During the regular season, the Indiana Pacers and Atlanta Hawks ranked 12th and 13th in Defensive Rating. They were also eighth and 12th in Opponents Effective Field Goal Percentage.
The Miami Heat ranked fifth and fourth in those categories.
During this year’s playoffs, the Heat rank third in Defensive Rating, trailing only the first place (but eliminated) Orlando Magic and the second place Bulls.
Clearly, Miami is the best defensive team Chicago has faced this postseason.
And it shows.
In Game 1, despite winning by 21 points, the Bulls shot only 43.7 percent. The lopsided victory was due to their 19 offensive rebounds and 31 second-chance points.
In Game 2, they shot 34.1 percent and scored only 10 points in the fourth quarter.
In Game 3, the Heat held them to 41.6 percent shooting.
Miami’s defensive intensity — combined with what I’m guessing is the feeling that the series is slipping or has already slipped beyond their control — has the Bulls frustrated. Keith Bogans had words with Dwyane Wade. For reasons unknown, Taj Gibson was talking trash to a red-hot Chris Bosh in Game 3. Joakim Noah, as well all know, made some very unfortunate comments to a courtside fan.
This is new territory for a group of players who were characterized by such strong composure all season. From outside the locker room, it seems like the pressure is getting to them.
At the very least, the defensive pressure has gotten to Derrick Rose, who has been disappearing in the fourth quarter. In Game 3, with everything on the line, the Heat’s swarming, trapping, double-teaming defense repeatedly forced Rose to give up the ball. In those final 12 minutes, he attempted only two shots and didn’t make a single trip to the line.
As ESPNChicago’s Jon Greenberg writes:
Rose’s salad days of the regular season are a distant memory, as they should be. But it’s tough to forget how clutch he was “way back when.”
For instance, he finished the season as the second-best “clutch” scorer in the league, according to 82games.com, averaging 47.8 points per 48 minutes in “clutch situations,” which are defined as the last five minutes of regulation or overtime, with neither team ahead by more than five points.
No one is exactly sure why Rose isn’t dominating late in games right now, but it’s not hard to guess. It has a lot to do with the quality of competition. Rose faced double-teams, blitzes, whatever, all season, but now he’s facing long, athletic, focused players, led by the Heat’s big three, who are taking turns helping out or guarding him.
Let’s just say Jeff Teague and Jamal Crawford weren’t exactly ideal sparring partners to get him ready for the Heat.
I hate to say it, but something like this was nearly inevitable. The Bulls were roughly average on offense for most of the season. They finished ranked 11th in Offensive Rating, but they still suffered through brutal offensive droughts because the system relied so heavily on Rose’s ability to create offense through dribble penetration.
When the Pacers limited that, the Bulls struggled.
When the Hawks limited that, the Bulls struggled.
When he Heat limit that, the Bulls are really, really struggling.
So what can they do?
In his article, Greenberg mentioned that “Rose agreed with a reporter’s suggestion that they should run more isolation-style plays for him, be they on the top of the key or from a wing. In a perfect world, you put Luol Deng and Kyle Korver in the corners and Carlos Boozer in the low block to push help defenders off the ball, and Rose is off to the races.”
Added Rose: “That would be great. I think like more step-ups, things like that, more isolation-type things instead of double-teaming all the time.”
The Bulls have to try something, because the pick and roll isn’t working, either because the teammate setting the pick (often Joakim Noah) isn’t a threat to score or because the double is coming from an athletic, long-armed opponent like Bosh or James. The situation demands Rose pull back and pass the ball…at which point everything stalls.
Mind you, Noah was, at times, able to receive a pass and then make another quick pass for a score. But, as Sebastian Pruiti of NBA Playbook pointed out, the Heat figured out what Jo was doing and shut it down. It hurts that Noah seems afraid to take short jumpers. Without that minor mid-range threat, the Heat can adjust and negate his offensive contributions.
Meanwhile, LeBron James is doing a number on Luol Deng and there’s no telling whether Carlos Boozer can repeat his strong offensive performance from Game 3.
Which puts much of the responsibility back on Derrick’s shoulders.
What can he do against a defense that knows stopping him is the key to closing out the Bulls?
Said Rose: “It’s something I’ve been experiencing through the whole playoffs. Every series, people have been trying to do that, and I’ve found a way. I think [tonight] will be a different game.”
It has better be.
My question is: How will it be different? For all his success this season, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau hasn’t made all that many innovations in the team’s offense. Will he create more isolations for Rose, as described above? Try more inside-outside play, focusing on Boozer and Noah in the post, with Rose, Deng, Bogans, etc., spotting up and moving without the ball? Will the Bulls simply keep “doing what they do” and hope to do it better?
More than anything else, the NBA playoffs are about adjustments. After getting spanked in Game 1, the Heat put a greater focus on protecting the boards. They won the rebounding battle in Game 2. Chicago outrebounded Miami in Game 3, but their offensive rebounding didn’t make the impact it had in the series opener.
What adjustments will the Bulls make tonight? Because they may well decide the series.
Update! ESPN’s John Hollinger has two suggestions: Play Gibson and Boozer together, relegating Noah to reserve minutes, and/or go with a small lineup when Boozer is out of the game (Rose, Deng, Korver, Brewer, and either Noah or Gibson). I’m fine with these suggestions.