Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Collective Effort Keeps Bulls' Season Alive

Maybe this is the time it all comes together. The Bulls have struggled to put together a cohesive effort since the end of Game 1 when Derrick Rose went down. They thought they were starting to come around in Game 3, building up a double digit lead, and then Joakim Noah goes down. It wasn't until tonight, in Game 5, where we saw a collective effort from a Bulls team that had banded together all year, through each injury to each player. I want to think that it was just a Bulls team that had become so dependent on Derrick Rose that it took a while to find their stride in his absence. But in reality, this was the first game all series where everyone (or really, those who were healthy) stepped up at once.

The Bulls got a great collective effort
If you think about it, the strengths of the Bulls are defense, depth, team play, effort, rebounding, and more defense. When D Rose went down, the Bulls lost their on-court general that made all of those much easier. But that didn't mean that a team that played without him for a large chunk of the season couldn't still put out great effort, rebound, and defend well. And for the most part, they have. It's easy to think that because of the way they've lost the past couple games, the Bulls' effort has been lacking everywhere. But really, most of the time their defense has still played well; it was only the lack of leadership on offense that caused the Bulls to falter down the stretch of each of their losses. And when there is no leadership, it puts a lot of strain on those other areas of the team - whether it be defense, depth, effort, rebounding, whatever - and makes them more unsuccessful. When you combine that with the fact that this is the playoffs and you play the same team multiple times, and you have a dangerous combination.

I guess that's my long-winded way of saying how important it was that Luol Deng, among others stepped up tonight. For most of the series, he's been irrelevant. I know he's been injured, and that he's been guarded by perhaps the best perimeter defender in the NBA in Andre Iguodala, but Deng is a highly paid All Star and needed to step up earlier. We'll still take it though, and his ability to step up and be a leader, above and beyond his needed scoring, was probably the biggest reason the Bulls did not choke this lead away down the stretch of the fourth quarter like they did previously in the series. Just as importantly, though, was his scoring. He hit some big baskets in the fourth to keep the Bulls pacing well ahead of Philadelphia and delivering the Bulls the win. He's going to need to keep this up for the Bulls to storm back and have any chance at taking this series, but it was definitely a good start tonight.

Taj was the man, setting the tempo for the entire team
More than just Deng, though, was the collective effort, heart, and determination of the rest of the team coming together (finally) at once. We've seen sporadic effort from this team the past few games, with one player flatlining when he was needed the most while the rest performed, or some other combination of the same. Tonight you had Taj Gibson, Deng, Ronnie Brewer, Carlos Boozer, and Omer Asik all come together at the right time. The difficulty, of course, in losing guys like Rose and Noah is not just their skill, but their effort and intensity. I think Taj tonight supplied enough to last the entire playoffs. You can't say enough about the way the guy steps onto the court every game, especially in the playoffs. Tonight, he was all over the place, blocking shots, grabbing rebounds, but more importantly, keeping his team into it with a Noah-like intensity. He had a good stat sheet, but so much of what he does for this team doesn't show up in the box score at the end of the night. Simply, he does what is necessary. Tonight, and for most of this series, the Bulls have needed a spark. They've needed an intensity. They've needed leadership. And for the first time since Derrick Rose went down, and even Noah, the Bulls got it when they needed it most, with Taj ready to step up into that role.

That kind of effort permeated through the rest of the team. You had Omer Asik, a guy who has never started in this league (and who looked winded Sunday in his first start), running up and down the court, blocking shots and not making anything easy for Philly. At the end of the first half, there was Taj, fighting for the Bulls' playoff lives, and the ball, with Elton Brand on the court. Ronnie Brewer made his presence known, with some solid offense and some clutch steals and a block on defense. I liked how aggressive Boozer was as well, trying to take his man off the dribble instead of falling back on his typical slightly fading away jumpers.

But it wasn't just those individual efforts. It's how they came together at once, at least enough to get a win. The defense was outstanding, as Philly shot only 32% for the game. The Bulls were forcing turnovers and not letting Philly get any easy baskets. It was strange; for one night at least, it felt like we were watching the Bulls that won 50 games in the regular season this year. Playing like this, the Bulls can win this series. It's just going to take two more cohesive efforts like this, with leadership, effort, and defense thrown in. Let's just hope that Taj isn't seriously hurt, and that the team can maybe even get Noah back for Game 6.

Deng played like the All Star he is
I think that Tom Thibodeau gets some credit here too. I've questioned his coaching the past few games, and I really think that he, like the rest of the team, was trying to figure out how to manage this team in the playoffs without Rose, and subsequently without Noah. I don't know why he didn't have Brewer in the game in Game 3, and only playing sporadic minutes in the first two games, because tonight he was a catalyst on both ends of the floor. I liked that Thibs wasn't afraid to essentially bench Rip Hamilton, who has been ineffective the entire series, and let Brewer run loose. I thought that the defensive adjustments by Thibs helped shore up some of the deficiencies in that area, like easy baskets in the paint and open jumpers. But most importantly, he adjusted the offense to open up the floor more. He must have been on Deng and Watson in practice, because even though CJ didn't score much, he had 7 assists and did a good job facilitating the offense. It allowed Deng to free up his game more, and the Bulls offense didn't clog up as it had previously in the series.

There are still the same concerns, though, heading into two more games. First, what is the health situation? Is Noah going to be able to return, and is Taj seriously hurt? That's going to be a key. More than that, though, the Bulls have to get up like this for the next two games. They have to continue to show the fight they showed tonight, whether it be on the boards, on defense, or diving after loose balls, going forward. Each game has to be treated like it's the last, because right now it's lose or go home.

Still, it all comes down to leadership. Leadership matters the most in the playoffs, and especially the fourth quarter in those playoff games. The past few games that the Bulls have won have been directly caused by a lack of leadership in the fourth quarter. The Bulls needed someone to turn to, and they did it tonight not just with Tom Thibodeau, or Luol Deng, or Taj Gibson, or Ronnie Brewer. They did it with all of them together at the same time. With their backs against the wall, it's going to take more of the same to get out of this series. In the end, it's taken a few games after losing their leaders, but the Bulls may have found that their team can still have leadership when everyone steps up to the plate. We'll find out Thursday if this can lead the Bulls to a Game 7 back at the United Center.