Previous ArticlesThibodeau among Bulls and Wizards connections
A detailed look at Bulls-Wizards matchups
by Sam Smith
Posted on Apr 20
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There’s this view that the Bulls got to the conference finals on that last day of the regular season as they avoided the first round matchup with Brooklyn and saw Miami into the opposite bracket. And the Pacers already trail the Atlanta Hawks 1-0. Just four games from the Finals?
Or summer vacation.
We know Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau isn’t sleeping on the Washington Wizards, against whom the Bulls open the 2014 NBA playoffs 6 p.m. Sunday at the United Center. We assume Thibodeau doesn’t sleep at all, which is another story.
And don’t think Thibodeau is softening up an opponent. Because this isn’t a soft opponent, and it’s not exactly the best matchup for the Bulls despite the conventional wisdom.
It’s easy to overlook the Wizards 2-1 edge over the Bulls in the regular season because the two wins came shortly after the Luol Deng trade. The Bulls then went to Washington earlier this month and dominated the Wizards. OK, no more fooling around!
But it’s easily forgotten the two wins were with Nene, a powerful inside force who long has given the Bulls problems with his physical play. The Bulls win in April was with Nene recovering from a knee injury. Nene returned late in the season coming off the bench and may start in the playoffs.
The conventional wisdom is you stop John Wall and you shut down the Wizards. And it’s true that Wall was a dominant ballhandler who controlled the Washington offense. But like the Bulls, the Wizards will push the ball inside first to collapse the defense.
If the Bulls react to it, the Wizards are among the top five three-point shooting teams in the league with Bradley Beal and Trevor Ariza both above 40 percent. Wall even has become a passable three-point shooter after being one of the league’s poorest. Martell Webster also has hurt the Bulls shooting threes coming off the bench.
The Wizards will drive the ball inside to Nene, who is physical, or Marcin Gortat, who is an excellent pick and roll or pick and pop big man.
Nene sometimes falls in love with the 16-footer, as Carlos Boozer does, and the Bulls will be fine with that.
The Bulls essential defense is to build a shell around the paint and force the pick and roll down to the baseline. Then you react out to shooters to run them off the three-point line and make them take the less efficient two-pointers. Yes, Thibs is a stat nerd as well.
Transition defense is crucial against the Wizards, who have the athletic backcourt and want to play at a higher pace. The Bulls generally are required to have players retreating on the raise of an offensive shot to protect back.
Also, as Thibodeau often emphasizes, it’s vital to complete the defense by rebounding the ball. The Bulls do a lot of what they call cheating the paint by getting in for 2.9 seconds (without checking their watches) and out to avoid the defensive technical foul. It’s a defense which requires a lot of movement, communication and effort. Plus with Joakim Noah they’ve gotten better this season in more aggressively fronting the post, which has waned from time to time.
Though perhaps the biggest key and what makes the Bulls defense special could be a concern against the Wizards. Because of the quickness of Noah and Taj Gibson, the Bulls are able to switch the pick and roll, especially late in games, because Noah and Gibson can stay in front of quick players. It’s unique in the NBA.
But Washington’s big men are good at rolling to the rim and the potential mismatches with D.J. Augustin could be difficult to defend. If the Wizards are patient and wait for the help with Augustin, that would lead to open threes.
In some respects, the three-point shot will be a major element in this series as the Bulls will need to shoot it well because of the limitations in their set offense.
While on defense, Noah probably will defend Nene because of his potential to get to the basket; it’s uncertain if Nene will defend Noah. Because Noah’s shot has improved, defenses cannot lay off him so far and he has the ability to drive by defenders. Would Nene be quick enough? And is he healthy enough as he played limited minutes in his return from injury late in the regular season?
Thibodeau’s offensive theory is to look for transition first as the wings cross in transition, then a catch and shoot, the pick and roll, which is the major part of the offense, a post up or isolation at last resort. The ball is supposed to move quickly with quick decisions, though late in the season the offense began to get a bit stagnant as Noah, among others, began to hold more to look for cutters.
The back cutting game was effective and appealing, but it began to slow the offense at times. Still, the Bulls offense was much improved the last month thanks to a set rotation and good health the last two months. The Bulls want to move faster. Thibodeau also likes the three after the ball is moved.
Though the consensus is the Bulls have the playoff experience, Nene and Gortat have played in 90 playoff games between them and Ariza was on a title winning Lakers team.
Obviously, Wall and Beal have not been in playoffs, and the Bulls will try to smother them. They’ll probably push Wall to his left hand if they can and try to run Beal off the line. The Bulls could have Jimmy Butler play Wall some, though Kirk Hinrich will be the key defender. The belief is the Wizards are too inexperienced as a team to withstand that full 48 minutes of defensive play and cannot finish. That will be the test for them as they’ve given up late leads frequently while the Bulls have become a reliable fourth quarter scoring team for their low ranked offense.
It should be an entertaining series with a lot of maneuvering. Here’s a look at the matchups:
Point guard: Kirk Hinrich vs John Wall
Wall has become one of the top offensive guards in the league, a jet who’s vastly improved his shot. One thing to watch with him is the way he’ll try to get into the paint and draw the defense for the left side corner three for Trevor Ariza. Though he doesn’t get much public acclaim and seeks less, Kirk Hinrich remains one of the league’s best on ball defenders. He’ll be a major key in this series against Wall and will have to make threes to keep Wall active on defense.
Shooting guard: Jimmy Butler vs Bradley Beal
Butler has become the Bulls do everything guard, the iron man to replace Luol Deng and the team’s best perimeter defender. Butler has become adept at playing the lanes and getting steals to get the Bulls fast breaks and easy baskets, which are vital for the low scoring Bulls. Beal has one of the purest jump shots in the league, though they don’t get him in catch and shoot situations as much as you’d expect. It’s vital for Butler to make shots, which he does when he’s set. The Bulls guards will constantly be up into the Wizards guards to have success.
Small forward: Mike Dunleavy vs Trevor Ariza
Ariza is the Wizards’ best perimeter defender and is having his best season since his pride talked him out of staying with the 2009 champion Lakers. He stumbled through Houston and New Orleans, but is having a career year shooting. Dunleavy is a quietly effective all around player who has fit easily in the offense. He moves the ball well and rebounds as the rebounding by the perimeter players is important for the Bulls. Butler is effective at that as well. Many of the plays out of timeouts are for Dunleavy shots over down screens and baseline actions.
Power forward: Carlos Boozer vs Nene
There could be a lot of cross matches here as the centers may play the power forwards. Boozer has played almost strictly the first and third quarters, though his scoring could be needed late. Nene is strong and physical and probably the most important for the Wizards along with Wall if they want to win the series. If Nene is still limited physically it would be difficult for Washington. Boozer has had a solid season in reduced minutes, but has had some big playoff games when his shot is going early. If he has to defend Gortat, the Wizards will use a lot of pick and roll with him.
Center: Joakim Noah vs Marcin Gortat
Noah has had his best season of his career to the point he’s being talked about among the top players in the league. His passion drives the Bulls’ energy, which will be vital against the younger Wizards. You want to take away their enthusiasm early. Gortat is clever in the pick and roll and quick for a big man.
Bench: Taj Gibson and D.J. Augustin vs Martell Webster, Trevor Booker and perhaps Drew Gooden or Andre Miller
The Wizards are serious and continued to add to their bench late in the season with veterans. They also have Al Harrington back from years of knee problems. Booker is an intriguing undersized big man who can cause problems with his shooting. But Augustin became the team’s leading scorer running an effective late game pick and roll with Gibson. That tandem is as good coming off the bench as there is. This might be the series for Jimmer Fredette and some added shooting.
Coaching: Tom Thibodeau vs Randy Wittman
Wittman has been under constant scrutiny and criticism in Washington, which has abated only a bit with the playoff appearance. This is his third job and his first time in the playoffs. But he has been an interim a few times. He has the Wizards playing much better defense and runs a lot of the same sets as Thibodeau. The Bulls coach is a candidate for coach of the year, as he has been every season, with another unexpected regular season. His preparation and the passion he passes on to the team is unique and helps drive the players.
Pick: Bulls in 7