ATLANTA-- Leon Smith made his NBA debut Thursday night, and there's no question that his road has been tough.
The Bulls know that drill, albeit in a more trivial manner.
The Bulls were the league's last team to win a road game this season--by weeks.
"The stars were lined up for us," coach Bill Cartwright said.
That doesn't credit the Bulls' defense enough.
Both teams lost seven-point leads, and the lead changed hands three times in the final 1:42.
Ron Mercer first played strong defense on a Dion Glover jumper and then drained a 16-foot jumper with 37.3 seconds remaining to give the Bulls the lead for good at 92-91.
Cartwright went to a small, defensive-oriented lineup on Atlanta's next possession, with an assist to Jess Kersey. The veteran referee chewed out Marcus Fizer for protesting a call and told Cartwright to control him.
"I would've made the move anyway, but Jess came by and said maybe you should try that," Cartwright said, smiling.
The lineup forced Ron Artest to guard Shareef Abdur-Rahim. Ceding 2 inches, Artest forced Abdur-Rahim into a baseline jumper that went off the side of the backboard.
"I made him think he could beat me left, and then I cut him off because I'm so quick," Artest said.
Atlanta fouled Mercer, and he sank two free throws with 15.3 seconds remaining for his team-high 19 points and a three-point lead. Jason Terry, who led Atlanta with 25 points and 10 assists, rushed a three-pointer over pressure from Kevin Ollie and missed.
But these are the Bulls.
Artest grabbed the rebound and passed it to Mercer, who lost it to Glover. His three-pointer at the buzzer went just long.
"You have to give credit to Cartwright," Mercer said. "He's got everybody believing. We're ready to go through a brick wall for him. The whole defensive scheme has changed, and everybody is buying into it."
The Hawks have bought into Smith, the former King High School star whose past includes a suicide attempt and a CBA stint. Smith, on a 10-day contract, had two points and three rebounds in nine minutes.
Bulls center Brad Miller lost seven pounds to a flu bout but had a huge game with 12 points, 12 rebounds and six assists.
And the Bulls got a big lift from forward Eddie Robinson, who shot 8-of-12 for 16 points in 17 minutes--two more than he was supposed to play.
"I told [athletic trainer Fred Tedeschi] that he was the reason we won," Cartwright joked.
Robinson had no pain in his big left toe.
"I've got my rhythm," he said.
BULLS 94, HAWKS 91