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Bulls with questions for Game 3 in Indiana
by Sam Smith
Posted on Apr 20
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I remember raising this old NBA maxim with Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau during the season. The Bulls, pretty much all the visiting coaches seemed to acknowledge, were probably the hardest playing team in the NBA.
That was responsible, in large part, for the Bulls surprising 62-20 record and likely will get Thibodeau the NBA coach of the year in the next few days. But what happens, I wondered, when the playoffs come and these other teams raise their game, as teams tend to do in the playoffs with no back to backs and the ability to more fully scrutinize an opponent?
Can the Bulls, whose advance work thanks to Thibodeau’s refusal to sleep or eat may have been the best in the league as well, raise their game given how hard they played all season?
Thibodeau looked at me and smirked, which he often does, anyway. He didn’t seem concerned.
But you have to wonder now heading into Game 3 Thursday in Indianapolis of the Eastern Conference first round series with the Indiana Pacers whether it’s the Pacers who have raised their game at the expense of the Bulls. Can the Bulls respond?
Of course, the Bulls hold a 2-0 lead in the best of seven series. And with this sort of equal opportunity NBA these days close victories for the favorites are welcomed given they have not been universal.
The Pacers now remain even longer shot underdogs to win the series, even with playing tight games in Chicago and really giving away the first game because of Derrick Rose’s brilliance and 39 points.
But it hasn’t looked anything like the No. 1 seeded Bulls steaming to the finish with a 21-2 close.
The Bulls defense has been softer than usual, especially on the three point shot, where the Bulls led the league this season at 32.6 percent. The Pacers are shooting 45.7 percent on threes.
That would be called, to paraphrase the Cool Hand Luke road boss, a failure to close. You can be certain that will change.
The Bulls also have been caught, somewhat by necessity, watching Rose go a bit too much, accounting for the Pacers with five more assists per game although the Bulls were in the top 10 in the league in assists this season.
They’ll have to get back to moving the ball better, though a lot of this has occurred as Thibodeau has tried to get Carlos Boozer more involved. Boozer, though a good passer, tends to hold the ball more and seek out repost opportunities, which don’t always come. Boozer has been slow getting into post position and needs to go faster to set up or get the ball on the move. He is almost impossible not to foul on those occasions.
Thibodeau has altered the rotation some and you wonder how much that was in the urgency of a new coach in his first playoffs in charge being anxious to get those home wins. Or was it being the playoffs and coaches generally go longer with starters because of no back to backs?
Boozer played 42 minutes in Game 2, one of his most this season. But he seemed to tire late with just one of four in the second half for four points.
Taj Gibson played just 12 minutes and it seemed his energy could have been employed on more occasions. And Kyle Korver, while making crucial threes at the end of both games, is averaging just four shots per game.
He’s got to get probably triple that every game.
The Bulls have had a huge edge on the boards, averaging 26 more rebounds per game. That’s been due mostly to Rose penetrating, the Pacers coming to help and lanes opening for offensive rebounds and putbacks. Boozer and Noah haven’t done particularly well finishing those, both seeming to go up softly with offensive rebounds. But the way the Pacers have to play Rose, Korver should be getting at least a dozen shots. And even if he is missing, Noah or Boozer should be getting those offensive rebounds.
Likewise, I think the Bulls also have to get Luol Deng more threes. Deng has become a more proficient long range shooter, and with him in the corner and Korver on the wing, that spacing should open things up for Rose—not that he seems to need it—but also give him better targets.
You can’t say offense has been a big problem with the Bulls averaging 100 points, though it usually is more difficult to score on the road. And it is questionable whether the Bulls again will get an average of 33 free throws per game as they got in the United Center Saturday and Monday.
Keith Bogans isn’t in for scoring. But he is a much poorer shooter on the road and they haven’t been getting much from him, just one of eight in the two games in about 18 minutes per game. Thibodeau isn’t much for changing his lineup, though he is varying his rotation already in these playoffs.
I don’t see why Deng cannot play some shooting guard while I personally don’t see Korver as a defensive liability. He’s not as tough as Bogans, but he works hard at it and it’s not exactly like the Pacers play five scorers. He certainly can matchup against Paul George and give the rookie something to think about as George has been able to get on Rose on defense and bother the Bulls with his long arms. The Bulls have committed an alarming 37 turnovers in the two games as George has done a good job deflecting balls. You assume the Pacers will be even more active at home.
I think the Pacers will go more to Roy Hibbert, who had foul trouble in Game 2 and can be difficult for Joakim Noah. Perhaps Omer Asik with his size could get some time on Hibbert. The Bulls will front Hibbert with Noah unless there is a wing man in the corner. Then the Bulls defender will hedge with the center playing behind, which is a better defense. The Bulls have had problems fronting when the corner isn’t filled because Boozer then has to provide quick weakside help and the Pacers have proven too tall.
Deng has done a terrific job, especially in the first half of each game, on Danny Granger, who is averaging a Pacers’ high 21.5. But the Bulls have had some trouble when the Pacers went to two man game screen roll with the point guard and Granger, though it remains unclear if Darren Collison can play after suffering a sprained ankle. Even if he does, if he is not near 100 percent, it will hurt the Pacers as Collison is their only point guard who gives the Bulls trouble with quickness and can turn the corner to the basket.
The Pacers sprung a nice trap on Rose late in Game 2 when the Bulls screened with a big, which they prefer to do. The Bulls adjusted to screen with Deng, which opened the court and negated the trap. It will be interesting to see with all the talk the Pacers have done about stopping Rose whether they commit to that trap and see if, as the saying goes, those other guys can beat you. In that case, it will be more important to have shooters on the floor.
I also expected to see the Pacers try more zone, which they didn’t. It will be something to watch for as the Bulls generally struggle with it initially.
Although Tyler Hansbrough went from 22 points in Game 1 to six in Game 2, I thought he had plenty of open looks and missed them. I’d like to see Gibson take more time on him and play him physically as Hansbrough’s activity seems to wear down Boozer. Boozer did come back with a better game with 17 points and 16 rebounds in Game 2, but he also needs to start running the court harder to bring the defense back with him instead of allowing the bigs to stay up and slow the Bulls ball movement by getting into the passing lanes.
I wouldn’t be surprised given Boozer suffers against size to see the Pacers have Hibbert guard him and Hansbrough on Noah given Noah isn’t proving much scoring threat since he returned from his thumb surgery.
The Bulls have not had good starts in either game, and, frankly, don’t have a lot of good starts with Noah and Bogans not scorers. You’d maybe like to see Korver get a look early to go with him closing the game.
Still, the Bulls won both games and perhaps having them close was good for Thibodeau to help get their attention that teams will play harder. We’ll see how the Bulls answer.