Bulls need more in Game 5 Tuesday


Apr 25

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Game 5 back at the United Center Tuesday against the Indiana Pacers should be easy for the Bulls. After all, all they have to do is shoot better, score more, make fewer turnovers and pass the ball more effectively.

So how exactly are they ahead three games to one? That is certainly what the Pacers have been wondering.

It hasn’t exactly been an estimable or particularly elegant 2011 playoff debut for the Bulls.

Yes, they are leading comfortably with a chance to close the series Tuesday. And, yes, it is about winning the games, as we have been told. Though it hasn’t been the Bulls team we’ve seen during the season. Or one that inspires beliefs of greatness.

There are many presumptive reasons for this: The Bulls played universally frenetic all season and opponents increase their level of play; the No. 1 seed becomes hunted; this Bulls group has never been in the playoffs together and has a rookie coach; they play down to opponents; Tyler Hansbrough’s bug eyes are freaking them out.

But for a variety of reasons, many having to do with a strong Pacers’ effort, the Bulls have not raised their level of play to match the moment.

The conventional wisdom is the great players and the great teams raise their level of play for the bigger stage. That isn’t happening with the Bulls.

Sure, Derrick Rose has been terrific and is averaging almost eight points per game more than his season average, even with that sprained ankle slowed Game 4 in Indianapolis. The formula for great players generally is to improve their regular season scoring average for the playoffs.

Michael Jordan averaged 30.1 in his regular season career and 33.4 in the playoffs. Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Larry Bird were about the same, but more owing in the end to lower averages at the end of his career. Jordan didn’t make the playoffs his last two seasons in the NBA, so his playoff average remained high. Until the last few seasons when their roles were reduced, all were two or three points more in the playoffs compared with the regular season.

Rose is well up and Luol Deng has increased his average by a bit over a point. Joakim Noah is up, but more because of little playoff use his first seasons. Carlos Boozer is down more than five points and most of the bench players other than Kyle Korver are down as well.

Which is another change.

It’s not unusual for NBA coaches to shorten their rotations for the playoffs. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau has done so as well. But the Bulls bench has not been typical this season. Because the starters feature non scorers in Noah and Keith Bogans, it has not been unusual for the starters to get off slowly. The Bulls bench group has been more active and very good defensively, so they’ve generally given the team a boost in the second quarter and the starters have usually come back after halftime with more energy.

Maybe you say with shortened rotations the Bulls reserves would not do as well against Pacers starters instead of the usual opponent reserves. It’s possible. But you also wonder if the starters are pacing themselves more knowing they’re playing longer minutes, although foul trouble and other issues have kept Boozer and Noah at their regular season levels. So that should not be a major issue

Here’s a look at Bulls players scoring in these playoffs compared to their career regular season and playoff averages.

Player First Round Avg. Career Playoff Avg. Career Season Avg.
Rose 28.3 22.7 20.9
Deng 17.3 18.0 16.0
Boozer 12.0 20.3 17.3
Noah 11.5 12.1 8.5
Korver 9.8 8.0 9.6
Thomas 3.5 5.8 8.6
Bogans 3.0 4.3 6.7
Watson 2.8 7.5
Brewer 2.5 7.7 9.4
Gibson 2.5 7.6 8.0

Here’s a look at the reserves’ playing time in this series compared with the regular season:

Player Playoff Minutes Season Minutes
Korver 21.3 20.1
Thomas 11.8 22.7 (30 DNP)
Watson 7.5 13.3
Brewer 12.8 22.0
Gibson 15.3 21.8
Asik 2.8 12.1

A case also can be made for playing Kurt Thomas more as it doesn’t appear Thibodeau is comfortable using Omer Asik. Thomas has shot well and can inject that element of toughness to match the Pacers’ as the Bulls have been bullied some. Obviously, you don’t want to get into any cheap macho confrontations, or even the purposeful hard foul. But Thomas can provide some of what I always felt Bill Cartwright delivered for the championship Bulls of the 1990’s. Cartwright didn’t score much, but he was tough and active and instead of looking for Jordan driving all the time defenders were looking for Cartwright, who opened some nice lanes with his strength.

Plus, Thomas is making shots.

That’s been an issue with the Bulls that has been covered up some all season by a great defense: They don’t shoot that well. It’s been horrible in this series with Rose, Deng, Boozer, Bogans, Gibson and Watson all under 40 percent. Now, that’s bad basketball. You’re not going to convince me that’s great Pacers’ defense.

The Bulls have been stagnant at times trying to force passes, get certain players going and maybe thinking too much instead of just reacting. It’s not unusual for a group in its first playoff together with the expectations of a No. 1 seed. The Bulls are not playing as loose and free as we have become accustomed.

The Pacers defense has been good, especially trapping and pressuring Rose. I’d go to more isolation for Rose to get the double off him, though that was what Cleveland and LeBron James were criticized for. Perhaps a quicker look to Korver, who has been shooting exceptionally well.

Though if the Bulls isolate more, maybe the Pacers play more zone. I’ve been somewhat surprised not to see some zone from Indiana, especially given the Bulls incredibly poor shooting. Just about everyone is well below his season average. Rose is 17 percent on threes, five of 29. You figure they’ll want him to prove he can make some.

Rose’s ankle sprain doesn’t seem to be a major issue, though I can personally not feel his pain as I sit the entire game. He was still was limping at practice Monday, but said as the ankle wasn’t broken he planned to play. But he’s clearly not going to be at full strength. So the Bulls will have to make shots. The Bulls not only would like to close out the Pacers to move on but to get some rest, especially for Rose.

But the Pacers have not been very hospitable throughout and never fully understanding they weren’t supposed to win.

And away we go. It has been a fun series for those of us sitting.

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