Sixers-Bulls First Round Playoff Series Preview

Not to overlook last night’s game against the Cavaliers — which the Bulls won 107-75 despite resting Derrick Rose, Luol Deng and Kyle Korver — but the regular season is over.

The Bulls (50-16) once again compiled the league’s best record. San Antonio again has the second-best record (the Spurs are also 50-16, but Chicago beat them in their only head-to-head meeting, giving the Bulls the tiebreaker).

Mind you, both teams dealt with injuries to key players but managed to plug-and-play their way to the top seeds in their respective conferences. The Bulls and Spurs have been built around high-character players, brilliant coaches, and excellent systems. In many ways, these teams mirror each other in terms of drive, follow-through, and success.

Of course, the Bulls would like to emulate San Antonio’s championship success of the past decade as well.

The road to that elusive seventh championship begins on Saturday against the Philadelphia 76ers.

Congratulations to Philly’s Evan Turner. He got what he wanted. I think he may end up getting more than he bargained for.

(In all fairness, Turner has since clarified his comments, and he comes off somewhat better in his expanded explanation. But still.)

What are we to make of this Sixers team? They opened the season 18-7 and then went 17-24 the rest of the way. Here are their monthly won-loss records:

December: 4-2
January: 13-4
February: 6-9
March: 8-8
April: 6-8

So…what in the world happened? Philly’s season began so promising then semi-collapsed to the point where there was some question about whether they’d make the playoffs at all.

Earlier this month, former Sixers beat writer and current contributor Kate Fagan suggested the team might be turning on coach Doug Collins. Or, at the very least, tuning him out.

Fagan wrote:

Since around early March, guys on the team have struggled with Doug Collins’ coaching style. Look, we all knew at the beginning of last year, when Collins took over this young team, that he had a history of turning around young squads. And we also knew that he had (sometimes as early as the second season) a history of over-coaching, at which point his players tend to become frustrated and tune him out. The Sixers have been struggling with this for at least a month, if not longer. This has led to heated interactions, sometimes even in the middle of games. On more than one occasion, players have let Collins know — during a game — that they’re sick of the relentless nitpicking. This incessant nagging (or even the perception of it) leads to fractured relationships. The Sixers have reached the point where, at least some of them, have addressed this issue with Collins.

The lockout-shortened season is contributing to the problem, because it’s game after game after game. There is no time to get in the gym and practice. By all accounts from within the Sixers, this season has not been fun — it’s been a struggle. A long, frustrating struggle. You’re seeing poor play because of this behind-the-scenes struggle. Obviously, Collins’ coaching style is a huge issue within the locker room. As players become frustrated and annoyed with the micromanaging, it becomes more difficult to make the necessary in-game changes. It’s the basketball version of crying wolf. If you’re always correcting something out of nervousness and habit, players are less likely to respond when the correction is important.

I’m not sure it’s fair to say that Collins has lost the team, and there’s evidence to suggest Philly might have tanked their last game to avoid playing the Miami Heat, but clearly this is a situation that could work against the Sixers. Although, to be honest, I’m willing to bet that tuning Collins out was more of a regular season problem. I believe the team will refocus for the playoffs. This year at least.

But other than internal strife, what else precipitated the Sixers’ fall from grace this season?

Neil Paine of Basketball-Reference and writes:

Negative momentum like that isn’t necessarily a harbinger of playoff doom (to the contrary, late-season form is often overrated by analysts when predicting which teams will rise or fall in the playoffs), but it is troubling that the Sixers’ biggest decline down the stretch has been on defense, which had been the team’s biggest strength.

 Over the past month, Philly’s D has gone from being the NBA’s best — a distinction the Sixers had held practically all season long — to merely its third-best, courtesy of allowing 106.9 points per 100 possessions since March 30 (compared to the 97.7 mark the Sixers had on the season beforehand). You can’t blame that performance on scheduling, since just two of Philadelphia’s last nine opponents ranked in the league’s top half offensively.

Philadelphia was just demonstrably worse at stopping opponents from scoring, and this period of uncharacteristically pedestrian defense coincided with a stretch when the Sixers won just three times in 11 games — a tailspin that at one point had them flirting with missing the playoffs.

If the Sixers aren’t dominating defensively, they have practically no chance of succeeding in the postseason. Philly’s offense, a weak point all season relative to the team’s previously stellar defense, slipped to 18th in the latest efficiency rankings. As a team, the Sixers settle for too many long jump shots and struggle to score in the clutch, which seems to justify what everyone’s biggest concern about them was this whole time: that they don’t have a traditional star scorer who can be isolated in crucial situations.

Paine is correct. Philly’s D became demonstrably worse as the season progressed. However, I’m guessing that trend may right itself as the playoffs begin. After all, defense is less about raw talent than it is about the system implemented by the coach combined with the focus and determination of the players. It’s possible the defense started to deteriorate because, as Fagan supposed, the team was beginning to tire of Collins’ relentless drive. But teams in a tailspin can sometimes hit the “reset” button. And if the Sixers’ defense returns to form, it could give the Bulls problems.

But, believe you me, the Bulls defense is sure going to give Philly’s offense problems. In fact, you could argue that the Sixers’ offense has enough problems of its own.

The Sixers have five players who average in double figures: Lou Williams (14.9), Jrue Holiday (13.5), Thaddeus Young (12.8), Andre Iguodala (12.4) and Elton Brand (11.0). It’s nice to have a diverse set of offensive weapons…but, as Paine noted, they do not have a single dominant scorer. Or even a semi-dominant scorer.

And the foundation of their offense is fundamentally flawed. According to Hoopdata, Philly ranks dead last in free throw attempts (18.2) and shot attempts at the rim (21.1). Meanwhile, they rank first overall in shot attempts from 10-15 feet (11.9) and second (to the worst-NBA-team-ever Charlotte Bobcats) in shot attempts from 16-23 feet (24.5). They shoot the three-ball pretty well — ranking eighth in the league at 36.2 percent — but rank 25th in three-point attempts per game (14.6).

Further, according to Basketball-Reference, the Sixers finished the season ranked 23rd in points per game (93.6) and 20th in Offensive Rating (103.9 points scored per 100 possessions). So, basically, Philly doesn’t have a go-to scorer and depends primarily on long, contested, two-point jump shots to score points.

And they don’t do that particularly well from an efficiency standpoint.

Oh, and did I happen to mention that the Bulls completed their season ranked first in opponents points per game (88.2) and second in Defensive Rating (98.3 points given up per 100 possessions).

Memo to Evan Turner: Are you absolutely certain this is what you wanted?

I understand the Bulls have a few question marks of their own. The biggest of which are: Is Derrick Rose completely healthy and can he shake off the rust to regain his MVP form from last season?

Only time will answer the questions about Rose. But the Bulls proved they were capable of competing with elite teams even without their superstar. They have an amazing defense and home court advantage. The Sixers are defiant and scrappy. But, if the Bulls play the way they’re capable of playing, I can’t see this series lasting more than five or (at the absolute most) six games.

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One Response to Sixers-Bulls First Round Playoff Series Preview

    David April 27, 2012 at 3:03 pm #

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