Bulls ready to show 76ers something old for Game 3


May 3

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Joakim Noah probably has been the Bulls’ best player in this opening round playoff series with the Philadelphia 76ers, certainly with Derrick Rose out injured.

And, yes, there’s much talk heading into Game 3 in Philadelphia Friday night that Carlos Boozer, Richard Hamilton, Luol Deng and Kyle Korver have to be better with the series tied 1-1. But, really, the guys who have played the best, like Noah and Taj Gibson, are the ones who really have to be better.

Taj Gibson

Because as good as they were, they probably are going to have to work even harder because of the success the 76ers guards — Evan Turner, Lou Williams and Jrue Holiday — have had against the Bulls.

Neither C.J. Watson nor John Lucas III could keep them in front, thus breaking down the Bulls defense. The result was the Bulls’ interior defenders getting out of position to help, and thus not in great rebounding position. It led to the 76ers having a surprising 38-32 edge in rebounding with seven on the offensive boards.

“Defense and rebounding is the whole key,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said at practice Thursday. “You have to be able to count on those things. They got into the open floor, got easy baskets. You get those early and you’re going to get confidence. A team gets confidence and they’re harder to shut down. And then Philly played great defense in the second half. If you don’t rebound and make them miss, you’re not going to be in the open floor. That was a big problem. We have to have better floor balance when we do shoot. They’re extremely quick and playing small. We have to adjust to the speed and quickness of the game. And we’re capable of doing much better.”

Yes, the Bulls could try Mike James some, and perhaps Ronnie Brewer, who is stronger defensively, though he gives up offense. That is a bit of the rub, as the Bulls without Rose have difficulty finding offense.

But the Bulls are not going to win this series with offense. Though their record is impressive at 18-9 (before the playoffs) without Rose, the Bulls averaged 93.9 points per game without Rose. That would have put them 21st in the league for the season.

Without Rose, the Bulls have to be a defensive team, which they were, obviously, with Rose as well.

So it is about extending more effort, which means blitzing the screen-and-roll and doubling the guard with the big man and not letting him turn the corner. It’s hard work to trap like that and recover. But that’s what it’s going to take to limit the 76ers’ main weapons. Yes, the 76ers blew Game 2 open with fast breaks and dunks in that third quarter Tuesday. But it also was the guards’ play breaking down Watson and Hamilton that hurt so much, and why I don’t think Hamilton got back into that game.

That sort of defense isn’t easy for everyone to play as it also requires considerable weak side help. But it is the kind of defense that made the Bulls the league’s best defensive team the last two seasons.

But this also really isn’t so much about so-called adjustments. Thibodeau isn’t an adjustment coach.

Thibodeau is stubborn, which is a good thing. The reason Thibodeau is so good is because he doesn’t give up on a play or a game and doesn’t allow his team to. He believes you can play a perfect game and hold an opponent to zero points. All it takes is executing your plays. So what if it’s never been done. Thibodeau is the kind of coach who’ll say that’s because no one really tried. In that way he is like Michael Jordan. Thibodeau believes if you just go out and compete and do the things you are asked to do you will win.

After a season, even a shorter one like this, there are no magic potion changes. Philadelphia coach Doug Collins changed his starting lineup. But he put in two players who started more than half the games they were eligible to play. Yes, Collins did a good job reacting to the Bulls strength in the first game with the baseline play that opened it up for Hamilton and Korver. He made an adjustment in the way his big guys played those cuts.

Collins has one of the game’s most active and creative minds. He’d long removed Jodie Meeks from the game after Hamilton’s quick start in Game 1, and by halftime of that game was trying four guard lineups. He did so because he has to. His interior players are the team’s weakness.

The Bulls strength is their size, and why most experts predicted they’d win the first two rounds even after Rose was injured. That’s still where they will have to win the game. You go to your strengths and not to your experiments is likely Thibodeau’s view.

Look, with the starting lineups the way they are now, you could easily make the case the 76ers win four positions. After all, who would you rather have? Holiday over Watson? Evan Turner over Hamilton? Andre Iguodala (who did say Thursday he had some Achilles soreness) over Deng? Elton Brand over Boozer? Certainly, Noah trumps any 76ers big man. And Lou Williams outscores any Bulls reserve. Yes, they have the athletes. But not the size.

“The first step is the intensity part,” said Thibodeau. “The second part is technique. Then they’re tying everyone together. You have to make multiple efforts. It starts with the raise of the shot and your discipline to be back. Emotions are not what win games. Playing well wins games. You can go into a game and because you’re home doesn’t mean anything. Being prepared, playing well, executing at both ends. If you’re counting on emotion, that’s not going to work.”

There’s always talk in these things of momentum and emotion and focus and intensity. But Thibodeau knows you win with making the right pass to the open shooter who doesn’t hesitate. And then you get back and box out, playing the right way, as Larry Brown likes to say.

Though an intangible does stare the Bulls in the face of their destiny.

They did, mostly quietly, believe this was their year. They talked about championships, as everyone does, but this time they really believed it. It’s difficult for anyone to take that seriously now. Not that they cannot advance or win rounds. But what are the chances? This is where Thibodeau does his best work.

I don’t believe this group ever gives up. There’s a strong sense of pride, accomplishment and competitive desire. But it would be unrealistic to think the thought hasn’t entered their minds that all they fought for lay on the ground late in Game 1. That’s where Thibodeau is at his best.

Luol Deng
He doesn’t take low odds as a certainty. I think he bet on Hannibal against the Romans and Joshua at Jericho. Thibs transcends religion, I think. And, really, is it any coincidence the 1980 USA Olympic hockey team was mostly from New England.

Thibodeau’s message will be that it doesn’t matter who plays, that, as he’s told us and persuaded this Bulls team, they have enough. They believe it because he believes it. It does make a difference when your leader doesn’t hesitate about your ability to achieve what seems so unlikely to others.

There’s nothing new for these Bulls, as Thibodeau will tell them. They’ve done this before. Defense, rebounding, inside/outside, low turnovers.

“We’ve been through tougher things than this,” said Deng. “I know how everyone feels. We’ve got a lot of guys who are fighters. We’re going to fight our way out of this. A lot has been going on. It’s been that kind of year. Rip missed games. I tore my wrist and we thought it was for the season. I came back and now Derrick.

“It’s been up and down for the guys,” Deng continued. “But that’s what is going on. We have to get on the floor and play. We are a good team. We believe that. That’s how we’ve been all year. We always play hard. If we have a bad game, we come out the next game and try to change that. We trust the system. Like Coach said, not one guy is going to take the load by himself. We’re going to do it as a team. All year, we always believe to win games it’s about our defense.”

Like always, eh?

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