What’s wrong with the Chicago Bulls?
That became a popular question in the aftermath of their come-from-behind victory in Game 1 on Saturday. It’s going to be even more popular today, tomorrow, and in the hours leading up to Game 3 in Indianapolis on Thursday.
Because there must be something wrong with a team that has won 11 games in a row and 23 of their last 25.
So what’s wrong with these guys anyway? Let’s ask Derrick Rose.
“Our play has to get better,” Rose said. “We have to be more smooth, more efficient, especially on the defensive end where we have to try a lot harder. But I feel like we’re going to get things together pretty quickly.”
Better defensively? Last night, the Bulls held he Pacers to 90 points on 41.6 percent shooting, forced 18 turnovers and won the rebounding battle 57-33. Indy finished with an Offensive Efficiency of 91.8.
The defense was fine. The offense? Not so much.
The Bulls shot 38.6 percent from the field and misfired on nine of their 14 three-point attempts. They also bricked seven free throws. Starters Luol Deng (3-for-13), Joakim Noah (2-for-10) and Keith Bogans (1-for-5) couldn’t have located the basket with a GPS device. Derrick Rose scored a game-high 36 points and went 12-for-13 from the foul line, but he missed 14 of his 25 shot attempts.
Apparently, Indiana’s defense was fine, too.
Worse than the misdirected shooting, though, was that the Bulls gave up 26 points off 22 turnovers. Look, playoff basketball is tough. Defenses step up the intensity and shooting percentages tend to drop. That’s to be expected.
To win in the postseason, teams need to play defense, rebound and take care of the basketball. In Game 1, the problem was either that the defense didn’t play as expected or the Pacers shot the lights out from mid-range (or both). Last night, the Bulls played solid defense and took care of the boards. However, they did not value possession of the basketball. And it nearly cost them Game 2.
That said, let’s think things out a bit.
This quote from the AP recap really stood out to me: “It hasn’t been easy for the Bulls after they stormed through the regular season with a league-best 62-20 record.”
Did you see what I saw?
The Bulls did indeed finish with a record of 62-20. Best in the NBA. But it’s not really accurate to say they “stormed through the regular season.” The 2010-11 Bulls did a great many things, but storming was not one of them. Several teams — the Celtics, Hornets, Lakers, Mavericks and Spurs, for instance — ran out to better early-season records. And there were long stretches of the season in which the Bulls had, say, the fourth, fifth or sixth best record in the NBA.
No, what they did was not “storming” so much as it was grinding out win after gritty win. As the season wore on and other teams struggled with injuries, boredom, or a general pulling back of the throttle to reserve energy (both mental and physical) for the playoffs, the Bulls came out with the same level of focus and desire to win every game every night.
The Bulls were the league’s best regular season team not because they are the most talented group of players but because they wanted it more. Because their focus and intensity was more consistent than any other team in the Association.
And so now there’s been a major shift in perception. Remember: The Bulls were not expected to lead the East in regular season wins. Many people figured they would finish behind the Celtics, Heat and Magic at a bare minimum. Maybe the Hawks, too. And, as I’ve mentioned, there were people who genuinely believed that the Milwaukee Bucks might win the Central Division.
With great power comes great responsibility, right? Well, with 62 wins comes increased expectations. When the Bulls were grinding out win after regular season win, they were exceeding the expectations that had been set for them prior to the season. But now, because they were the league’s best team for 82 games, there are new expectations. Namely, that they should be steamrolling their opponents, especially lesser teams like the Pacers.
Look, I’m not trying to demean the players on this team, because they’re great guys. That said, the Bulls’ success this season has caused many people to overrate the team’s talent. I think this has happened for two reasons. First, because the Bulls have been so successful, people need to reframe the situation to better understand it. “Oh,” they decide, “these guys must be a lot better than I gave them credit for.”
Second, in the rush to argue against Rose’s MVP candidacy, it became a popular notion to suggest that his teammates were actually better (or even much better) than previously assumed. “Hey,” they pointed out, “check out those plus-minus numbers. The Bulls aren’t just Rose. They have a lot of really good players.”
I’m not sure that’s actually the case, though. If the Bulls truly had a lot of really good players, they wouldn’t have to start Bogans. No, what Chicago has are a lot of solid NBA contributors who bought into a concept (defense and teamwork) and played their butts off for six months.
I mean, let’s face facts. Carlos Boozer was a major free agent last summer, but he was definitely on the second tier of the most sought-after acquisitions. Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer might have been on the fourth tier. As far as I could tell, there were no bidding wars or trade battles for the services of C.J. Watson. Kurt Thomas is ancient. And everyone realizes that Omer Asik is a rookie with almost no offensive game to speak of and even less upper body strength, right?
Oh, for the record, I’m not saying any of this to boost Rose’s MVP resume. I just think that it’s worth reevaluating the updated perception of the Bulls. The 62-20 record looks overpowering, but this was not an overpowering team. The Bulls might be number one in terms of wins and losses, but in terms of pure talent, they might not be in the top five. They are very well coached, they play exceptionally hard and they believe in each other. Oh, and they have Rose to clean up any messes.
And if you take a look back at the last month or so of the season, the formula for winning became this: Play all out on defense and let Rose take over the last five minutes of the game. I’m serious. Go back through the game logs. The Bulls played a lot of close games in which their will and Rose’s ability to close simply wore down the other team.
That’s what’s happening right now. Nothing has really changed except what people believe the Bulls are supposed to be doing.
Said Noah: “Like we’ve been saying all year, we have really high character on this team. It’s funny how people always [say], ‘Oh, you guys are going to smack [them].’ People are just automatically expecting us to just beat down on teams. That’s what we want to do, but sometimes it’s not going to happen, and you’re going to find a way to win these games as well.”
The Bulls are not and have not been a “smack down” team. As Noah said, they are a high character team that wears down opponents with consistent effort and intensity. It worked in Games 1 and 2. And it should work well enough for them to win this series.
We really don’t know yet, do we? These Bulls are travelling an unconventional path to success. They win more on scrap than talent, and the scrappy teams aren’t supposed to win 62 games and earn the top seed in their conference (and the league). They’re supposed to do what, say, the Houston Rockets did, or what the Pacers are doing now.
What will these Bulls do? What can they do?
Their are a lot of variables that effect regular season success. The playoffs are about talent. When you look at the past decade of NBA champions, you see Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. You see Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. Shaq and Kobe. The closest recent comparison is the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons who featured a top four of Ben Wallace, Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince.
Can the Bulls emulate their success?
I’m not sure. Those players were at the top of their repective games at that particular time. Rose, obviously, has never been better. Deng is having his best season (or second only to 2006-07). This hasn’t been Boozer’s best season. And, frankly, the Noah of right now is not the Noah from before his thumb injury. Jo is ripping down boards and playing defense, but he looks confused, hesitant and out-of-sync on offense. Earlier in the season, he was much more confident posting up, taking short jump hooks and shooting the midrange jumper. His offensive confidence is gone unless he’s dunking the ball or getting a putback.
To be perfectly blunt, Chicago’s offense has become too reliant on Rose. Actually, scratch “has become” from that sentence. It’s been too reliant on Rose for a while now. If I have any criticism of Tom Thibodeau, it’s that he has not (in my opinion) done enough to diversify the non-Rose parts of the offense. And I get that. I mean, it has been working. It worked well enough to earn the team 62 wins.
I’m afraid it may cost the Bulls during these playoffs. If not in this round, then in the next, or the one after that.
Or maybe I’m doing it now. Maybe I’ve caught the “What’s wrong with the Chicago Bulls” fever, too. They have an established formula that works for them. It has worked against bad teams and it has worked against the good ones as well. They are playing hard, executing down the stretch and, most importantly, winning.
So maybe there’s nothing wrong with the Chicago Bulls.
Update! I knew the Bulls had the second-best margin of victory in the league this season, but I didn’t realize how many blowouts they had. I checked the schedule, and it turns out the Bulls had 30 double-digit victories. Of those 30 wins, 17 of them were by 16 or more and seven of them were by 20 or more.
You know, it didn’t feel (to me) like there were that may double-digit wins. Maybe I need to (partially) reevaluate my perception of the Bulls as a grind-it-out team.