Bulls can use a shot in the arm and in the basket


Dec 17

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The Bulls, averaging 79.5 points the last six games and 91.2 points per game overall, which is 28th in the NBA, will be in Houston Wednesday to play the second highest scoring team in the NBA on national ESPN and Thursday in Oklahoma City to play the third highest scoring team in the league on national TNT.

Whose idea was that? Yes, get ready for some bad Bulls offense jokes.

So all the Bulls have to do is match the Rockets, which may not be as difficult as that sounds with James Harden questionable with a sprained ankle and Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik out injured.

Luol Deng has averaged 25.7 points on 53.2 percent shooting in the last six games he's played.

Luol Deng has averaged 25.7 points on 53.2 percent shooting in the last six games he’s played.

As for the Thunder on a back-to-back after a late starting game Wednesday, well, they’re on their own with that one.

But maybe the Bulls can increase that offensive output, which more resembles shooting a shot put. They’ll have better ones than that. Hey, this is Charles Barkley watching.

“Offensively, we can play better; we’ve got to make shots,” coach Tom Thibodeau said after practice Tuesday. “We got some extra work on our shooting today. We did work on our layups, so hopefully that will be better. We shot a very low percentage in the restricted area, so that’s something we have to improve.”

They’re on their own on that layup thing, though I believe I can help with the restricted area stuff.

“I think people are collapsing right now because we’ve got to make perimeter shots,” said Thibodeau. “That will improve the spacing. You have to be able to make some threes. I think if we do that, that will open things up.”

Well, yeah, but how exactly do you make them?

Not exactly with having Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson posting up into three big guys hanging around waiting by the basket.

That’s basically what the Bulls have been facing lately, which is a major reason why both Boozer and Gibson have slumped on offense of late. Noticing the Bulls cannot basically make — and even appear reluctant to take — three-point shots, defenses are constantly sagging into the paint. Even the bad teams who don’t defend well are doing it, which makes them appear like better defensive teams. If you are all standing by the basket you don’t have to help much.

Poor spacing leads to closed driving lanes; packed in defenses take away your post game. And it’s easier to miss layups when there are so many guys hanging around by the basket and jumping at you. Yes, Luol Deng’s last second miss against the Magic was a tough one. It happens. But there have been too many others with multiple defenders hanging around in the lane. It makes everything more difficult unless you can make them come out to defend the three-point line and open up the court for the cutting and driving that is more the Bulls game. It’s obviously also led to some of the scoring struggles of Jimmy Butler as well.

But it’s more than saying they have to make them.

I’m not advocating taking Boozer and Gibson out of the lineup. But they are not going to be as effective until the Bulls are better able to open the court.

The defensive system still works well and the players have continued to compete.

“I think overall the defense has been very good,” said Thibodeau.

I know Thibodeau believes you can win the game with good defense, and he’s won a lot more than I have. But it seems you also can give up a little defense when it has been that good in order to take a shot at a little more offense.

First, let’s note that Bulls fans and media have seen way worse offense than this. No team coached by Tim Floyd from 1998 through his resignation in December 2001 averaged even 90 points. It wasn’t until the first season after Floyd left that the Bulls averaged more than 90 points per game for the season. Those seasons were by far the poorest in team history as the team averaged fewer than 85 per game the first two seasons under Floyd. In comparison, Thibodeau is an offensive genius.

But what about just going with as much offense as you can, which Thibodeau does do sometimes.

It’s true he is limited, obviously, by the absence of Derrick Rose and previous injuries to Jimmy Butler, Luol Deng and now Kirk Hinrich. Hinrich traveled with the team to Houston and is listed day-to-day.

But it would be interesting to see lineups with Noah at center, Mike Dunleavy at power forward, Deng at small forward and then a guard rotation with Butler, D.J. Augustin and Hinrich, if he is available. Tony Snell could also fill in some minutes for Deng or play along side some in that group.

Yes, it would hurt the Bulls in rebounding and defense given the lack of size on the court. But it might give the Bulls their best chance to spread the court with three point shooters.

Dunleavy is shooting 38.7 percent on threes this season and is a recognized top three-point shooter. Augustin, who had a strong game against Orlando Monday in joining the team last week, is a career 36.6 percent three-point shooter and made two against the Magic. Deng is six of 12 this month on threes and Butler working his way back was shooting 44.4 percent on threes in seven November games before getting injured. Hinrich had made nine threes in the five games before going out with a back injury. And Snell, though he hasn’t played much of late, is shooting a respectable for a rookie 34 percent on threes.

The Bulls are not known as a three-point shooting team. Thibodeau obviously believes in defense and rebounding first. And though it hasn’t produced wins lately, it has enabled the Bulls to remain close. They just haven’t been able to pull out a half dozen tight games in the last few weeks.

“We said last night after the game, ‘We’re playing our best basketball in the fourth quarter.’ And that’s something to feel good about,” said Dunleavy. “So now let’s clean it up in the first three. That should be easier. If we’re able to get stops and defend, and really, really play well in the fourth — obviously we could play better offensively — but we’re playing our best defense in the fourth. So it’s something to build on.”

But playing small is in vogue in the NBA these days.

The Miami Heat won a title that way, though LeBron James doesn’t play small.

You do risk something, obviously, against good rebounding teams like the Rockets and Thunder.

But Houston plays a stretch four and the Thunder’s Serge Ibaka generally isn’t a postup threat.

If you can spread the court and make some threes and get the defense to react, then you also open up space for players like Boozer and Gibson, who were scoring well until the defenses began to collapse more intently on them.

The Bulls against the Magic clearly wanted to get Boozer going and opened the game going to him. But the Magic quickly collapsed and Boozer was taking fadeaways and drivers were getting blocked and Orlando quickly seized control of the game. It’s been happening in recent games early until, as Dunleavy noted, the Bulls relentless defensive play tends to tire opponents late and the Bulls have come back. Though mostly not far enough without a big time closer.

So it’s imperative to begin to make those shots. And the best chance, obviously, is to have your best shooters on the floor. It’s worth a try when you have lost 11 of 14.

“I think with this group, obviously we’ve taken so many hits, whether it be on or off the court, with losses to injuries and the win/loss column,” noted Dunleavy. “It’s certainly a mental thing right now to get over that. I think the first thing is somehow, some way, just get a win against a really good team and we have that opportunity this trip.”

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