's teammates have been protective of him, and Joakim Noah was especially defiant after Thursday night's victory.

"I'm really proud of him because he's somebody who has dealt with a lot of things this year," Noah said. "Chicago is not an easy place to play and for him to step up the way he stepped up. … I'm sure he's feeling great. The guy was hurt and you guys were so quick to hate on him. For him to be in this position and have a game the way he played today, I'm sure it's going to shut up a lot of critics."

But ailing or not, Boozer's role as the Bulls' biggest free-agent signing came with big expectations. And when he returned from his season-starting 15-game stint on the injured list with a broken right hand and scored 12, 25 and 29 points in his second, third and fourth games back, he only raised the bar further.

Soon after, the obvious became even more so. If Boozer was scoring and rebounding as he had in the past, at least close to the 20-and-10 range, the Bulls were going to be an unwelcome opponent come playoff time.

The Hawks experienced that firsthand.

"You have him scoring and playing big like that," Atlanta guard Joe Johnson said after Thursday's game, "obviously they're going to be tough to beat."

"When he has that confidence," Gibson said, "that jump shot is going down, his post work is looking real good and he just provides us with that punch."

More importantly, a huge load is lifted off Rose, who can play a more traditional point guard role as he did Thursday (albeit with a superb 19 points and 12 assists) and, as an added bonus, still be there in the clutch if needed.

"I think all of us have to do our jobs," Boozer said. "We've been a team all season. It hasn't been a one-man show, but our one man is pretty good."

The pressure is also lifted off Boozer, who can be less-than-spectacular defensively when he's giving the Bulls 20-and-10.

"Tonight raised his confidence a little bit more and I think it's going to help next series," Rose said.

It's going to have to.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.