Previous ArticlesBulls sticking to the plan as series shifts to Washington
The mystery deepens for the Bulls trailing 2-0
by Sam Smith
Posted on Apr 25
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This is what you’d say is a must win for the Bulls Friday in Washington trailing the first round playoff series 2-0 with only three teams in NBA history having come back to win after losing the first two games at home.
Dare we say backs to the wall as no team in NBA history has ever won a playoff series after trailing 3-0?
You can’t say there’s no tomorrow because there is Sunday’s Game 4. And actually Saturday is a day. So you treat it like any other game where it being the playoffs we know anything can happen.
It’s not quite win or go home, though Sunday afternoon the Bulls do hope to win and go home.
The Bulls are down, but they are not out because the fat lady hasn’t sung, although Jimmy Butler still belts out some country songs in the shower. This is from reports from league sources. Sure, the Bulls are behind the 8-ball, but it’s not quite for all the marbles yet as it isn’t the brink of elimination.
Ooops, but that was the electrical shock writers get whenever you exceed the cliché quota for the playoffs, which actually doubles the regular season quota.
“Just concentrate on the next game,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said after practice Wednesday as the team used Thursday to travel to Washington and have a film session. “You can’t get wrapped up in the first two games other than you want to learn from what happened. Get ready for the next one. Don’t look ahead. That’s the way we’ve approached it all season. We’re not changing now.”
Which has become the big sub plot to this series for the Bulls.
Where’s Mike Dunleavy down the stretch if you can’t score as the Bulls have been outscored 51-34 in the fourth quarters; where’s Carlos Boozer if in the final five minutes of both regulations the Bulls were outscored 27-16. Where is Jimmer?
“The group that’s in there, Taj (Gibson) is playing well,” said Thibodeau. “Whenever you say put someone else in, you’re taking someone else out. Who you taking out? Joakim (Noah)? Who you taking out? Taj? Everyone has a job to do. Just do your job. He’s (Boozer) doing what we’re asking him to do. We started the game off slowly (trailing 29-12 in Game 2 and thus benching several starters). We can’t start a game off slowly. We have to start a game off quickly. I know you (media) guys sit there and say, ‘Who didn’t play? Throw that guy in there.’ We got here a certain way.”
It is the delicious paradox of this Bulls team in some respects.
They play hard all season, are probably better prepared than any other team and limit the use of their bench to maintain better playoff position. But then if they achieve that why wouldn’t they go with the rotation that was developed all season and played its best together the last month of the season?
After all, if Thibodeau had not done that and experimented with the bench and rotations for playoff use, the Bulls might have lost five or six games they won and then they wouldn’t have had home court advantage. And then they’d be an underdog, anyway, and having to win games on the road to have a chance to win a series.
Which is what they have to do starting Friday.
There’s been debate since the Game 2 loss about using Dunleavy to both provide a scoring option and at least space the floor; maybe play Boozer, who can create space and a shot. Maybe Ronnie Brewer to give Jimmy Butler a rest as Butler played all 53 minutes. Certainly all legitimate questions.
After all, sports is entertainment and entertainment has a history of critics and debate.
There’s no perfect play or book or song or game.
One can always perform art differently. So it becomes belief and opinion. And it ends with the orchestra leader, the artist, the coach.
The players make the plays; the coach decides who will.
And Thibodeau has made clear in four years with the Bulls his philosophy is to finish games with his best defensive team. It’s given him a reputation as one of the best coaches in the game. And after all, if one of the team’s best free throw shooters makes a free throw at the end of Game 2 the game is going into double overtime. It happens. I’ve seen Michael Jordan miss bigger free throws at the end of bigger games.
Rotations generally shrink during the playoffs, and the Wizards basically are playing seven with Andre Miller in during the fourth quarter.
Like the old saying goes popularized by Pat Riley, in the playoffs you use eight, rotate seven, like six and trust five.
Which Thibodeau sticks with.
He finishes with the five he’s basically used the last two months, Noah, Gibson, Butler, Kirk Hinrich and D.J. Augustin.
“We have a lot of guys who have played well in the fourth quarter all year,” said Thibodeau. “If a guy is taking his shot and he’s open and it doesn’t go in, you’re not going to tell him not to take it. We’re capable. Just move on.”
The playoffs are said to be about matchups and adjustments, and in the playoffs teams will try to take away your primary option to make you operate differently.
So do you adjust by going with lineups you haven’t employed as much before? Or do you rely on your best players who have played the most together in the biggest spots?
It’s not that either doesn’t make sense.
And if you had experimented all season with the depth would you even be in this spot?
Or maybe better prepared to respond to the changes teams throw at you?
It’s the great part about sports, that it can be debated. At least among fans and media.
Perhaps the biggest issue that these Bulls players and coach always have been loath to address (to their credit) is they are without their two highest scoring players from the opening of the season, Derrick Rose and Luol Deng.
“We can’t really worry about what people think,” said Gibson. “If that’s the case we would have been worrying about the next lottery pick, worrying about where we’re going for the summer. So right now we’re just focused on the task at hand. We still have two more games in front of us that we’ve got to just get wins. Like coach said, ‘It’s the first team to four.’”
The Wizards are the healthiest they have been all season. It’s been Nene, the big man returning from missing almost two months with a knee problem, who has been the difference. As nicely as Bradley Beal made shots in Game 2, he and John Wall did little in Game 1. And Wall hasn’t much impacted either game with cautious, tentative play and mistakes at the end of Game 2.
With Nene playing all season would the Bulls have had a better record than the Wizards team that now plays with Nene?
The Wizards with Nene back late in the season finished 19-11 and winning eight of their last 11.
The Bulls came in the favorites because they were fourth and had the better record by just four games. But no one figured they were easy winners despite this late season notion they had won by avoiding the Nets. I picked Bulls in seven, which means a close series. It has been two close games the Bulls uncharacteristically have been unable to close against a team known to be unable to close. The Wizards lost 11 games they led by double figures.
And the Bulls have played hard. They have probably lost both games in the first quarter by letting the Wizards get out faster, which is unusual.
The Bulls were 22-0 at home this season when leading after the first quarter and 33-9 overall. They were 4-14 at home when trailing after the first quarter. It’s a big quarter for them because of their defensive game. Get a lead and suck the life out of the game and the opponent.
“We can’t start games off in a 29-12 hole,” said Gibson. “We’ve got to go about it the right way. You look at the way we played earlier in the year, and every time we started off the game bad it kind of hurts us. We’ve got to start it off the right way. We have to learn how to finish games. We’re a good road team and we’re looking forward to that task, and looking forward to coming in and getting the win.’’
The Bulls tend to play slowly to control the game; when they are ahead and they can it’s easier to get back in transition with a slower offense. That had to change in Game 2. Augustin bailed them out pushing the ball when he came in after that slow start and making threes. As the Bulls got back into the game they slowed the pace. But Washington countered with the taller Ariza on Augustin. No genius move as it’s boiler plate to put your best defender on their best scorer.
Perhaps make a change there. Maybe change your pick and roll coverage with more blitzes, though the standard system play is the reason the team’s defense was so good. And Thibodeau prefers to stick with Butler. While Butler isn’t a regular shooting threat, he does the things that produce points the way the Bulls get them with defections, steals, loose balls, offensive rebounds. Plus, he defends the best among the perimeter players. And with Augustin playing for offense, Thibodeau understandably is reluctant to use another lesser defender as he didn’t during the season.
The Bulls players followed the Thibodeau game plan to an extent in Game 2, which was to hit hard, though they didn’t early enough with falling behind by so much. They competed hard and with aggression, and there were several small skirmishes.
They had double digit second half leads in both games. Down 2-0 is a big deficit in the playoffs, but 2-1 maybe gets the other guys thinking they better get this next one.
Because then you are very much alive and don’t have to run the table and are getting in position to control your own destiny.