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A closer look at the Bulls/Nets series and prediction
by Sam Smith
Posted on Apr 19
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Really, what is more appropriate for this Bulls 2012-13 season than to open the playoffs with Chicago defending the Brooklyn Nets’ only All-Star with one of the league’s oldest players, Nazr Mohammed, who barely played the first half of the season when he averaged less than a point and shot 19 percent before the All-Star break.
“It was the master plan,” quipped the 35-year-old, 14-year veteran from Chicago’s Kenwood High School. “He (coach Tom Thibodeau) told me when they signed me they were going to save me all year, and then at the end unleash me.”
Not exactly, obviously, but it is no surprise in this aberrant season with Derrick Rose out all season after his knee surgery, and now concern about the health of Joakim Noah, suffering with plantar fasciitis, which seems to have worsened once again. Thibodeau lists Noah day to day, as he mostly does everyone with injuries, though Noah told reporters at the Berto Center Friday he remains uncertain about playing in Game 1. Mohammed will start against Brook Lopez with Jimmy Butler moving into the starting lineup at shooting guard to defend the threat of six-time All-Star Joe Johnson. Otherwise, the starters are expected to be Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer.
“It’s really disappointing for me,” said an obviously distraught Noah, who missed most of last season’s first round with a sprained ankle and was looking forward to a series in Brooklyn, where he attended high school. “You work really hard in the summer and the season to be ready for situations like this, and just to be hurt is really disappointing. It is what it is. We fought hard to get here, and we’re a very capable team. It’s going to be an exciting series against Brooklyn.
“I’m just taking it game by game,” said Noah when asked whether he might miss the entire series. “It’s hard, but it’s not about me. I’m just going to do everything I can to get back there, help the team as soon as I can. But I’m in a lot of pain right now. Just trying to do everything I can to get back out there. I’m trying to take all the (medicines) I can just so I can play. And then it flares up on me. Even in the limited time I had in the last two games (14 minutes the last two games), it wasn’t pretty. It’s painful and I’m just trying to find solutions. This is probably one of the hardest things I’ve had to deal with in my career right now. Going back home and playing in these playoff games means the world to me. Not being able to be ready for that is hard.
“I’ve got a tear in my foot,” said Noah. “I’m upset at myself because I let this linger for a long time and I have no one to blame but myself. I just wish I was a little bit smarter. I played games in the regular season that I probably shouldn’t have played, and it’s going to be tough but these are the cards I was dealt.”
It’s easy to second guess, but Noah did sit out 16 games and you do have to try to play if you can. Noah believed he could as he did a few years ago with a similar condition.
Thus, it changes the dynamic quite a bit in this series, even though Noah missed two of the four games and the Bulls split them, losing in Brooklyn to a late Nets rally with Boozer and Hinrich also out. But if Noah cannot play, or if only in limited action with weak results like the last two games of the regular season, it makes the Nets a much bigger favorite.
After all, the key element to playing Lopez is to get out on his jump shooting. Though Lopez made some stronger moves to the basket against the Bulls in the final regular season game between the teams, Lopez prefers to step away and shoot jump shots. Mohammed did make a game saving block on Lopez in that game. But you have to be ready to come out and challenge Lopez’ jump shot, which is very good. Noah when healthy has the quickness for that, which will be asking Mohammed to be much more mobile than anyone has much right to expect.
“He had a great first quarter,” Mohammed acknowledged about that April 4 game in which Lopez had 18 of his 28 points in the first quarter on eight of nine shooting. “He got the shots he wanted, did a lot of pick and pop, and he was on the perimeter. So there were a lot of long rotations. In the second half, we did a better job stunting at him and giving me the chance to get out there and contest.”
The Bulls tend not to be much of a double teaming defense. They prefer to stunt and recover, which generally means not a lot of help except when the player makes an interior move. Thus, the presence of Taj Gibson will be important, and Gibson has looked much better in his return from his sprained knee. Gibson is adjusting well to his knee brace and Thibodeau says he hopes there is no playing time restriction on Gibson.
“He can guard multiple positions and you can play him in different places,” Thibodeau said of Gibson. “I think ideally you’d like to have a set rotation, but that’s not going to be the case. It hasn’t been all season. Maybe in some ways that’s a plus, too, because our guys have adapted to change very quickly. There are different skill sets with each guy. So based on matchup and what the need may be, you may go to that guy in that situation.”
The challenge against the Nets will be to limit their drive and kick game and protect the middle. Which makes it problematic not having Noah, who is so active and a good help defender. While Mohammed has abilities as a standard post player with good size to block out against Lopez, who is a poor rebounder, anyway, Noah was on a course to be the league’s top defensive player with his ability to switch on the perimeter and switch the pick and roll. That would provide more responsibility for Gibson, which makes his ability to play big minutes vital. If his minutes are limited and if Noah cannot come off the bench at all, it leaves the Bulls vulnerable on the pick and roll.
In many respects, the Nets are an isolation team with Joe Johnson and Deron Williams preferring to make plays off the dribble. The Bulls defense will try to close off the lane, as just about every defense does. But the Nets have gotten better as the season has gone on in moving the ball and passing out to shooters. The Bulls counter that being good at running opponents’ off the three point line. But it requires a lot of activity.
“It’s definitely a challenge,” said Mohammed. “But no one feels sorry for us; no one cares that we’re not full strength. People could care less if Jo is not healthy. He’s a big part of our team, but I’m going to go out there and follow the game plan, play hard, leave it all on the floor, be physical. I just go out and play, some nights it’s working, some nights it’s not, but you can only go out there and play hard.’’
The Nets at power forward start Reggie Evans, who is a non scorer. That usually gives the team a chance to come off him and provide additional help. But Boozer will be on Evans as Boozer generally defends the lesser scorer. Boozer isn’t a great help defender and tends to prefer to stay with his man.
The issue going with Gibson more is this is a series in which Boozer could have a big offensive impact.
The Nets tend to play at a slow pace, though somewhat faster of late as Williams has been having a strong second half.
Boozer averaged 21.3 points and 10.7 rebounds in three games against the Nets, leading the Bulls in both categories. The Nets are a team he should have success against as Evans likes to stay by the basket to rebound. Also, the way the Nets defend, Williams and Johnson tend to lay off the perimeter and go under screens.
They’ll get into a form of a zone defense with a tight so called shell around the paint. What that enables the Bulls to do is have Boozer screen and then pop as the Nets generally will follow the ballhandler toward the paint and leave the shooter. If Boozer’s shot is going it will be crucial because that could then open the middle more and Lopez isn’t a high level defender.
The Nets will also trap the pick and roll, which requires quick decisions from the Bulls guards as the Nets tend not to recover that well and you can expose them. They’ll probably do that more against Nate Robinson since he tends to look for his shot at that point. The Bulls on defense won’t blitz the pick and roll as much as the Nets. The Bulls like to stunt and recover, though they might need more help for Mohammed than they would for Noah. The Bulls’ offense also requires quick decisions and movement, and Thibodeau just hates those quick transition threes.
“A player like Lopez, you can’t guard him individually,” said Thibodeau. “Our whole team has to make him play in a crowd. Give the appropriate help. Try to establish good ball pressure. Lopez is unique because of his strength and ability to get a quality shot with his back to the basket. But he also has great touch facing the basket. He can put it on the floor. He’s a little deceptive. You don’t think he can go by you, but he can. It’s all set up with having great touch. The challenge becomes Deron Williams and Joe Johnson off the dribble and Lopez back to the basket. The space he can create for his guards by playing away from the basket.”
Hinrich will defend Williams and Butler will defend Johnson with Luol Deng on Gerald Wallace, off whom you probably can help some given his poor shooting this season, though not bad against the Bulls.
Though Butler has played well this season and has come on strong since the All-Star break, it effectively is his first playoff experience after playing four minutes in last year’s series. Though similarly for Lopez as the Nets get back into the playoffs after a six-year absence. Sometimes the playoffs catch newcomers by surprise.
Since the Nets guards tend to play loose and the Nets aren’t a particularly strong defensive team, it might be incumbent on Butler to be more aggressive with his shot. Butler’s shooting is improved, but he still tends to pass up the best first shot and then end up taking a higher difficulty shot.
“I feel like I’ve come a long way,” said Butler, who averaged 10.3 points on 44 percent shooting against the Nets. “I’ve worked extremely hard, both the offseason and through this season. I feel like if I was starting or if I was coming off the bench, I would still have to play my role. (Johnson) does everything well, like shoot it, take it to the basket, post up, get to the line. You’ve just got to make everything difficult for him and play him within the game. The main thing I learned (from last season watching) was how crucial each and every possession is, on offense and on defense. The game, it’s a lot slower, there’s not that many fast break points because everybody wants a half court setting. So I feel like every single motion, every single play, it’s all crucial and you’ve got to execute.”
The Bulls will have some depth behind Butler with Marco Belinelli and Richard Hamilton, both of whom say they are healthy. I could see the Bulls playing Robinson some off the ball either with Hinrich or Belinelli as those combinations have worked well at times and Robinson has been the team’s X-factor in situations where they need offense. But Robinson can be a defensive liability in a small backcourt if the Nets stay big. So that also will be something to watch as Thibodeau when Belinelli was healthy used him to run the offense at times. Belinelli has been good against Brooklyn, averaging 14.7 points on 52 percent shooting. Hamilton played just one game against the Nets, but he made four of five shots and has the experience to play in big games with his playoff record. Similarly, the Bulls could have offense run at times with Deng.
And then it all starts over in Game 2 since we know the playoffs are all about adjustments.
Here’s a look at the matchups:
Point Guard: Kirk Hinrich vs Deron Williams
Williams has been back to being an All-Star after the All-Star break, averaging more than 23 per game. He had a huge 30 and 10 game against the Bulls in the last meeting when the Bulls could not contain him on the perimeter. He makes them go and propels their drive and kick game. If he gets into the lane the Bulls will have problems. Hinrich is one of the league’s best with physical defense and is in his best stretch of the season shooting with 12 of 17 the last two games and nine of 13 on threes the last three. He’s got to stop the head of the snake.
Shooting Guard: Jimmy Butler vs Joe Johnson
On reputation and accomplishment, it’s no contest. But Johnson has had injury issues and an inconsistent season. He’s tough to play off the dribble with his size and strength and stretches the court with his shot. But Butler has been a strong perimeter defender. He’ll also have to try to make Johnson work by being a legitimate option on offense as Johnson has had foot problems much of the season.
Center: Nazr Mohammed vs Brook Lopez
If Noah cannot return and start in this series it could prove problems for the Bulls. Mohammed has come on, increasing his scoring average each of the last three months after barely playing into February and averaging 6.9 points and 7.4 rebounds in April. But Lopez is having his best season, made the All-Star team and averaged a team high 22 against the Bulls. The Bulls may devote more help to him and while Lopez is a poor passer, if he moves the ball that again could prove troublesome for the Bulls.
Small Forward: Luol Deng vs Gerald Wallace
With Noah’s availability question, that makes Deng the most vital Bull. The team will look more for him to help on defense and make plays. Wallace has been an explosive player, but having an off season in which even he questioned his own abilities. Deng at 15.3 per game was actually one of eight Bulls to average in double figures against the Nets.
Power Forward: Carlos Boozer vs Reggie Evans
Though Evans is a robo rebounder, he is little or no threat on offense. The Nets won’t switch as many pick and rolls as the Bulls do, though that remains to be seen now without Noah. This series should give Boozer offensive opportunities, which the Bulls will need as they don’t expect to rely much on Mohammed for scoring.
Coaching: Tom Thibodeau vs P.J. Carlesimo
Thibodeau has proven himself one of the game’s top coaches. He’s not a huge adjustment guy, but will make changes according to his matchups and to thwart what’s working for the offense. His defensive calls remain pretty standard, which is good as repetition and good habits lead more often to success. Carlesimo is experienced, but he probably needs to win this series to keep his job as he’s an interim who replaced Avery Johnson in December for a very inpatient owner.
The Nets had success in their one win this season against the Bulls with Andray Blatche and MarShon Brooks with a fourth quarter run. But mostly the Nets reserves along with former Bulls C.J. Watson and Keith Bogans have been quiet. Bogans has one field goal in 67 minutes against the Bulls. Watson is shooting 35 percent against the Bulls. The Bulls have bigtime depth behind Butler at shooting guard with Belinelli playing some point guard. Plus, there’s the explosive Robinson and Gibson probably is the best of all the reserves. If the Bulls can get anything from Noah it would be a huge boost.
Pick: This figures to be a long series, and it will be tough for the Bulls if Noah doesn’t give them much. Overall, the Nets rebound well thanks to Evans, but their perimeter defense is weak. And all but one of the regular season games was within four points or fewer. It could turn on a last shot here and there. It would be tough for the Bulls to go back to Brooklyn for a seventh game and success. They’d have to do it before then. Bulls in six.