A hearty playoff welcome to the Washington Wizards. It seems like ages since we’ve seen them braving the postseason heights but they haven’t been playing like it, catching the Bulls off-guard with a saber to the heart. Everyone is pointing to the Wizards’ talent and Chicago’s continual regular season overachievement as the two biggest factors contributing to the 2-0 Washington lead. But it’s certainly still possible for the Chicago Bulls to save themselves from their lackluster playoff selves.
First, their defense. The league agreed with us when it gifted Joakim Noah the Defensive Player of the Year Award. He’s certainly been the linchpin of Chicago’s dominant D. During the regular season, they were even able to keep the Washington Wizards, who have a respectable offense, to 92.0 Points Per Game—or, to just a smidgen above the Bulls’ league-wide 91.8 average. They haven’t had much luck in these two games of the playoffs as the Wiz are averaging about a whole ten points more at 101.5.
The playoff-hopeful Wizards are shooting improved marks on all fronts, with a nice uptick in shot attempts. The Bulls’ woes have only gotten worse with the realization that their opponent’s defensive rebounding numbers and field goal attempts have climbed considerably in the first round matchup. While John Wall and Co. only attempted 17.7 freebies per game in-season, they’re posting 31.5 in these two past games. On the defensive rebounding front, the once-bullish Bulls are giving up 35.0 boards per contest when it was only 28.7 in the regular season. The defense the Bulls are known for has been nowhere to be found. And a lot of that has to do with their scoring hang-ups.
Coming into this postseason duel, the Bulls were already ranked 30th in the NBA–also known as last in Points Per Game. Surprisingly, however, they’ve managed to do pretty well when playing against the double-double-u from an offensive rating angle and are averaging 96.0 Points Per Game in these nail-biting times which is above the 92.3 set against Washington in their three-game series throughout the season or the 93.7 logged against all opponents. That shows in their players, as even the two rated lowest in Offensive Rating (Jimmy Butler and Mike Dunleavy), are posting three-digit benchmarks. It’s when you look at everyone’s Defensive Ratings that you want to wince.
But it’s important to look at some of their offensive shortcomings for reasons why their defense has regressed so.
In the three games played in 2013-14, which Washington took 2-1, the Bulls made a healthy amount of threes (29.2 percent of their offense), scored on the fast break which is important when playing a good half-set team of superior talent (13.4 percent of their offense came from fast break opportunities), and assisted on a good amount of their points made (70.2 percent) which is vital for a squad with bad floor spacing and scoring inefficiencies that is playing against an athletic top-10 defense. Once the postseason hit, the Bulls floundered on all these series-defining notes while being forced into more mid-range jumpers, less three-point attempts (and three-point shooting numbers), less offense off forced errors, and a greater affinity to get their buckets in the paint (usually off offensive rebounds).
In turn, the Wizards have had an easier time playing to their strengths. They haven’t so much improved their defense as the Bulls have forgotten theirs. All the energy put into veering away from their offensive identity, has also cost the Chicago Bulls their defensive makeup. Forcing unassisted jumpers has dropped their efficiency which has led to an increase in Wizards rebounds. Those mid-range hoops are often coming at the tail ends of broken plays or early in shot clocks, which then pushes the team to reset quickly on the other end. As it shows, they’re not doing so swell as a result. The lack of ball movement is hurting their already-limited range, which is forcing guys like Noah, Gibson, Augustin, and Butler to drive into the jammed paint, exerting their energy when they need every bit of it as Thibs’ marathon players. In the modern NBA, players can no longer be expected to play the Bulls game year-round, only to see mountains of minutes in the intense playoffs. To make things worse, the Bulls’ players are making it harder for themselves by sidestepping what can make them effective against a tough matchup. The heavy minutes surely aren’t helping either.
As their playoff lineups show, the Bulls have been their best with any arrangement of D.J. Augustin as an offensive anchor, Jimmy Butler as a vice grip, a second gritty ball-handler/shooter in either Kirk Hinrich or Mike Dunleavy (to help spread the floor and collapse defenses with the occasional drive-and-kick), a big who can shoot the mid-range jumper and crash the boards, and a third offensive presence in either a hustle contributor like Noah, a scoring punch like Boozer, or a floor spacer like Tony Snell. If XN had its say, Augustin, Butler, Dunleavy, Gibson and Noah would be getting the start from here on out.