It’s safe to say the Bulls have had an up and down season.
They have the one of the best road records in the league (10-5) but are barely above .500 at home (11-10).
They’ve earned impressive wins over the Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets and Miami Heat (on the road). They’re also 3-0 versus the New York Knicks, including two wins in Madison Square Garden. But they also have a mysterious collection of losses to teams like the Charlotte Bobcats, Milwaukee Bucks, New Orleans Hornets and Phoenix Suns.
Take the previous two games: A fantastic win in New York followed immediately by a blowout loss at home to a Phoenix team that is spiraling hopelessly downward.
Watching the Bulls has become an adventure. Like running through a mine field win your eyes closed. Either you experience the ecstasy of escape or you get blown up. One or the other. And you never know which it’s going to be.
Take last night’s game. The Hawks arrived in Chicago with a 21-15 record. A tough game was expected, especially considering the Bulls’ lackluster home record.
The game wasn’t tough. It was an ugly blowout of a hapless opponent and one of the greatest defensive performances in franchise history.
The Hawks shot 29.3 percent from the field. According to Hoopdata, they shot 12-for-27 at the rim (44.5 percent), 2-for-8 from 3-9 feet (25.0 percent), 2-for-6 from 10-15 feet (33.4 percent), 6-for-24 from 16-23 feet (25.0 percent) and 2-for-14 from three-point range (14.3 percent). According to Basketball-Reference, the Hawks scored at a dismal rate of 66.1 points per 100 possessions. They also committed 15 turnovers, had 13 shots blocked, and got outrebounded 59-39.
According to ESPN Stats and Information, Atlanta’s 58 points were the second fewest Chicago has allowed since the inception of the shot clock in 1954-55. The only time a team scored fewer points against the Bulls was when the Celtics managed only 57 points…in 1955.
In the second quarter, the Hawks shot 2-for-21 and scored only 5 points. That ties them for the third-lowest one-quarter output in league history during the shot clock era. The only worse one-quarter performances include the following:
The Cleveland Cavaliers scored only 4 points on 2-for-19 shooting in the second quarter of an 87-72 loss to the Celtics on November 28, 2000.
The Toronto Raptors also scored only 4 points — this time on 2-for-16 shooting — in the second quarter of an 86-60 loss to the Wizards on November 7, 2003. This happened despite the presence of All-Star Vince Carter.
The Los Angeles Clippers scored only 3 points in the second quarter of a 95-68 loss to the Lakers on December 14, 1999.
The Hawks scored only 20 points in the first half. ESPN Stats and Information reports that the NBA record for fewest points in a first half is 19. This lofty record was set by the Clippers against the Lakers in the game mentioned above. The fewest in either half is 16, a record set by the Hornets during the second half of an 89-67 loss to the Clippers on March 1, 2006. The Hornets accomplished this feat by scoring 8 points (4-for-20) in the third quarter and 8 points again (1-for-14) in the fourth.
Is that enough historical perspective for you?
You could argue the ball got rolling in the first quarter when the Bulls held the Hawks to 6-for-18 shooting and outscored them 26-15. But as ESPNChicago’s Nick Friedell reports, this blowout began Monday morning at the Berto Center.
Said Taj Gibson: ”As soon as he called us (out) in the walk-through and his face, his tension, how he was just looking everybody in the eye just raging. He was raging this morning. He basically said it was his job to really focus and get us better. And he said that he felt that he’s been slipping because he understands that we need to play harder, we need to work harder, because every game in this league is tough to win. He really dug into guys. He looked at everybody straight eye to eye and guys understood that. Nobody was joking around in here today. Everybody was serious faced and everybody knew what we needed to do today.
“It was crazy how he was yelling at us with so much passion. And understanding what it takes to be the best. He said the East is so crazy, you can be high one moment and lose the next couple of games. And we understand that we need to stay on a high pace because we really need to do better because we don’t have Derrick [Rose] right now. We don’t have our superstar that helps us out in the fourth quarter, especially when we’re down a lot of points late. We have to push and understand that we need to help each other and get better.”
Added Joakim Noah: “Early this morning, Tibs was going crazy on us at shootaround. Just waking up early in the morning and having Tibs just screaming at you and screaming at you and screaming at you, we didn’t want that to happen to us again. We were ready for this one. We had the right mindset, played with the edge and we rebounded the ball really well. Everyone came in and stepped up.”
They sure did. The Hawks trailed by as many as 44 points and never have a chance.
Said Atlanta coach Larry Drew: ”This was very, very embarrassing. From where we were as a team to where we’re at right now, we have lost all sense of team on both ends of the floor. And why that’s happened I really can’t put my finger on it.”
The Bulls didn’t shoot well (41.8 percent), but they knocked down 43 percent of their threes (6-for-14), earned 33 free throws, scored 44 points in the paint and scored at a rate of 110.5 points per 100 possessions.
Carlos Boozer (20 points, 7-for-14, 13 rebounds) and Luol Deng (18 points, 7-for-9, 2 steals) did most of the heavy lifting on offense. Noah was only 2-for-11 from the field but ripped down a game-high 16 rebounds. Gibson came off the bench to contribute 8 points, 7 rebounds and 5 blocked shots.
Before the game, Bulls broadcaster Stacey King listed his keys for the game.
One was that Chicago needed to control Philly’s guards. Didn’t happen. Jodie Meeks (24 points, 8-for-11, 4-for-7 from downtown) and Jrue Holiday (19 points, 8-for-14, 6 assists) got whatever they wanted, and Lou Williams burned the Bulls for 20 points off the bench.
Another of Stacey’s keys was that the Bulls needed to avoid bad quarters, like when they were outscored 32-18 in the third quarter of their loss in New Jersey on Wednesday night. Didn’t happen. The Sixers also outscored Chicago 32-18 in the third quarter to take an 86-74 lead heading into the fourth. Philly scored those 32 points on 14-for-18 shooting. For those who enjoy simple math, that’s a 78 percent rate of accuracy.
Going back to that whole “control their guards” thing, Meeks and Holiday combined for 18 points on 7-for-7 shooting in the third quarter while the Bull were committing six of their 15 turnovers.
But forget guards and bad quarters. The real problem — just like against the Nets — was defense. As in: Where was it?
The Bulls currently rank second in the league in Defensive Rating, but you wouldn’t know that based on how they played in Philadelphia. The Sixers rank 20th in both PPG (96.6) and Field Goal Percentage (45.2). Last night, they finished with 105 points on 56 percent shooting.
As I mentioned in my preview post, the Sixers entered the game ranked 20th in Offensive Rating (104.9) and 24th in Effective Field Goal Percentage (48.1). Last night, Philly had an O-Rating of 115.8 and an eFG% of 60.6. Those numbers would lead the league.
Breaking it down by shot location (thanks to Hoopdata), the Sixers went 7-for-10 at the rim (70 percent), 9-for-15 inside 10 feet (60 percent), 11-for-14 from 10-15 feet (78.6 percent) and 7-for-16 from 16-23 feet (43 percent). On the season, their shooting averages from these areas are 64.8 percent, 44.5 percent, 36 percent and 36.5 percent, respectively.
Philadelphia was shooting lights out — especially for them — from pretty much everwhere. Against the league’s supposedly second-best D.
Said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau: “Our catch-and-shoot defense wasn’t very good. Containing dribble penetration. And then challenging shots, you got to challenge shots. Sometimes we’re right there and if we don’t challenge shots they’re going to make [them]. They got in rhythm early on us and when a team gets confidence, it’s much harder to slow them down. They got their confidence going and we had a hard time all night.”
Added Derrick Rose: “We weren’t playing any defense. I think they hit 10 or 11 shots in a row. We couldn’t stop nobody. But we can’t panic. We just lost two in a row. We got a game [Saturday].”
So what’s the problem?
“I really don’t know right now,” Rose said. “I’m confused. We just got to find a way where everybody’s on the same page … We’re not playing like ourselves right now. Where we’re not stopping people, they’re scoring at will right now and we just got to get back to ourselves.”
You probably already know what I think the problem is: No Joakim Noah. Despite being out with injury, Noah ranks fourth in the NBA in Defensive Rating (96.9) and acts as the anchor or Chicago’s defense. Last night, when guys were getting beaten off the dribble, Noah wasn’t there to switch out or intercept them. Additionally, the Bulls’ perimeter players were running into picks and screens all over the place. Noah usually jumps out and smothers plays like that. Without him, the Sixers — particularly their guards — got open shot after open shot.
And those defensive shortcomings wasted what was a pretty good offensive game by the Bulls on the road against a solid defensive team. Chicago shot better than 50 percent from the field and finished an Offensive Rating (109.2) and eFG% (52.7) that were well above their season averages.
The Bulls face the Celtics in Chicago tonight. Boston ranks first in Defensive Rating (99.7) and crushed the Raptors 122-102 last night. If the Bulls don’t get their defensive act together, they might get crushed too.
Well, you can go ahead and file this one under “Almosts,” “Heart-Breakers,” or “What-Ifs.” Take your pick.
Last night’s loss to the Denver Nuggets might very well qualify as one of the closest one-point defeats in NBA history. With the score knotted at 89-all, Kirk Hinrich fouled Chauncey Billups as the Nuggets guard was driving to the basket. There were six-tenths of a second left in the game. Billups calmly sank the first free throw and then intentionally missed the second so time would expire. However, Joakim Noah grabbed the rebound and called timeout with three-tenths of a second on the clock, leaving the door open for a catch-and-shoot situation. There was still a chance.
A pretty solid chance, as it turned out. Hinrich inbounded the ball to Brad Miller, who caught it at the top of the key and, in one motion, spun around and released…good! Bulls win! Bulls win!
Thanks to a good friend, I got to watch the game from the luxury of a Harris Bank skybox suite, so I was one of the 21,409 spectators who exploded out of their seats in wild celebration. There were hugs and high-fives all around. It was one of those great “remember when…” moments that are best experienced live. However, I knew there would be an official review, and it was going to be close.
There was a giant flat screen TV in the suite. That TV was tuned into the game on WGN, which was showing a frame-by-frame replay of the shot from every possible angle. I figured that, if this was the professional football, the Bulls would have been in good shape, because NFL referees require indisputable evidence to overturn the initial call (which, in this case, was that Miller canned the shot before the final buzzer). And, really, it was nearly impossible to tell from replays whether the ball was still touching his fingertips when the buzzer sounded.
Apparently, NBA officials don’t need 100 percent conclusive video evidence to overturn a call. Good to know. After about 10 minutes — which seemed like an eternity to many of the people still lingering around the United Center waiting for closure – the refs concluded that Miller’s shot didn’t count…at which point my friend almost made hot dogs rain down on them from the skybox. I was ready to help.
I guess the Bulls will have to regard this missed opportunity as a moral victory. After all, their defense — which has been surprisingly stout this season — held the Nuggets to only 90 points on 41 percent shooting. And Carmelo Anthony — the league’s third-leading scorer at 30.0 PPG — finished with a season-low 20 points on 8-for-22 from the field. You could even say that ‘Melo was outplayed by Luol Deng, who had 21 points (8-for-13), 6 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 blocked shots. Of course, Anthony knocked down some key fourth-quarter buckets, including a clutch 14-footer with 13 seconds left to put Denver up 89-87. As the saying goes, you can’t stop the great ones, you can only hope to contain them.
Not so close, Kirk:
On Denver’s final play, Hinrich crowded Billups, who only had a few seconds to drive or shoot. Kirk obviously expected Billups to shoot, so he got right in Chauncey’s mug. As it turned out, he was too close, and Billups was able to walk right around him. Instead of trusting his help defense (Noah appeared to be rotating), Hinrich hacked Billups across the arms. I know Chauncey is known in some circles as “Mr. Big Shot,” but I think his reputation as an end-of-game assassin is somewhat overblown. It might have been better to force Billups into a contested 20-footer than sending him to the line, where he’s nearly automatic under pressure.
The Bulls had a slight edge in Effective Field Goal Percentage (45.9 to 44.6) while the Nuggets had a slight edge in Offensive Rebounding Percentage (34.0 to 32.6), but overall those two categories were a bit of a wash. Denver won Free Throw Rate (22.6 to 14.9) and was +6 points on foul shots. Chicago won Turnover Percentage (13.9 to 19.3) but didn’t capitalize enough on their opportunities. The Bulls gave up 12 points on 13 turnovers, whereas the Nuggets surrendered only 16 points on 18 turnovers. Chicago was only +4 points in that area. One more score off of Denver’s miscues could have swung the game.
Here we “Jo” again:
Joakim Noah’s hot start continued last night. Coming off a new career-high in scoring, Noah grabbed a career-best 21 rebounds to go along with 12 points (6-for-12), 2 assists, 2 blocks and a steal. Oddly, he was the only Bulls starter to finish with a negative plus-minus score (-1). And, as Henry Abbott pointed out yesterday on TrueHoop, Noah’s plus-minus numbers this season aren’t pretty. I’m not really sure what to make of this. I mean, he’s playing great, and his contributions — the offensive rebounding in particular — have appeared to swing games in Chicago’s favor.
Chicago’s struggles from beyond the arc continued last night as they missed 14 of their 18 long-range attempts. Luol Deng was 1-for-1, John Salmons 3-for-7, Hinrich 0-for-5, Jannero Pargo 0-for-2, Miller 0-for-2 and James Johnson 0-for-1. Predictably, with the Bulls firing blank from distance, the Nuggets clogged the lane to cut off Derrick Rose’s penetration. Fortunately, Rose has really developed that little pull-up shot from midrange. Derrick only got two layup attempts (both of which he hit), but he went 9-for-16 on his jumpers. And he hit them from all over the floor, which is a great sign. But his game won’t blossom the way it should until the team can open some lanes by knocking down shots and forcing opposing defenses to stay honest.
Speaking of Rose, he finished with a game-high 22 points, 5 assists and 2 blocks. He also tied the game on a layup with 33 seconds left, and then he tied the game again with 10 seconds left after drawing a foul on Billups and coolly knocking down two free throws.
No laughing matter:
When Miller hit his game-winner that wasn’t really a game-winner, the Bulls started celebrating like a bunch of half-crazed teenagers. This amused Chauncey Billups: “As soon as I saw the flight of the ball, I knew it was good. Then, I was sitting and laughing. Not so much about the shot, but looking at their reaction. They were dancing and jumping around like they had just made the Sweet 16.”
It was classic Billups. He used to make those types of subtle digs when he was with the Pistons. Whenever Chicago beat his team back then, Billups (and other Detroit players) were quick to point out that a single win meant more the Bulls than it did to the Pistons, whose sole goal was winning a championship. Well, veteran poise is nice and everything, but personally, I want a team to be passionate about winning every game, every night. If that means they freak out a little bit after a buzzer-beater, so be it.
The Bulls are playing it this season. Seriously. According to John Hollinger’s team stats page, Chicago currently ranks 8th in Defensive Efficiency. They are giving up 98.0 Points Per 100 Possessions. It’s like the Scott Skiles Era all over again! Speaking of which, his Milwaukee Bucks currently lead the league in Defensive Efficiency (89.6 Points Per 100 Possessions).
Salmons finished with 11 points on 3-for-13 shooting. He did contribute in other areas (5 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 blocks and a steal), but his shooting slump is really hurting the team, particularly in terms of stretching the opposing defense. Because I’m obsessively preoccupied with Salmons’ slump, I watched him shoot around right before the start of the third quarter. He went 2-for-13 from three-point range — a pretty dismal performance for practice shots — before slowly shuffling toward the bench. From my vantage point, he looked either disappointed or disgusted with himself. Maybe both.
His practice form was terrible. Salmons was both sliding forward and falling back at the same time, which is pretty much what he does during games. I couldn’t help but juxtapose John’s form with Hinrich’s. Kirk was balanced, lined up, and straight as a pin on every shot. I mean, his form was textbook. I honestly can’t remember if Salmons’ form was always this bad or whether it’s devolved from lack of confidence. Maybe he needs a shooting doctor.
TrueHoop Network: Jeremy from Roundball Mining Company: “I can certainly understand why Bulls fans are upset. In my opinion if there is enough evidence to overturn the call, it should have been apparent quickly. However, as J.A. Adande pointed out, who cares how long it takes as long as they get the call right. Regardless of whether or not you agree with the decision, you have to give the NBA credit for doing everything they can to get these calls correct.”
I’d say that your analysis is fairly accurate, with one glaring exception: defense. First, it is obvious that he is a tremendous athlete, but so are the vast majority of the players in the NBA. If you view a highlight reel of Tyrus Thomas blocking shots, it would be easy to assume that he is the greatest shot-blocker in history.
While you did qualify the exceptional plays as being atypical, you severely understated just how bad Rose was on defense. He was, frankly, like a friggin’ sieve. When facing other quick guards, he was frequently made to look slow. Devin Harris, in particular, blew by him at will in virtually every Nets game.
In fact, given his tremendous natural abilities, Rose was very disappointing on the defensive end. Can he improve? Absolutely. Will he? Yes. But he has a long, long way to go before becoming an asset on the defensive end of the floor.
Finally, I’ll add an unusual insight into how Rose can be so explosive on offense, and so vulnerable to quick guards on defense. He is used to operating at 3/4 speed on offense, then kicking in the supercharger. That’s part of why he is such a tough cover. On defense, he had a tendency to rely on the same two-speed approach, and was frequently caught flat-footed. Someone in the organization needs to teach him to move his feet more frequently and rapidly on defense.
Interestingly, Jordan showed a similar characteristics on offense, but figured out how to adjust on defense. Rose needs a bit of help.