The answer is: some of both. The Wizards present a matchup problem for the Bulls, possessing the necessary strengths to expose Chicago's weaknesses on both sides of the ball.
That doesn't mean the team can’t do something about it and salvage the series, though.
The Bulls' defense is predicated on the simple principle that the worst shot in basketball is the mid-range shot; therefore they force their opponents to take shots from that area.
The Bulls tend to rotate to the strong side (the side where the ball is on), use their positioning to guide the ball-handler to the baseline or into one of the bigs, thereby forcing bad shots.
They use their length to cut off passing lanes.
They use old-fashioned hustle to close hard on threes when the ball is kicked out on those rare occasions when a passing lane is found.
This video shows how the defense is supposed to work:
Most of the time these principles work. Tom Thibodeau, the Bulls head coach, ingrains them into his players. That's why the Bulls routinely have one of the top defenses in the NBA.
Where things can go awry, though, is when teams—like the Wizards—are stocked with good shooters.
Look at the Wizards' shot chart from the first two games:
The Bulls defense, in many ways, is doing what it’s supposed to do. More than half of Washington's shots are from between the two semi-circles.
When a team his hitting 44.29 percent from the long two and 42.31 percent from above the break on their three-point shot, that’s good shooting. You can force bad shot selection and challenge them, but if they go in all you can do is watch.
In essence, the Bulls' defense challenges teams to take those shots. The Wizards have accepted that challenge, and they’re beating it.
Against a defense like the Bulls', a diversity of scorers is more important than one great scorer. The Bulls can focus on one great scorer. The Wizards' best player, John Wall, is averaging 16 points but is only shooting 34.5 percent from the field.
Nene, on the other hand, is tearing things up. He’s averaging 20.5 points with a 63.3 field-goal percentage, shooting the lights out on Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah. Bradley Beal is averaging 19.5 points and has been white hot from deep, knocking treys down at a 44.4 percent rate.
Trevor Ariza is shooting 50.0 percent from the field and 45.5 percent from deep, averaging 13.0 points.
When the Bulls rotate to the strong side, that means there is an open shooter on the weak side. The Wizards are consistently finding that man and feeding him, and whoever that happens to be is consistently hitting his shots.
The Wizards are doing what teams need to in order to beat the Bulls’ vaunted defense. They’re sharing the ball, getting points from everyone and everywhere. They're making the court too big for the Bulls' rotations to cover everything that is happening.
While this has been effective, the one glimmer of hope is that the Wizards can't sustain that level of shooting success. They've done it for two games, but they haven’t shot this well on the season. They were just 37.8 percent shooting the long two, compared to 43.8 percent in their first two playoff games.
A regression to the mean might be all that's in order defensively. If the Wizards stop making shots at such an abnormal rate, that could be enough for the Bulls to win.
The news on the offensive end is easier to analyze and much more difficult to solve. In layman’s terms, during crunch time the Bulls are up a creek without a paddle, and by paddle I mean someone who can score.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, I’m going to save you a bunch of reading with one shot chart which illustrates exactly what the Bulls' problem has been in the clutch this postseason:
All that red signifies the Bulls’ blood spilling out on the floor as they are left in a shivering, dying mass when the game hits crunch time. Put it all together, and they’re a grand total of 2-of-18 in the clutch this postseason, or 11.1 percent.
When that happens, you lose.
At one point in Game 2, TNT’s Steve Kerr started to say what the Bulls could change then stopped himself, saying something to the tune of “I don’t know what they can do, to be honest with you.” (That’s the gist of it; I’m going off of memory here.)
And that’s the problem: The Bulls have no paddle. They don’t have “that guy” who can generate points down the stretch (well, they technically do in Derrick Rose, but he’s not available). They rely on a team approach, and the team isn't making shots.
Some have complained that it’s Thibodeau’s fault for not finding the right lineup. The problem with that logic is it suggests there is a right one to find. They can either hit their shots or lose. That’s about it.
Kerr doesn't know what to do. Thibodeau doesn't know what to do. I can’t tell you what they can do. That's because there's nothing they can do.
There isn't a super scorer on their bench who's going to save them. Maybe they scrape the bottom of the desperation bucket and play Jimmer Fredette, but that’s unlikely because it would come with devastating defensive consequences.
There is a chance, though, that just like the Wizards are due for a regression, the Bulls can expect a kind of “progression to the mean." They are a bad offensive team, but they’re not this bad.
Regardless of how the series plays out, particularly on offense, the Bulls have a fundamental flaw that Washington has exploited. If the Bulls are struggling this hard against the Wizards, who have the eighth-best defensive rating, can they do much better against the Pacers, who have the best?
This has been another season where “heart, hustle and muscle” got the Bulls to the postseason, but they will be unable to persevere there.
It's not a waste. This season made Noah into a star. It showed that Taj Gibson has the potential to be a starting power forward. It discovered D.J. Augustin. But it also showed that the Bulls need a player who can create and score.
The Bulls, perhaps more than any team, are one piece away from a championship. This offseason they have the means to make that happen, through trade or free agency. They have two first-round picks. They have Carlos Boozer, with his $16 million contract, whom they can amnesty or bundle with assets to finance a big trade. They have the rights to European sensation Nikola Mirotic.
If you’re looking for a silver lining behind the cloud of this postseason, it’s that they have been exposed. If you can't doing anything about it, getting exposed can be horrible, but in the Bulls' case, they can do something.
I’m just spitballing here, but if Rose and Carmelo Anthony are on the court as teammates, I’m thinking the Bulls might not be struggling so hard to score down the stretch.
Hopefully, the Bulls’ front office will learn from this and do what they can to acquire a top-tier offensive talent. Then, even if the Bulls do get bounced in the first round this year, it's not for naught.
All stats for this article are obtained from NBA.com/STATS and are current through April 24.
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