The Chicago Bulls are set to square off against the Brooklyn Nets in their first-round series of the playoffs. It’s a very winnable series for the Bulls, with or without Derrick Rose, provided they follow the right blueprint.
First, though, let’s review the last update on the status of Rose. According to Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times, Tom Thibodeau, when asked about the possibility of Rose returning for Game 1, said, ““It could be, He’s still not ready,” thus giving every Bulls fan a reason to believe what they want to and fear what they don’t want to, regardless of which side of the “should he return” fence they are on.
Without Rose, and pretty much without a gob of other players too, the Bulls have won three of four against the Nets, and there’s good reason for that. They are well equipped to handle the Nets. The following factors are ranked according to how crucial they are.
One of the main reasons the Bulls have beaten the Nets in spite of missing players is that they are inherently equipped to beat them. Based on the Synergy Scouting Report, they are strong on defense where the Nets are strong on offense, but they are strong on offense where the Nets are weak.
The Nets are largely dependent on their spot-up shooting and isolation offense to accrue points. The spot up accounts for 20.4 percent of their offense, and the Bulls are ranked fifth in the league in defending it. The Nets are fourth in isolation offense, which accounts for 13.7 percent of their offense, but the Bulls are also effective at guarding that, ranking 11th in the league.
Meanwhile, the Bulls use the post-up most effectively, ranking 16th in the league while the Nets only rank 27th in defending it.
If the Bulls stick to their strengths, they should be able to control the tempo and tenor of the series, and if they do that, they have the big advantage.
The Bulls must command the glass if they are going to win. Second-chance points are a deciding factor in whether the Nets win or lose all season. They average 15.5 in wins and 12.2 in losses. That’s the difference between fifth and 22nd in the league.
Also, the Nets are 35-9 when they have more defensive rebounds than their opponents, and they are 11-22 when they have fewer.
Challenging jump shots and forcing misses only helps if you get the rebound. The Bulls have shown themselves to be especially susceptible to long rebounds this year. They need to be aggressive on the defensive glass and limit the Nets' points off of offensive rebounds if they are going to win this series.
The Bulls, by necessity, often need to settle for long twos. Without Rose, they are compelled to either work the ball inside with their passing or pull up and take longer jump shots. When they struggle, they try to work from outside in, rather than from inside out.
According to NBA.com/stats, when the Bulls win, they attempt fewer long twos (27.4) but make more (11.0) compared to when they lose, making just 9.4 shots on 28.8 attempts.
The Bulls point guards, Kirk Hinrich and Nate Robinson, and Robinson in particular, must let the passing game set up their shooting, rather than trying to set up their passing with their shooting. When they just start firing up and missing jump shots, defenses are able to cheat on the passing lanes and stop interior passing, which in turn forces turnovers and disrupts the entire offense.
The Bulls point guards need to be patient and not force up shots. Let the inside game set up the outside game, and it will come automatically.
From a pure basketball fan’s point of view, there’s a certain joy in watching players like Gerald Wallace and Luol Deng go at it. They are two of the best two-way small forwards in the game today.
In terms of how they’ve gone this season, whoever wins that battle wins the game. Deng has played Wallace exceptionally well, keeping him to just six points per game, below his 7.7 per game overall. Wallace has gathered up seven missed shots a game though, above his season average of 4.6.
That may have something to do with the Bulls needing to go small, with Taj Gibson, Carlos Boozer or Joakim Noah each missing at least one of the games and the trio only being present for one of them.
Deng has averaged 15.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.5 assists against the Nets. That’s slightly lower than his season averages, which isn’t surprising considering Wallace’s defensive prowess. To win this series Deng doesn’t need to be spectacular, he just needs to be better than Wallace.
The Bulls gave up a field-goal percentage of just 38.2 percent in that range, 10th best in the league. This was in spite of the fact that they were missing their two best defenders in the paint for large portions of the season.
Joakim Noah, who missed 16 games, yielded a field-goal percentage of just .358 on jumpers, and Taj Gibson, who missed 17 games, saw opponents shoot just .310 against him. They are the anchors of the Bulls interior defense.
Yet both are possibly going to be on limited minutes. It will be critical for at least one of them to be in the game at all times to limit the damage of Nets jump shooting in the paint, in particular from their center, Brook Lopez, who is the Nets' second leading, and most efficient, scorer.
The Nets tend to win or lose based on whether or not Joe Johnson outplays his opponent. When Johnson wins the efficiency battle, the Nets are 19-5. When he loses it, they are 13-19. In the games where Johnson wins the battle, his average efficiency recap is 19.2. When he loses the personal battle, it’s 9.3.
In the one instance when Butler started at shooting guard and was responsible for guarding Joe Johnson, he absolutely put the clamps on him. While Butler racked up an efficiency of 18, Johnson was held to six, in large part because of a meager .364 shooting.
Butler is long for a shooting guard and does a fantastic job of keeping his feet between his opponent and the basket. By keeping Johnson out of the paint, Butler will cause him to force up bad shots, become inefficient and waste possessions.
Over his past 10 games, Johnson is averaging 14.1 points, 2.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.0 steal per game with a true shooting percentage of .500.
Right now, Butler is playing better than Johnson. He is a better defender than Johnson. He has a definitive chance to claim this positional battle, and if he does, the Bulls will win the series.
If there was ever a chance for Boozer to prove himself, this is it. He’s been the Bulls' leading scorer against the Nets this season, averaging 21.3 points in the three games he’s played.
And he only has to “guard” Reggie Evans, who really doesn’t need to be guarded. Based on Synergy stats, he’s only made 125 field goals all season, and 42 of those have come off of offensive rebounds, meaning that he’s averaging about one field goal per game out of an offensive set.
According to Synergy, Evans averages .77 points per play, 399th in the NBA, which, in layman’s terms, is “really bad.” Even Boozer can defend that.
On the other hand, Boozer averages .90 points per play offensively. What's even juicier is that Evans is actually an even worse defender than Boozer, yielding .91 points per play (compared to Boozer’s .84).
And where Boozer’s main offense (34 percent of his offensive plays) comes from, on the post-up, Evans is especially susceptible, giving up 1.05 points per play, which ranks 266th in the league.
Boozer has a fantastic chance to dominate. He’s going against a player that is pretty much in the lineup exclusively for the purpose of rebounding, something that Boozer has also done extremely well.
This is the best chance Boozer has had yet to step out of the gloom that has covered him since tripping over his gym bag shortly after signing his contract.