Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Bulls Win as Rose Sits Again

The win by the Bulls last night over the Knicks epitomizes the enigma that this season has been. The game was close for the first quarter, but the Bulls utilized their traditional methods of success - defense, rebounding, effort, depth, and team cohesiveness - to pull away and eventually own the game. Those skills, against a Knicks team they had already played Sunday, show why the Bulls are such a dangerous team in a playoff series. No team adjusts like the Bulls, making it tough to beat them not only in consecutive games, but taking 4 out of 7 in a series against them. And they did this all without Derrick Rose, who sat again with a new injury. Now, think back to Sunday. The Bulls had Rose back for the first time in a month, and the team looked out of sorts, struggling to an awful first half before rebounding to make the game close. What gives?

Loved Noah crashing the boards
I think that the fact that this season the Bulls seem to have played better without Derrick Rose boils down to a few things. Chief among them, I think, is that when D Rose is out, the Bulls require a more cohesive team effort to win, allowing the Bulls to utilize the depth of the team and the energy and rebounding of the front line. You saw how this works last night. The Bulls seemed to focus much harder as a group, getting energy out of all their guys. Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer crashed the boards hard, enabling their offense, which can struggle mightily without Derrick, to get more possessions and lead to easier baskets. The Bulls are also such a great passing team that when you offensive rebound as well as they do, it allows Noah and Boozer, both great passing big men, to find players cutting to the basket, or players who have found a way to get open for a quick jumper.

You saw this exhibited perfectly yesterday with the play of Kyle Korver and Rip Hamilton. Both of those players are known for their abilities to shoot, but more than that, move without the basketball. That's one of the reasons that Rip was brought on board, so the Bulls could use his ability to move without the basketball to create open passing lanes and easier shots. That is one way the Bulls combat the fact that they do not have many players on the roster outside of Rose who can create their own shot. Thus, the ability to move without the ball and stay disciplined within offensive sets is how the Bulls manufacture offense. It's also why the Bulls can struggle offensively when the shots aren't falling. But last night, Korver and Rip were moving without the ball, cutting in and around set screens, and playing the catch and shoot game to perfection. It seemed like Rip was the catalyst for the Bulls coming out in the third quarter, whereas Korver helped hold back a Knicks rally in the fourth with his clutch shooting.

Korver was feeling it
But seriously, the rebounding was fantastic. It's how the Bulls have made their name and created their recent great success. Just last night, you had Boozer with 8 rebounds, Luol Deng with 10, and Noah with 9. That's just in the starting lineup. Off the bench, Korver had 7 rebounds himself, with a group effort of Taj Gibson, Ronnie Brewer, and Omer Asik leading to the rest. That emphasizes yet another strength the Bulls use to their success - depth. The Bulls often make huge strides within games with the second unit comes in. It's hard for any other team to matchup with the likes of Gibson, Asik, Brewer, Korver, etc. The Bench Mob stays disciplined, defends well, but more than anything, creates energy. Guys like Taj and Brewer help come in and keep the other team constantly working. Between those guys and the starters, every team that comes play the Bulls is for sure going to be tired at the end of the day.

In the absence of Derrick, I also liked how Tom Thibodeau made adjustments to the way his defense played against the Knicks on Sunday. If you remember that game, it involved Carmelo Anthony going off, dropping over 40 points in the game, especially including a couple huge dagger shots like the one to win the game in overtime. Knowing how well he's playing lately, Thibs decided that instead of having Luol Deng chase him around the entire game, he's going to rotate fresh bodies in and out of the game to keep Carmelo limited. Or as much as you can keep a player of his statute limited. Using Jimmy Butler, Ronnie Brewer, and Luol Deng on Carmelo eased the defenses load and slowed Carmelo down. If I remember correctly, he still had 29 points, but most of them came in the first half. Yet another simple coaching strategy that plays off for Thibs, who should earn his second Coach of the Year award for this season.

Another reason I think the Bulls have struggled this season when Derrick Rose is back in the lineup is because they rely on him too much when he's playing. To understand this, compare the style of play in the two Knicks games we just witnessed. In the first, a guys like Noah, Gibson, and Brewer were nowhere to be found. It just seems like the Bulls don't put out the same team effort when D Rose is out there, almost expecting him to take care of everything for them. At the beginning of last night's game, you saw several possessions where the Bulls rebounded offensively so well as Boozer or Noah had the energy to just out hustle the Knicks. There were times where even Korver was diving on the floor, scooping loose balls, and feeding the ball for an easy basket. This is what I'm talking about:

Did you see much of that against the Knicks on Sunday? It felt like the Bulls were going through the motions, seemingly being able to relax because Derrick was back. I can't believe that a coach like Thibs would allow the Bulls to be that undisciplined, but that's exactly what it looked like. How many different possessions did the offensive set revolve around passing the ball around until D Rose got it back at the top of the key, only to have Derrick try to break down the defender and get to the hoop? Too many for me to remember. And, as you saw then, it's an entirely ineffective way for the Bulls to win. It's what they tried to do against Miami last year in the playoffs and it failed miserably.

I hope that the reason behind the Bulls success is more akin to the fact that the team just isn't used to him playing. We've seen this team, especially last year, thrive when Derrick is in the lineup. I want to believe that the ultimate reason for the Bulls awkwardness when D Rose is playing is simply rust. And really, that makes sense. I do feel that there is a certain relaxing sense of having the MVP in the lineup, and that filters through to the rest of the players. But when it comes down to it, having your best player back can rally the team, and make them feel that combined with that team effort, that's just one more edge that they have on the opponent.

Seeing Rip play so well was great
The problem is, the Bulls haven't had much chance to develop any chemistry with the team that was supposed to start all season. With Rip and Rose missing so many games, the starters haven't gotten used to playing together. Now, I know that Rip is the only new player to the rotation, but think back to last year. Remember how many games Noah and Boozer missed at different times? Remember how weird it was, and what an adjustment it took, when both were playing at the same time? In my opinion, they really haven't figured it out until this season. Now, you see both of them utilizing each other's strengths - most of the time - and pairing up to dominate the boards for stretches at a time. So this season, we're going to be left trying to develop chemistry between this "new" team, with Rip added to it, and Rose in the lineup.

If only there were practice time. The NBA, in their never-ending quest to prove how they're the dumbest major sports league, decided to push for 66 games in a lockout shortened season. Why 66? Why not 60? If each team had 6 less games, it would ease so much pressure on the teams and allow them actual practice time to work out kinks. That might lead to - gasp - better basketball! Instead, the league pushed for and got 66 games, ensuring that any off day the teams have will be purely for rest. And that is what worries me here about the Bulls. Once Derrick gets healthy, the Bulls are going to have to use the games themselves to get the team clicking together. Granted, the Bulls have that kind of luxury given that they're 30 games above .500, but with a coach like Thibs who is always gunning for the win (not that there's anything wrong with that), there's going to be less time for instruction during games and more time for doing what it takes to win. Especially with a number 1 seed on the line.

That's what is going to make the rest of the season so interesting. When Derrick FINALLY gets healthy, it's going to fall on Thibs to ensure that his team exerts the same kind of effort they do when he's out. The players themselves are going to have to get used to playing with each other quickly. I'm encouraged by the breakout game from Rip yesterday, and I feel that will not only ease the burden on Derrick coming back, but it will help a player like Luol Deng as well. Still, if the Bulls don't come together as a team when D Rose is healthy, work out the kinks, get used to playing together, and above all, continue to exhibit the effort, defense, energy, and depth that makes the team so hard to beat, we might end up seeing more games like Sunday against New York than last night. I'm going to be the optimist and think we're going to get it together going forward. Only time will tell.