Bulls Improving

by Jeff Fogle 11. May 2011 00:38

In the first nine games of the Thibodeaux/Rose playoff era, the Chicago Bulls rarely looked like the best team in the East. The pieces are starting to fall into place, exemplified by tonight's 95-83 victory over the Atlanta Hawks in Game Five of their best-of-seven series...

It was far from a perfect performance. The Bulls blew all of a 15-point first quarter lead. And, Chicago's internal defense was repeatedly exposed for easy buckets to the tune of 56% shooting on two-pointers from the Hawks. Derrick Rose isn't great at stopping penetration from fast point guards (which may not matter against Miami, but would if the Bulls reach the Finals). Chicago's bigs rotated poorly after penetration, though that issue seemed to disappear when Joakim Noah spent the entire pivotal fourth quarter on the bench.

Those problems aside...

*Derrick Rose is BACK! He continued is free throw climb through the series with his highest totals yet:

ROSE FREE THROWS
Game One: 0-0
Game Two: 4-6
Game Three: 8-9
Game Four: 9-11
Game Five: 10-13

And, those are essential points because nobody seems to pick up the slack in this category if Rose isn't drawing fouls.

CHICAGO FREE THROWS

Game One: 13-16 (non-Rose 13-16)
Game Two: 15-18 (non-Rose 11-12)
Game Three: 15-18 (non-Rose 7-9)
Game Four: 21-27 (non-Rose 12-16)
Game Five: 21-28 (non-Rose 11-15)

Game Three didn't need free throws because the Bulls were 10-20 on treys. And, Atlanta was so passive it was hard to draw contact anyway!

Chicago's a few points better when Rose can draw fouls. Those few points are the difference between being a generic playoff team and a title contender because point differential is so tight in the postseason.

*Execution is cleaner. Chicago had their playoff low turnover total Tuesday with only 9 giveaways.

Turnovers vs. Indiana: 14-21-15-13-14
Turnovers vs. Atlanta: 11-13-11-10-9

The nervousness and slop of the early games vs. Indiana are a distant memory. Some of that is Atlanta's relative passiveness. But, you can still see incremental improvement over the last four games. That corresponds to Rose's improving ankle as well. Giveaways turn into free throws when he's in command of his speed.

*Luol Deng is attacking the basket. The Bulls desperately need somebody besides Rose flying at the rim and doing damage. Deng made that a point of emphasis tonight after losing initative mid-series.

DENG ON THE DRIVE
Game Three: 6 two-point shots, 1 free throw, 42 minutes
Game Four: 8 two-point shots, 2 free throws, 45 minutes
Game Five: 14 two-point shots, 7 free throws, 46 minutes

Deng is almost always on the floor. He can't be an innocent bystander on offense. He mattered tonight with a plus/minus of +15 in a 12-point win. Chicago needs him to matter on offense every game.

If you combine those recent signs of improvement with elements that have always been there...

*Rebounding Edge: Board victories in the last four games, and double digit totals in offensive rebounds in all five games.

*Limiting Perimeter Damage: only 1 of 12 allowed on treys tonight, and 9 of 42 the last four games.

*Youth and Energy: I won't list the ages because you know this is a young team. But, to the degree the playoffs are a war of attrition, the Bulls are currently pretty well suited to hang tough for a long time.

This is a team that is at least on the verge of rounding into the form everyone was expecting from the get-go. The middle quarters were still a disappointment tonight (outscored 47-37). The Game Four loss in Atlanta can't be dismissed just yet. But, the signs are promising if you're a Bulls fan.

CHICAGO 95, ATLANTA 83
2-point pct: Atlanta 56%, Chicago 53%
3-pointers: Atlanta 1/12, Chicago 4/14
1's and 2's: Atlanta 80, Chicago 83

Chicago can't be counted on to win treys on command...but they've actually made more treys than Atlanta in four of five games in this series.

Game Six is Thursday in Atlanta.

One of the understatements of the year came last night when I said Oklahoma City/Memphis was running late. I think I typed that in the third quarter, and the article went up in the fourth quarter. The fun was just beginning!

OKLAHOMA CITY 133, MEMPHIS 123 (in 3 overtimes)

2-point pct: OK City 53%, Memphis 39%
3-pointers: OK City 5/24, Memphis 6/23
1's and 2's: OK City 118, Memphis 105

Rebounds and turnovers were about even. A lot of things have to be about even for a game to go three overtimes!

It always feels like old news when I write up a late finish the next night. Don't want to rehash stuff others have been talking about all day. Let me mention that Russell Westbrook largely kept his "frustration numbers" in check (missed shots, turnovers, personal fouls). They ended up totalling 26, which had been a magic number in losses. But, since it took 63 minutes of game action (of which he played 51 minutes) to get there, that can be forgiven.

I'm not sure yet if he can be forgiven for a sequence that happened in the first overtime. If you were watching the game, you know that Westbrook and Kevin Durant spent some time on different pages again. Durant needed consoling from the coaching staff at one point when he went several minutes without getting any shots. (This was a problem because he was 9 of 20 from the floor against a tough defense, and 16-18 from the free throw line for the game!) TV analyst Mike Fratello mentioned this as it was happening. You could see the fury and resentment in Durant's eyes. He's not the type to yell at a teammate. That's the way Durant yells.

In the final minute of the first overtime, Durant was given the ball in position to create (after he had just hit a three-pointer to give OKC a 105-98 lead, and a two-pointer to give them a 107-101 lead), and turned the ball over on successvie possessions. Memphis specializes in forcing turnovers (Westbook deserves a ton of credit for only losing the ball 3 times in 51 minutes). Durant wasn't as careful as he should have been...not as cognizant as he needed to be of the dangers.

They cut to a close-up of Westbrook...and he was just seething. I was trying to read his lips...and he said something like "that was terrible" under his breath.

THIS IS NOT GOING TO WORK LONG TERM!

Things might work out in the rest of this series. And, even in the next round vs. Dallas if OK City does get past Memphis. Kobe and Shaq stayed married for awhile. But, eventually, Westbrook must focus on the team's needs and not his own (as Charles Barkley has pointed out repeatedly on TNT). He has to be supportive of teammates in times of stress rather than part of what's causing the stress.  

You've seen a lot of Derrick Rose lately. Can you imagine him seething at a teammate with fire in his eyes? The teammate who would score 35 points on 20 shots (1.75 ratio) when he was scoring 40 points on 35 shots (1.14 ratio)? Rose credits his team and coach in interviews and his mother when accepting the MVP. Westbrook plays like he's mad he can't take 40 shots...and don't you dare miss if he throws you the ball because he's going to start taking your shots too if you hit iron.

This is such a tough issue to work through because his positives are dramatic. And, his negatives can partially be blamed on the structure of the offense. Let's keep watching. Volatile ingredients are percolating. The end result is likely to be dramatic one way or the other.

Back late Wednesday with more numbers and notes...

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Rose Feeling the Burden?

by Jeff Fogle 3. March 2011 00:52

On the final night before the All-Star Break, Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose had a monster game against the San Antonio Spurs. You probably watched on TNT. Since then, he's posted the stats of a guy who's feeling the burden of leading his team to success...the stats of a guy that opposing teams are now focusing on with peak defensive intensity...or the stats of a guy wearing down from the physical demands of attacking the basket. Take your pick!

Rose Since the Break:
8 of 22 (2-6 on treys) at Toronto
9 of 24 (1-5 on treys) vs. Miami
7 of 19 (1-4 on treys) at Milwaukee
7 of 17 (2-8 on treys) at Washington
5 of 21 (0-6 on treys) at Atlanta

That last game was particularly troublesome because Rose's poor second half led to a team-wide collapse against a potential playoff foe. Chicago led Atlanta by 17 at halftime, yet ended up losing 83-80.

Totals in the quintet:
6 of 29 on treys, for a very poor 21%
30 of 72 on dueces, for a disappointing 42%

It is worth pointing out that four of the five games were on the road, and two of the four came against the elite statistical defenses of Miami and Milwaukee. Still, two of the games came against the poor defenses of Toronto (29th out of 30 in defensive efficiency) and Washington (21st).

In terms of projecting the playoffs, it's a bad sign that Rose's performances vs. Miami and Atlanta came against playoff caliber opposition. Other select performances vs. playoff teams since 1/15:

12 of 27 (2-6 on treys) vs. Miami on 1/15
7 of 20 (1-3 on treys) at Memphis on 1/17
9 of 28 (2-5 on treys) vs. Dallas on 1/20
5 of 16 (1-3 on treys vs. Milwaukee (elite defense) on 1/24
6 of 21 (2-6 on treys) vs. Orlando on 1/28

(I included Milwaukee because they have a playoff caliber defense)

The performance vs. the Spurs was terrific. Rose also put up good numbers at Portland and New Orleans before the break. The poor shooting games are outnumbering the good shooting games by a noticeable difference when you narrow down the sample to those that would best match playoff action. And, it's certainly possible that San Antonio wasn't going at peak defensive intensity on the final night before their vacation.

Something to keep an eye on down the stretch. It can be tough for undersized players to carry a team on their shoulders in this league without showing signs of wear and tear.

Transition Points:

*Big win for New York Wednesday at home against New Orleans. Both were on night two of a back-to-back. Only New Orleans played tired!

Carmelo Anthony was 8 of 18 from the floor. He only tried one trey. That's possibly related to his reported elbow "issue," or might have been a strategy choice by the Knicks. New York had only taken eight treys by the midway point of the third quarter (3 of 8) before going back to their standard bombs away approach with a big lead (7 of 14 in the last quarter and a half). Carmelo didn't play the fourth quarter because the lead was so big.

New York is 3-2 since the trade, with very impressive wins over Miami and New Orleans.

*Denver moved to 4-1 since the trade with a stunning 120-80 slaughter of Charlotte. Talk about a chip on the shoulder!

This was kind of a perfect storm, as a Denver team that has something to prove hosted a Charlotte team who's owner basically announced the rest of the season was meaningless because he doesn't want to be a 7th or 8th seed (see last sentence of this story).

It was mentioned in the past that two-point shooting and rebounding mismatches are often present in games where one team no-shows.

Two Point Shooting: Denver 70%, Charlotte 40%

Rebounds: Denver 49, Charlotte 28

Denver's only loss since the trade came in overtime on the road at Portland...and the Blazers were fortunate to force the extra period.

*Golden State got to travel to Washington at just the right time, earning a 106-102 victory over the woeful Wizards. Interestingly, both David Lee and Stephen Curry had plus/minuses of -8...continuing their recent tendency to underachieve the team as a whole. The standard wire service lead will be "Stephen Curry scored 29 points and David Lee had 16 rebounds to lead the Golden State Warriors etc..." Doesn't exactly capture the reality of the night.

*Jeff Green shot an improved 3-6 for the Celtics in their 115-103 win over Phoenix. But, that came in 17 minutes of action that saw Green grab just one rebound and have no assists. His plus/minus was -7 in a 12-point win.

Green's Celtic Totals (3 games)
54 minutes
18 points (7 of 17 shooting for 41%)
4 rebounds
0 assists
-16 in plus/minus in games Boston won by 24 points

*Thursday's marquee game is Orlando at Miami in a big test for both squads. Miami's underachieved lately vs. playoff caliber opposition. Orlando's toughness was being questioned by Charles Barkley a few weeks ago. Whoever loses this one will be facing more questions. We'll deal with those in my next report... 

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Did Rose Expose A Spurs' Weakness?

by Jeff Fogle 18. February 2011 00:53

Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls scored a career high 42 points in Thursday night's 109-99 win over the San Antonio Spurs. Though you can't draw rock solid conclusions from a game played right before a vacation...it's clear that the Spurs have trouble guarding great playmakers.

It's not that Rose scored 42 points. It's how he got them. Rose was 18-28 from the floor on the night. But that included an 0-4 performance from three-point land. That leaves 18-24...75% shooting...on two-pointers...FROM A GUARD!

Many of you watched the game. It's not like the Spurs just left him alone all night. They tried to slow him down. They couldn't keep up! He was a few steps faster than everyone. When he made it inside, the Spurs didn't play very rough. Rose only shot six free throws on the night. He was shooting great and not drawing contact.

Were this a playoff series, you have to imagine there would have been more contact. And it would have hurt!

Frankly, neither team played the kind of defense we're used to seeing from both...

DEFENSIVE EFFICIENCIES
(points allowed per 100 possessions)
Chicago: 1st in the NBA heading into last night
San Antonio: 7th in the NBA

Thursday's game was actually SLOW. Possessions will end up in the low 90's or so. Chicago put up 109 points in a slow game. The Spurs almost reached the century mark. Both teams played offensively like they were excited about the vacation (the way kids get antsy on the last day of school). The time for defense will come soon.

I had put together a kind of "tale of the tape" for the two teams in the hopes that Thursday's game would have a playoff flavor. San Antonio/Chicago is of course a possible if not likely championship preview. We didn't get that. But, we did get a look at two of the most pleasant surprises in the NBA this year.

*San Antonio wasn't supposed to be anything near 46-10 entering the All-Star Break. It's like the Spurs are having the season many expected from Miami.

*Chicago wasn't supposed to be 38-16 either. That's on pace for a stellar 58-24 finish despite the absence of Joakim Noah for several weeks.

Let's run the tale of the tape numbers to put the first stage of the season in context for both. I've already talked about defensive efficiency. Here are some other categories that you can study up on for the entire league here at the website.

OFFENSIVE EFFICIENCY
San Antonio 2nd
Chicago 17th

The Spurs have complimented the big three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili with several role players who can score from the spot on the floor where they get the ball. Opposing defenses are having huge problems plugging all the potential openings. Even though Rose is having a great season (some would say an MVP season), the Bulls rank only around league average on a possesson basis.

OFFENSIVE 3-POINT PERFORMANCE
San Antonio 1st in percentage and 6th in makes
Chicago 12th in percentage and 17th in makes

We talked about this some with the "Orlando Model" conversation a few weeks ago. If you can outscore your opponents from behind the arc, AND throw up a brick wall defensively inside, you're going to be in great shape. (Tonight's wall never got built!)

OFFENSIVE REBOUND RATE
Chicago 7th
San Antonio 19th

The Bulls have done a better job of crashing the boards. San Antonio seems content to let their shooters drift back to play defense once the ball is in the air. It is a team of role players. The guys who are supposed to rebound rebound. Everyone else cuts off potential fast breaks. Hey, what the Spurs are doing ranks 2nd in the league in efficiency even without a frantic concern about offensive boards.

DEFENSIVE REBOUND RATE

Chicago 4th
San Antonio 8th 

Clear points of emphasis for both teams, and consistent with what you'd expect from contenders with strong defensive efficiencies. A defensive rebound is much like a steal or forced turnover in that it ends the other team's possession with a big fat zero.

OPPONENT'S FREE THROW RATE (ratio of free throws to possessions)
San Antonio 2nd
Chicago 10th

This one jumped out at me. The Spurs guard the basket with authority while NOT putting opponents on the free throw line. Chicago does a pretty good job of that themselves, but the Spurs are truly very smart defenders.

ROAD RECORDS
San Antonio 21-8
Chicago 13-12

I threw this one in for some perspective. As many positives as there are for Chicago this year, it's still a group that hasn't played together very long under their new head coach. They haven't yet established that they can produce everywhere on command. The San Antonio dynasty travels well when everyone's healthy and not thinking about a vacation.

SUPERLEAGUE
San Antonio 17-7
Chicago 11-9

This was the last Superleague game of the first stage of the season. That's our effort to monitor how the top teams are doing against each other. We've recently been using a group of 13 teams...but I may tinker with that after the break given the surges of some teams (like Philadelphia, Memphis, Portland and Indiana) and the fadeouts of others (Utah and maybe even New York).

Winning 55% in a tough subset is an accomplishment. Chicago can be proud of that. The Spurs are still on another level at the moment.

That paints a pretty fair picture of the two teams I think. San Antonio has smarts, experience, and varied weaponry that thrive on both sides of the court. Chicago has energy that it channels into intense defense and offensive rebounding. But, to this point, their superstar point guard has only led them to league average in offensive efficiency. There's time for Chicago to improve even more than they already have. There's time for one of the older Spurs to run into the kind of injury they've been fortunate to avoid to this point in the season. Second halves aren't guaranteed to follow seemingly ordained paths.

The Spurs must be glad they won't have to worry about Derrick Rose any more (unless they actually do meet in the Finals). This was their final regular season meeting with the Bulls. Tonight's performance does suggest possible playoff danger if they run into Oklahoma City and Russell Westbrook...

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