Posted by Matt Moore
No one likes to admit they were wrong. In the long list of people who are willing to admit they're wrong, sports writers are just above politicians and below artists. It's a product of the kind of currency that operates among sports editors and a result of the kind of comments you'll see litter most posts about sports across the internet. So this isn't exactly easy.
I was wrong.
Monumentally stupid would be another way to put it, but we're going to roll with just wrong. Back in July, before we'd seen a lick of basketball, we ran our offseason grades. In appraising the Bulls, I looked at Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer and Keith Bogans and didn't see it. I initially gave them a C+, then considering their total positioning of their current roster, upgraded them to a B-. Sure, they'd be better than the 8th seed they were in 2010. But were they really going to be that much better? Were they really going to compete for a title? Were they really going to be great?
Yes. Yes they were.
The Bulls are a great team. And they enter the playoffs at their absolute zenith. They are led by the all-but-elected MVP Derrick Rose, who we'll get to. Their coach is the near-lock Coach of the Year. We'll get to him, too. They defend, can run, can play in the half-court, they rebound, and they have that rare ability to find the way to win. Their being at the top of the Eastern Conference should not be a surprise if you've been watching this season. They've been great. The playoffs will give them the chance to prove it.
For Chicago, everything starts with the defense. Everything. Tom Thibodeau has crafted the Bulls in his own image, the same image that the Celtics have taken on over the course of his tenure there. The principles are simple. Communicate, demonstrate, suffocate. You watch the Bulls defend the pick and roll, and it's no wonder that they're the second best pick and roll defense team in the league according to Synergy Sports. They lead the league in field goal percentage allowed in the pick and roll, thanks to their system. When the ball handler initiates the set, there will be three players geared towards it for the Bulls. The ball-handler's defender, who fights through the screen, the roll-man's defender, who peels back, playing between the roll man and the ball-handler, and a third help-defender, either from the corner or wing. The roll-defender will call out which way the ball handler is coming off, while the other players indicate if they need further help from the off-ball defenders. Communicate. If the ball-handler goes wide around the pick, the roll-man or weak-side help shows hard, cutting off the lane to discourage the drive. Demonstrate. And if the ball-handler stops his dribble to consider a shot, pass, or if he passes the roll-man, whose man inevitably is recovering fast on him, help defense immediately closes, chokes off passing lanes, attacks the ball, and aims for the turnover. Suffocate.
More impressive for the Bulls than their defense when they know what the opponent is going to do is how they react when they don't. Get loose on the baseline off an excellent pass, past your man, and you'll find Joakim Noah stepping into the take the charge from the weak-side, his hands straight up to close off the passing lane for the dump-off to his man he just left. Stutter-step inside, and you'll find wave after wave of swiping hands, disrupting the dribble just enough to either force the turnover, a back-out, or rush the shot. No matter what you do, the Bulls have an answer. And if you somehow manage to create a driving lane, fill it, and then kick out to the open shooter whose man has come in and that pass does find its mark? They run off the three ball as well as any team in the league. You can beat them. You just have to be consistently on-target in every phase of execution.
|Road To The Finals|
A lot has been made of the Bulls' success despite the massive injuries they've suffered through, but in reality, you have to wonder if those games without Carlos Boozer or Joakim Noah actually helped the Bulls. Down a man, it meant there could be no deflection of responsibility by the Bulls' front line, no question of where the buck stopped. Each player had to step up. Noah had to step up for Boozer's absence, Boozer for Noah's, the bench for both. Having to answer to your team is a lost element in most NBA environments, but the Bulls have bred one. It's that attitude that may be the biggest advantage they have in the playoffs.
So how do the Bulls get to the Finals? If they think it will be like the regular season, they're mistaken. But there are playoff veterans on these teams. Luol Deng was around when the Bulls were Eastern Conference contenders in the mid-00's. Carlos Boozer and Kyle Korver have seen the Western Conference Finals. Thibodeau has seen the best and worst the Finals can provide. They're not lacking in experience. How they adjust to matchups will be a considerable challenge for Thibodeau, who for the most part has abandoned control of the offense to Rose, and who has seen what can happen if a team has the perimeter abilities to best his help defense.
That's right, the Magic.
The Magic are overlooked as contenders on the whole. Their biggest strength, three-point shooting, isn't what it used to be. Dwight Howard is a beast, but one you can live with most nights. Their defense is exceptionally strong, but suffers when it faces a superior point guard. Their ability to get hot, however, is going to be a concern if things play out as expected and the Bulls run into them in the second round. Thibodeau is 1-1 against the Magic. His loss came against them when he was without Kevin Garnett. He will be without Garnett this time. Carlos Boozer is a fine post player, but far from a defensive stalwart, and nothing like KG. The challenge will be managing to challenge the Magic on the pick and roll if the kickout to the Magic's shooter start working. Start dropping 3-pointers like their hot, and the brilliant Thibodeau defense is held largely neutralized. It can't keep defenders on the perimeter without sacrificing help on the driving lanes, and it can't focus on the driving lanes without surrendering long, uncontested 3-pointers. The Magic will likely unravel due to their subpar talent. But if there's a matchup issue in the playoff, that's the one.
Which is not to see the rest would be easy. Sure, the Pacers are too young, too inexperienced and too composite to form a stiff challenge, even if Roy Hibbert can do some damage. But in general, there's little chance of the Pacers making a significant push, barring an unforeseen light-year distance jump by Darren Collison or Danny Granger.
So already, we've got the Bulls penciled in for the Conference Finals. That's how far they've come. Once there, that's the colossal games, the big ones, the legendary ones, a preview of which will be played Thursday night against the Celtics. If you'd asked anyone who the Bulls would rather see in the Conference Finals, the Heat or the Celtics, the answer would have been the Celtics back in preseason. That's not a knock on the defending East champs, that's because on the surface, the Heat should have the versatility at position by the Big 3 and the kind of size and muscle combined with ability to overwhelm the Bulls defensively, and the defense to hold them in check. Hasn't been the case. The big difference in a series against the Heat is Luol Deng. Deng's defensive abilities have long been underrated, but under Thibodeau, they've reached a new level. His versatility helps him hang with both James' size and speed, and if need be, he can switch to Wade and use his length to force long contested jumpers. It sounds strange to say, but the Heat are largely overmatched by the Bulls.
The Celtics are a different ballgame altogether. The two teams have met three times this season, with each team missing a key starter at one point or another in all three. Thursday marks the first time we've seen them at full strength, and the last until a possible Eastern Conference Finals matchup. The Celtics know about Thibs' defense, and Thibs knows about the Celtics. He has their scouting report, knows their tendencies, knows what the weaknesses are. But the Celtics are stronger offensively with the same defensive prowess and better personnel. This is, quite simply, the biggest clash of powerhouses until the Finals, and while neither team will pull out all the stops, it will be a bloodbath.
The swing vote in all this for the Bulls is one man: Rose.
The Bulls' offense is largely a product of innovation. Thibodeau has a playbook, a set of elements to run, and works with the Bulls to accent their strengths. But the Bulls are not a top offensive team. They're still finding their way, don't hit a lot of shots, despite adding shooters in Keith Bogans and Kyle Korver. Carlos Boozer is doing his Carlos Boozer thing, but he won't be mistaken for Amar'e Stoudemire (though his defense is clearly better than STAT's, which says a lot about Stoudemire's). Joakim Noah has an okay jumper and a few moves. Deng's 3-point shooting has been a boon as has his mid-range game this season, but overall, the Bulls are just not an offensive powerhouse.
Until Rose kicks it into gear. Rose really is a one-man dervish. The knock on him at the beginning of the season was he couldn't create contact, didn't get to the line enough. If he fixed that, and now regularly finishes after contact. His first-step on the drive is all speed. His second is all explosion. The rest is a highlight reel. He gets from perimeter to bucket faster and with more power than any player in the league, and that's including LeBron James. He can single-handedly change games for the Bulls. And he's going to need to. The team will probably struggle at times in the playoffs, maybe in surprising ways. They will go only as far as Rose can take them. It's an awfully lot on his shoulders at such a young age, but then, this is how sports legends are made.
The Bulls look every bit ready to challenge the Eastern Conference at every turn. They are committed, they are well-practiced, and they are effective. They have written the perfect story of a regular season for such a new team. Now we'll have to see what they do for an ending.