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Bulls Have a Problem with Yao and Houston
by Sam Smith
Posted on Feb 4
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It seems a waste, sometimes, to go up to some of the Bulls players after a loss, like Tuesday’s 107-100 defeat in Houston.
Invariably—and this time it was Luol Deng—someone will say, as Deng did, “We weren’t getting enough stops.”
And everyone will write it down as if it is some profound declaration.
No one really ever says exactly why they didn’t get enough stops. So I will.
They are not a good defensive team.
It took me this long to figure that out?
Not exactly as it’s generally been no secret with the Bulls ranking in the middle toward the bottom in most defensive categories.
What the Bulls are is a pretty good, young, athletic team, which was clear against the Rockets, who are slow, methodical and with more talent than the Bulls, especially Yao Ming, who had 28 points to match Luol Deng’s 28 points, which was a season high and Deng’s fourth consecutive game of at least 20 points.
But it was how those points came.
The Rockets constantly went to Yao, who got Joakim Noah in foul trouble during the National Anthem, or so it seemed, and worked off Yao in a disciplined half court game. Except, of course, when Ron Artest was in the game and took shots when it occurred to him. Actually, Artest was relatively disciplined for him with 10 points on five of nine shooting.
His greatest entertainment was being defended by Andres Nocioni. This is like standing around and watching a fuse burn. You know there’s an explosion coming. Those two are the hardest foulers in the NBA. You don’t get three-point plays when they guard you. No one bangs down harder on a shooter’s arms than either of them. So when Nocioni did it to Artest late in the second quarter and Artest started to react with the Rockets ahead 39-32, the referees quickly called a technical foul on Nocioni and sent Artest to a neutral corner.
The Bulls, actually, did about what they could do against a team like the Rockets, at least playing like the Bulls played.
They trailed the entire game after missing their first 10 shots and falling behind 7-1 before Derrick Rose got loose on a back cut for a lay in.
“We didn’t stop and we kept playing until the end,” said Rose, who had a quiet 12 points with seven assists and zero turnovers. “Houston is a very good team and is very hard to match up with.”
The Rockets did a nice job trapping Rose out high and stringing him out on the Bulls pick and roll.
I was thrilled to actually see Noah diving to the basket on one of those traps coming out of a timeout midway through the second quarter with Houston up 33-26. The Bulls generally come out of timeouts with Ben Gordon, who had 20 with two after-the-game-was-decided threes, coming off a screen for a shot. But this time Rose got the ball on top and Yao shaded left to him and Noah dove past Yao for a pass from Rose and slam dunk.
I’d love to see the Bulls big men, for want of a better description, doing more of that as teams continue to trap Rose and try to keep him out of the lane. Noah has done a better job of that lately, though on those plays Tyrus Thomas still tends to float outside.
Thomas had good numbers again, 14 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks, but he’s perhaps the example of the player that the Bulls misuse.
Thomas tries to block just about everything, and one of the highlights of the Bulls play of late has been the way he comes from the weak side for blocks, sort of the way Ben Wallace made his reputation in Detroit.
The issue for the Bulls, and which a smart Houston team took advantage of, was the way Luis Scola with 13 points and 18 rebounds, constantly got into the rebounding position vacated by Thomas’ over hustle.
It’s hardly Thomas’ fault as he’s trying to make plays, and should be congratulated for that. But rarely do the Bulls come with help behind Thomas.
What happens to the Bulls on defense is they are forever trying to compensate for someone’s defensive mistake.
The Bulls were able to put Gordon on Shane Battier, who rarely if ever shoots and doesn’t post up. So they weren’t hurt there. But later when the Rockets played smaller guards, like Aaron Brooks off the bench with 18, the Bulls were being beaten off the dribble, the interior guys closing and Houston getting open shots when they weren’t dumping it in to Yao. When the Rockets did that, the Bulls half court defense had to reach, generally coming from the top on the double. But Yao is too good a passer now to give him trouble with that.
“I wanted to have the ball deep and try to draw the defense and double teams so that I could see that I could do something or just kick it out,” said Yao.
Gordon and Rose get beat on penetration too often. Thomas and Nocioni are generally chasing plays and out of position. Deng is not athletic enough to stay in front of the quick threes, and Tracy McGrady gave him fits Tuesday with 16 points and one particularly humorous moment in the first quarter when McGrady had an explosive left handed dunk in Thomas’ face after Thomas has been all over the court before then and just had blocked Scola on the last possession.
McGrady then stopped to pose and stare at Thomas.
“I’ve been telling myself to go to the basket and be aggressive,” said McGrady. “I’ve been kind of hesitant to jump off my leg and tonight it was just one of those moments where you got a guy down there that can block shots and he’s going to try to jump and block everything. My mentality was to go in there and go with strength and I put one down on him.”
The Bulls can’t match up with a team like Houston, and especially someone like Yao, not that many teams can.
“We just force-fed Yao,” said Brooks. “When you’ve got a horse like that in the middle, he can make so many mismatch problems. We found him, he found us and that’s how we got it done.”
So how does a team like the Bulls counter that?
They did a heck of a job of it….in the last minute of the game.
That’s when the Bulls trapped and pressured, got a steal on an inbounds play, had the slower Rockets flat footed and outscored them 13-6 in the last 95 seconds.
“At the end of the game our mental discipline just wasn’t there,” said Rockets coach Rick Adelman. “We gave up two threes and one of them was because we were trying to get a steal in the back court. We talked about if we get in trouble calling a timeout. We took a jumper with 12 seconds on the clock. It was almost like we did everything possible to get them back in the game and they got back in the game.”
Not really as the Bulls got within 101-95 with 43 seconds left after Rose scored off that out of bounds steal. But Brooks effectively ended it with a driving score and the Bulls were left to foul.
You can say it didn’t mean anything as the Bulls fell behind 97-81 with four minutes left after a Brooks three from the corner off triple teaming of Yao in deep.
But, to me, the Bulls just showed how they need to play.
They have been playing well and competing hard, and they did again Tuesday. But lost in that nice win in Phoenix Saturday was they still gave up 111 points.
This Bulls team, like it or not, is going to give up a lot of points.
So they need to score a lot, and they can.
They led the Rockets in fast break points 14-2, and they really need to play more like the Suns of recent vintage.
Repeat after me: We are not going to get stops.
Stops at the end of games win games, and win championships. The Bulls are not playing for that. Not now, anyway.
So play to win, and use what you have.
They have one of the great finishers and fast break players already in Rose. Rookie point guard? Not him. Gordon remains a tough cover in the open court pulling up and stepping into a three. Deng’s points Tuesday came mostly on pull up jumpers in transition. Noah has been running the court of late, at least when he’s not in foul trouble. Thomas is all athlete.
This is not a half court team, and it doesn’t have a very sophisticated half court offense.
They are at their best when they speed the game, and if you do that perhaps you make Yao uncomfortable and he gets in foul trouble trying to run with you and if he has to run, that could put McGrady in traction for a month.
The Bulls tried some things, though not successfully.
They tried to use the zone early after pulling within 11-9. But Houston is too controlled for that and quickly Battier got open for a three and Carl Landry got inside for a score with the zone not a good defense for finding your man.
The Bulls quickly abandoned it and got within 20-18 after one quarter as Thomas snuck behind the defense for a lob from Deng.
Not much the Bulls tried seem to bother Yao, especially Noah, who continued to be called for the same foul for putting two hands in Yao’s back. That’s pretty much an automatic. One hand or the forearm. Sorry.
“It was tough,” said Noah. “There was very little I could do. I got some early touch fouls and I never got in my rhythm. Yao has great size and touch around the basket. He is a good passer out of the double teams and he really hurt us.”
Still, the Bulls were back in this game behind Deng and trailed 48-45 at halftime.
“Coach came in and got on us pretty good at half time,” said Von Wafer. “We clamped down and gave up too many layups and we did that. We almost folded there. That is something we have to work on. We’ve got to finish on a better note.”
There were two crucial stretches that, effectively, ended the Bulls season high three-game winning streak and left them at 21-28 going to New Orleans Wednesday.
Houston inched ahead with Yao drawing attention and Scola playing off that for a three point play and two layups for a 65-57 Houston lead midway through the third. I don’t mean to pick on Thomas given his solid numbers, but you have to laugh—maybe cry if you are Vinny Del Negro—watching some of the amazing shots Thomas takes. My favorite Tuesday was a drive in which he somehow got his back to the basket and threw up the ball over his shoulder. The Rockets apparently were so stunned Aaron Gray stepped in for the putback.
But Thomas, though he was five of 15, is competing and earlier in the third after committing a turnover on an inbounds, went and got a Noah miss and then drove across the lane and to the basket lefty for a score. It’s safe to say Thomas doesn’t exactly have a go to move and you would like to see him hanging around the basket more on offense, but after the last few seasons, you’ll certainly take what he’s giving the team now.
The problem was the last three minutes of the third with Houston ahead 70-62. Kirk Hinrich had been playing well and defending the best of the guards when he tossed an inbounds pass to no one and afterward missed a pair of jumpers, though they weren’t terrible shots.
But Houston closed on 10-4 run on a Brooks three and driving score for a 79-66 lead after three.
With Noah fouling out with more than seven minutes left and Gray not able to score enough to play with a deficit in the fourth, the Bulls took a gamble and went small with Nocioni on Yao.
“The foul trouble hurt us and we tried to go small and run and get uptempo,” said Del Negro. “Houston made shots and plays. We got hesitant and that hurt us. Give Houston credit, they made plays when they had to.”
Leading 82-77, the Rockets hit the Bulls with a 10-0 spurt with Yao and Landry dominating the inside before Rose stopped the run with a jumper. That made it 92-79 with five minutes left, and the Bulls didn’t have enough to climb back. At least until they began scattering the game with their speed, athleticism and youth.
They need to make it a weapon. Not an excuse.