Tom Thibodeau came to Chicago with a reputation as a defensive-minded coach. Rightfully so, as he was the coach who orchestrated the great Boston Celtics defense of recent years. With the pieces that Thibodeau had in place, it was assumed that he would improve an already solid Bulls defense, who finished 10th in the NBA last year with a Defensive Rating of 106.9.
Not only has the presence of Thibodeau improved his players' individual defense (Over at Off The Dribble, Rob Mahoney does a fantastic job of breaking down Derrick Rose's growth on the defensive end), but the Bulls' team defense has improved dramatically as well. It has taken some time. As of Dec. 2, the Bulls were seventh in the NBA in Defensive Rating, but they were still making some errors. Now it seems the transformation is just about complete. The Bulls lead the league in Defensive Rating, allowing 101.1 points per 100 possessions, which is pretty incredible considering they have been missing Joakim Noah for their last 18 games.
The area where the Bulls look the most similar to the Celtics of years past on the defensive end is when they play against the pick-and-roll. It shouldn't be a surprise that the Bulls rank first in the "Pick and Roll - Roll Man" category, allowing 0.84 points per possession and second in the "Pick and Roll - Ball Handler" category, allowing 0.75 points per possession, according to Synergy Sports Technology. Last year, the Bulls were 13th and 16th in these categories respectively.
Thibodeau's pick-and-roll defense was unique when he had Boston running it, and he has been able to transfer it successfully to Chicago. The key to Thibodeau's system is trust, and the Bulls are really starting to get the hang of his system:
Here, Eric Gordon gets the basketball and uses a ball screen set by DeAndre Jordan. The key to Thibodeau's pick-and-roll defense is a hard show by the man defending the screener. The man covering the ball handler either comes over the top or underneath the screen, depending on the shooting ability of the ball handle. In this case, with Gordon, Rose goes over the screen to complete a double team of the ball handler.
Now this is where trust comes into play. The man covering the screener is able to show hard because he knows that the defenders behind him are sinking in the paint, in position to help out on any pass to the roll man. In the above screen shot, you see this in action. The three remaining Bulls' defenders are all in the lane with their eyes on the basketball, ready to make a play on the ball.
The two men on the ball handler force a tough pass into the roll man, and the Bulls defense is able to swarm the basketball and get a deflection on the pass.
After the deflection, the Bulls are able to gain control of the basketball, completing the turnover, and start in the other direction. Here is the play in real time:
When you watch this clip live, you see just how much trouble the hard show on the ball handler causes. The pass that needs to happen here is a hard chest pass, but the only one the hard show allows for is a bounce pass. This allows the three defenders that are all watching the basketball to make a play on the basketball and force the turnover.
Teams have tried to beat this defense in a number of different ways, one of which is with pick-and-pops. However, the Bulls trust each other so much that the rotations come quick, still causing trouble for the offense:
Here, we have a screen set by Greg Monroe (Kurt Thomas is covering Monroe but playing way off of him) and the ball handler using it to take the basketball to the sideline.
As the ball handler comes off of the screen, the Bulls go ahead and trap him. The remaining Bulls defenders are deep in the paint, which is why a pick-and-pop looks like it would make sense. However, Rose has enough trust in his teammates to rotate to his man if there is another pass, so he quickly rotates to Monroe.
The rotation to Monroe not only surprises him, but it catches him so off guard that he ends up traveling.
Even if the travel isn't called, you have two defenders stepping up (with one getting in position to take the charge) as Rose returns to his man. Here is the play in real time:
Trust on defense means not worrying about "your man" for the better good of the team, knowing that if you leave your man, someone is going to have your back. This trust is the backbone of Thibodeau's defense:
Here, we see another example of the Bulls' pick-and-roll defense. You again see the hard show on John Salmons as he comes off of the Drew Gooden screen. Salmons quickly gets the ball to Gooden to try and catch the Bulls out of position, but because the three defenders not involved in the initial PNR are keeping their eyes on the basketball, they are able to make a play on the ball. Kyle Korver is actually able to get a deflection and Kurt Thomas is there to take the charge.
Look familiar? Well it should:
This is exactly how the Celtics have been playing the pick-and-roll for years. Two men showing on the basketball hard, while the remaining three all have their eyes on the basketball.
The fact that the Bulls have already gotten to a place where they are better than the Celtics were at this defense is scary. Even scarier considering that Noah will be returning to make this defense even better.