First Indiana, and now Atlanta. Both teams have used their athleticism, energy, and underdog status to make the first two rounds of the playoffs difficult for the Bulls. But while the Pacers and Hawks surely deserve credit, the Bulls’ struggles are arguably largely self-inflicted.
What were the primary strengths that led the Bulls to a league best 62 wins during the regular season? Simple, most would agree: Tom Thibodeau’s masterful defensive coaching, and Derrick Rose’s outstanding offensive play. It’s no coincidence that they were recently named Coach of the Year and MVP.
Yet it is precisely those strengths that may, ironically, prove to be the undoing of the Bulls in the playoffs. Of course their excellent defense will continue to benefit them, but as much as Thibodeau is a genius at orchestrating play on that end of the court, he has thus far proven to be mediocre at best as an offensive coach.
Yes, it is true that the Bulls have limited offensive weapons, and several players have been fighting through injuries as well. But an over-reliance on Rose in the playoffs is a recipe for elimination, and every one of their opponents has been – and will be – well aware of that fact.
The fourth quarter of last night’s game was a vivid illustration of the problem. Rose took 12 of the Bulls’ 17 shots in the quarter, as Atlanta outscored Chicago 33-19. The Bulls were stagnant throughout the final period, essentially standing around waiting for Derrick to put on his magic show. They were able to get away with that quite a few times over the course of the regular season, just as the Lakers got away with the Kobe magic show many times over the years, as did the Bulls when MJ was playing. But just like those two multiple championship teams, this year’s Bulls must create more balanced scoring in order to advance to, let alone beyond the conference finals.
It’s a vexing problem because Thibodeau’s great strength has largely masked his biggest weakness. But now, in the playoffs, that weakness is being exposed, and the burning questions are whether he will (quickly) make the transition to using Rose as a facilitator and decoy more often, and whether the superstar’s surrounding cast will step up and hit shots when given the chance.
It’s very tempting to think that brilliant players can carry their teams on their backs, and will them to victory, as it does indeed happen occasionally in individual games. But these are the playoffs, and as outstanding a player as Derrick Rose is, he cannot take the Bulls to the promised land on his own. He needs help, and coach Thibodeau needs to break the rigid pattern that has defined his team’s offense throughout the season in order for that to happen.
About the author:
Tony C. grew up in Evanston, and cut his teeth on the exciting, early ’70’s Walker-Love-Sloan-Van Lier Bulls. As a pick-up player, he admits to having stuck too long with low-top shoes (Puma Baskets, for the detail oriented), but did belatedly make the switch when the sprained ankles became tedious. Tony’s professional life revolves mainly around buying, selling and managing Thoroughbred racehorses. While he now resides outside of Chicago, he remains an interested, enthusiastic, and at times critical Bulls fan.