CHICAGO | Before Tuesday's game, the winds of change were blowing. Literally.
I hate weather metaphors, but I can't pass this one up. On Monday, I covered the White Sox-Indians game at U.S. Cellular Field. Beautiful, warm day for baseball, an early hint of the coming summer. That night, the NCAA men wrapped up their season with the now-classic title game in Indianapolis. Then, early Tuesday afternoon, I hopped a Red Line train for the DePaul campus, where I participated in a typically-euphoric introductory press conference for new Blue Demons coach Oliver Purnell.
On my way home from the presser, a strange thing happened. A rainy morning had given way to a sunny afternoon, and a warm wind was blowing out of the north. At the same time, a breeze kicked up off of Lake Michigan--a bracing, cold wind that makes you want to button your sports coat. The competing currents alternated, making for one of the more surreal climate-related experiences I've ever had. It's like you were standing in front of a vent in your home and switching your thermostat between 'heat' and 'cool'. Winter doing battle with summer. Winter is doomed to fail, because that is the natural order of things. Baseball will push basketball out of our consciousness, for awhile, and, in Chicago, that changing of the guard looks like it's going to happen in about eight days.
Yeah, I know, but you'd straining for metaphors, too, if you had watched the Bulls, on about their eighth life in the playoff derby, throw up on their shoes when handed yet another golden opportunity. The Raptors lost in Cleveland, which temporarily brought Chicago within a half-game of eighth-place Toronto. The Bulls were playing a Milwaukee team dealing with the aftermath of Andrew Bogut's season-ending injuries. Milwaukee dictated tempo, repeatedly forced the ball out of Derrick Rose's hands, tightened up on the boards after getting dominated off the glass in the first quarter, played disciplined defense and got just enough points to win an ugly 79-74 game that left the Bulls faithful muttering.
Milwaukee won't be able to win in the postseason playing offense like it did on Tuesday, but the Bucks did serve notice that there won't be any drop in their defensive intensity or production. The Bulls remain a game back of Toronto, which faces Boston and Atlanta in its next two outings. The Bulls, meanwhile, have LeBron James' Cavaliers paying a visit to the United Center on Thursday. Despite the worst efforts of both Toronto and Chicago, the playoff spot may not be decided until Sunday, when the Bulls travel to Toronto, and it may not even be decided then. Keep in mind that the Raptors hold the tiebreaker edge by virtue of their two wins over the Bulls earlier this season.
1. Matchups, matchups, matchups.
During the first quarter, the Bucks' offense basically consisted of Brandon Jennings dribbling around, while teammates curled around picks in a sort of motion offense in which nobody was popping open. Scott Skiles' starting lineup was short of shooters and Jennings wasn't hitting. Meanwhile, the Bulls' Derrick Rose was being throttled by Milwaukee's defense, which was designed entirely for the purpose of getting the ball out of Rose's hands. Rose passed off and, initially, his teammates were hitting and Chicago was dominating the glass on both ends of the floor. Seven Chicago turnovers prevented the game from getting out of hand, but the Bulls led 27-14 after the first quarter.
The game changed when Skiles inserted Ersan Ilyasova at the four position. Bulls rookie Taj Gibson didn't quite know what to do with the rangy marksman and wasn't comfortable stepping out on the floor to defend. Ilyasova scored nine points in the second quarter. Combined with Luke Ridnour's outside shooting threat, the Bulls' defense loosened. On the other end, the Chicago offense fell to pieces when Rose took his normal second quarter rest. Chicago managed three made field goals in the period, committed five turnovers and Chicago's rebounding turned from dominating to dominated.
In the second half, the game was like watching a head-on collision on a repeating loop. Rose drives. Bucks collapse into lane. Rose kicks out. Bulls miss shot. Finally, Chicago was able to push the tempo and got back into the game in the fourth quarter. Then Skiles starting running clear-outs for John Salmons against Luol Deng. This would not have struck me as an ideal matchup for Milwaukee, but Salmons was able to get to the rim time and again down the stretch.
2. Ewing Theory II?
Mega-popular ESPN columnist Bill Simmons popularized the "Ewing Theory" years ago. The idea sprang from the Knicks' run to the NBA Finals in 1999 despite the absence of star center Patrick Ewing, who was out with an Achilles injury. According to Wikipedia, the theory is that "when a longtime superstar who has never won a championship leaves the team via injury, trade or free agency, and the media writes the team off, the team will play better."
Do the Bucks qualify here? It might be a stretch, especially the part which would entail Andrew Bogut to be defined as "a longtime superstar." However, if there is one player that might know if the Bucks will become the latest example of the Ewing Theory phenomenon, it's his replacement, Kurt Thomas. Thomas, as you may remember, was a starter on that Knicks team.
"A reporter asked me if I'd ever encountered a situation like this in my career and the only thing I could think of was when Patrick got injured," Thomas said. "You don't really think about it, though.
"We don't want to put any added pressure on anyone. We just have to go out there and do our jobs. No one has to go out there and dominate."
3. Bulls' bodies back and just in the nick of time.
For the second straight game, Chicago had its starting unit intact after two months of battling injuries to Rose, Deng and Noah. However, some of the players that saw increased minutes during that span were forgotten men despite Chicago's stagnant offense. James Johnson, Jannero Pargo and Hakim Warrick saw less than 15 minutes combined. In Pargo's case, the limited time was perplexing because he managed a three-point shot and an assist during his limited court time. Meanwhile, Kirk Hinrich played 43 minutes, but managed just nine points on 16 shots with zero assists. Johnson is battling a foot injury, so his cameo was understandable. However, with the Bulls trying to push the tempo, the four minutes Warrick played are baffling. Warrick has a lot of holes in his game, but his strengths are strong, so to speak, particularly his ability to run the floor from the four position. With Gibson already having trouble in his matchup against Ilyasova, why not give Warrick some run?
4. Bucks have a heck of a defense.
You can look at the stats and see that Milwaukee is an excellent defensive team. They seal off the defensive glass, play good, disciplined pressure defense, protect the rim and contest shots. They also foul a lot, part of Skiles' defensive approach, but nevertheless Chicago managed just 11 free-throw attempts on Tuesday as its nasty habit--long two-point shots--reared its ugly head once again. I was particularly impressed by the defensive work of Carlos Delfino, someone who I had previously tagged as merely solid on the defensive end. Delfino gave Deng fits, particularly in the second half when the Deng repeatedly held the ball looking for an angle to drive then, as the shot clock waned, forced a long, contested two. That's how you do it on defense.
5. This is why the Bulls need another shooter.
Or two. I still believe that Hinrich can be an ideal backcourt partner for Rose. He can share the ballhandling load. When he's right, he's a good three-point shooter. He can defend either backcourt position and draws superlatives from opposing coaches for his ability to do so. However, his presence is clearly not enough to prevent teams from crowding the lane to keep Rose under wraps. Deng is an excellent player, but when he's at his best, he doesn't subtract from the lane traffic, he adds to it. He's miscast as a spot-up shooter and lacks range, which makes him a primary symptom of the team's long-two disease. In the big picture, the Bulls need an Ilyasova/Jerebko type--long, rangy and deadly from behind the arc. Deng and Hinrich may both be destined to be overcompensated bench players if they remain in Chicago. In Deng's case, he'd be a good reserve, giving Chicago's next coach the option of giving him more minutes at the four position. However, it's doubtful the team can afford a sixth man with $51 million left on his contract beyond this season.
Poss oRTG eFG% oREB% FT/FGA TO% THCH
First Quarter 22 64.5 .333 .071 .000 .138 4.45
Second Quarter 21 135.2 .556 .556 .444 .145 4.93
Third Quarter 20 90.8 .381 .154 .095 .050 3.94
Fourth Quarter 22 86.4 .382 .100 .353 .091 4.27
FIRST HALF 43 97.9 .436 .227 .205 .140 4.69
SECOND HALF 42 88.4 .382 .125 .211 .038 4.10
FINAL 85 93.2 .409 .178 .208 .106 4.40
Poss oRTG eFG% oREB% FT/FGA TO% THCH
First Quarter 22 124.4 .750 .429 .188 .323 6.20
Second Quarter 21 42.5 .206 .091 .118 .236 3.10
Third Quarter 20 75.6 .389 .091 .056 .151 2.80
Fourth Quarter 22 104.5 .478 .083 .043 .045 6.48
FIRST HALF 43 83.9 .470 .222 .152 .280 4.65
SECOND HALF 42 90.8 .439 .091 .049 .055 4.64
FINAL 85 87.3 .453 .146 .095 .189 4.65
NOTE: THCH is an estimate of team touches per minute
GAME FLOW COMMENTS
(These are the notes that I typed to myself during the game. Presented as typed ... no attempt at cleaning them up or to provide context.)
FIRST QUARTER: News of Chris Bosh's injury spread like wildfire at the UC. Guess it's just human nature ... Thomas gets start in place of Bogut, Rose is on Jennings ... Deng starts on Salmons ... Salmons beats Dengs off a screen for layup, crowd boos him. Why? ... Bulls have everybody available, back to regular starting lineup ... Noah has five rebs in four minutes ... Gadzuric and Miller both enter @3:08 ... It's 19-14 Bulls w/ 3:05. Bulls shooting well. Game pace has been slow, which Skiles suggested would be Milaukee's intent ... Bucks offense stagnant, lots of dribbling by Jennings and, now Ridnour, a kind of motion, drive-and-kick scheme that isn't working because the Bulls aren't leaving the shooters and Rose is staying with the point guards ... It's 27-14 w/ :35.7 to go in 1Q ... Score end of Q. Meanwhile, the Cavs are pulling away f/ the Boshless Raptors.
SECOND QUARTER: Bulls offense has gone dead w/ Rose on the bench. Too much Brad Miller ... Bulls were 13-14 on def. glass in 1Q ... Bulls 7 1Q TOs only reason this isn't a blowout ... Mbah a Moute has helped Milwaukee on the boards, but the Bulls still have a lopsided advantage ... Ilyasova has heated up and become the focal point for Bucks. Taj doesn't appear to be comfortable following him out to the perimeter ... Now Taj steps out, but Ilyasova beats him off dribble and gets a foul. Bucks have uglified the game and EI came pull MIL w/i 1 @2:54. TO ... Since Rose came back into the game, Ridnour has been steering him towards double- and triple-teams. Other Bulls not doing a going job of moving into open space and Rose is trying to force the action. Salmons hit a three & MIL is up 38-36 ... Bulls w/ a nine point 2Q, MIL up 42-36 at half. Cavs are closing out Raptors, so this would be a HUGE missed opportunity.
THIRD QUARTER: Noah is having a huge game and is bring Bulls back. MIL 49-46 w/ 5:40 ... EI just tried to post up Taj, but that's his house ... rejection. EI comes back and hits a jumper ... This is one of Jennings' off-shooting games, he's like 1-of-5, but at least he's not forcing the action. Ridnour back in ... Delfino is giving Luol fits on defense, but Bulls' lack of movement isn't helping. Touches for both teams are <5, which favors the Bucks because they have more shooters ... Bulls not getting anything in the half court. Must push pace ... Flip lazy coming UNDER on a screen vs Ridnour, gives up a 3 ... Bulls finish Q w/ a couple of stops, but trail 60-51. 15 pts in 3Q, 24 in last 2 Qs. Vinny can't give Rose his normal rest. He's got to have him in for the entire 4th quarter.
FOURTH QUARTER: Rose, Deng, Hinrich, Flip, Miller to start 4Q, vs. Stack, EI, Ridnour, Gadzuric, Salmons ... Flip hasn't scored, Warrick ... is he even suited up? Flip takes stack off dribble for 1st 2, Bulls w/i 5 ... Bulls back w/i 3, ignited by a Miller head-fake, drive and slam, a stop, then Rose feeding Flip for a layup in transition. CHI has really picked up the energy to begin this period, kudos to Vinny for his lineup. 62-59 MIL @9:41 ... Looking a 3Q stats, Bulls' ball movement was nil ... Flip heating up, Bulls down 2 ... Deng blows layup in transition that would have tied it. Ughh, says the crowd. Unchallenged. ... Delfino really gets after it defensively ... Rose gets Ridnour w/o help--layup, game tied ... Bucks can't buy a jump shot right now ... Bulls have missed 3 shots to take lead ... Finally, Hinrich buries a j off a Noah pick, Bulls up 2, 65-63 @6:13 ... Salmons draws a 3shot foul vs. Hinrich, no his foot was on line, but they're looking at it ... Clearly stepped inside circle, two shots ... Game tied, TO Vinny ... That 2Q score was 28-9 MIL; it's 14-5 CHI so far in 4th. Net result is deadeven ... Right now, at this moment, the Bulls are a half-game out of a playoff slot and in a tie game w/ 5 1/2 minutes to play. Biggest stretch of the season, right here ... Good start--a 24 sec violation ... Vinny brings MIller for Noah, going off/def ... he's playing small, w/ Deng at 4 and Flip at 3 ... EI dunks on leakout, MIL by 2 ... Bulls going cold ... Bulls shoot on PFs f/ here on out ... Don't get the small lineup--adv on boards is lost ... Delfino 3 puts Bucks up 5, then Rose misses ... Miller leaks out when Thomas takes a J f/ corner, scores and gets fouled by Thomas. Funny to see those two out ahead of everybody, but give them credit for busting it. FT w/ bring Bulls w/i 72-70. TO @ 2:34 ... Jennings throws it away on next poss ... Bucks getting the loose balls and boards in last couple of minutes; Bulls missing good looks on big shots. TO MIL @1:08, up 74-70 ... Out of TO, Bucks run a clearout for Salmons, he beats Deng along baseline for bucket... Rose answers ... Salmons missed layup, oob to Bucks, but they're looking at it. I thought Salmons got it. MIL had taken a :20 TO to set up a play, w/ :04 on shot clock, ball out on baseline--call stands ... Delfino misses 3, Taj hits a short J, Bulls down 2, @:14.5, Bulls use foul to give, will have to foul again ... Hinrich gets Salmons @:13.2 ... Boos like crazy; Salmons misses 1st; makes 2nd. TO CHI, 77-74 MIL @:13.2 ... Miller dribbles into traffic, slips, travel, ballgame ... Jennings makes 1 of 2, TO @:06.6, 78-74 MIL. No more timeouts ...
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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