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Simple Adjustments for the Bulls in Game 3

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After two close losses at home that saw their offense fizzle down the stretch and vaunted defense surrender points at a near league-high rate, the Chicago Bulls trail the Washington Wizards 2-0 heading into Friday’s Game 3 at the Verizon Center in Washington.  Through two games, the Wizards have appeared by far the more talented team, and arguably possess the three most talented players in the series in Nene, John Wall and Bradley Beal.  Nevertheless, the outcome of the series is not yet fait accompli.  Given the competitive nature of the series, the Bulls could improve their chances by making a few adjustments.  Although in-series adjustments are not a panacea for the Bulls’ overall offensive issues, a number of tweaks could enable them to at least extend the series and return it to Chicago.

Deal With Andre Miller

Watching Andre Miller inexplicably slicing up their team is one of the most vexing sights a basketball fan can witness.  At a doughy 38 years of age and with no range outside of 15 feet, it seems impossible that he could still be an effective player at this point, much less one killing a great defense in the playoffs. Nevertheless, Miller has been key for Washington’s bench units in the first two games, compiling usage percentages of 28.3 and 41.7 the first two games.  The Professor has 18 points in 24 minutes while keeping Wizards bench units afloat at the start of the second and fourth quarters–a time usually dominated by the Bulls when Tom Thibodeau deploys most of Chicago’s closing group including D.J. Augustin, Taj Gibson, and Joakim Noah.

The problem is that Miller has the size, strength and smarts advantage on Bulls backup point guard Augustin.  Thibodeau normally abhors double-teaming the post, but in the fourth quarter of Game 1 he immediately ordered hard double teams from a big man on Miller right when he caught the ball in the post against Augustin.  If the Bulls are going to double, this is probably the correct strategy because it keeps Miller out on the floor and obscures his passing angles with the long arms of a player like Gibson (who was the most frequent double-teamer).  In Game 2, the Bulls overloaded Miller’s side with a soft double which allowed him to see over the defense and hit cutters.  And if the Bulls wait to send help until Miller has already backed down, he will usually gotten to the middle of the floor where he can make passes to shooters much more easily.

Fortunately for Chicago, there are two tactics that could limit Miller’s impact.  The simpler adjustment would be hiding Augustin on Trevor Ariza or Martell Webster while Jimmy Butler or another wing takes Miller.  While these Washington wings have an even greater size advantage on Augustin than Miller, neither is a particularly intimidating post-up threat.  Ariza scored only 14 points on 26 possessions all year on postups. Webster was better at 25 points on 24 possessions, but it is clear from the possession count that such postups are not normally a featured part of Washington’s offense.  Neither is known as a particularly adept passer, so any necessary double-teaming would likely be more effective.  The Bulls could also just double off Miller, who is not an effective spotup shooter.  If Washington breaks its offense to get postups for either player, that is likely a win for Chicago. Ariza and Webster postups certainly seem very unlikely to match Miller’s performance from the first two games.  Finally, taking Augustin off Miller will also help save his legs for offense, where he has been brutal down the stretch.

That is the easy solution, and frankly one I am very surprised the Bulls have not already deployed. But a better solution is available if Thibodeau were willing to make more drastic changes.

Rejigger the Rotation

Coaches are often reluctant to manipulate the rotation in the playoffs, for fear of upsetting team chemistry and overreacting to only a few games.* And Thibodeau is perhaps more set in his ways than most. But the Bulls  could very clearly gain some advantages from simply changing the times (not even the amount) that their players are on the court.  The Bulls are relatively rare in that they start two players, Kirk Hinrich and Carlos Boozer, who are clearly inferior to their backups.  This is reflected by the fact that Boozer almost never plays in fourth quarters.  The odd scheduling of minutes has not particularly hurt the Bulls in the second half of this season, but Washington’s personnel provides particular incentive to change to a more traditional rotation.

*Avery Johnson is famously blamed for downsizing the 67-win Mavericks’ starting lineup before their 2007 upset by Golden State, although it is debatable how much that one-game decision affected the outcome of the series.  Plus, those very same Mavericks provide the great counterexample of J.J. Barea’s successful elevation to the starting lineup in the 2011 Finals against the HEAT.

Boozer has largely struggled in this series, as he has throughout the season. However, he has almost no chance of creating efficient offense against Wizards starters Marcin Gortat or Nene. Both of these players are longer, stronger, and quicker than Boozer.  While he has been able to somehow squeeze off his midrangers at times,* those are barely efficient shots even when wide open.  Boozer would have a much easier matchup against Trevor Booker on the second unit, or at the very least allow Noah or Gibson the matchup against Booker if Boozer is still guarded by Gortat or Nene.  Against Booker, Boozer might be able to get into the post for his soft hook–a useless endeavor against the length of the Wizards’ starting big men.  Moreover, Boozer is a poor matchup for Washington point guard John Wall’s pick and rolls, so having him play when Miller is on the floor is a much better option defensively.

*I am always shocked that he is able to do this, given Boozer’s overall lack of quickness and length and his complete inability to drive right.  When he turns and faces, the opposition should get right in his grille and just stay there, forcing him to drive to his right hand.  Nevertheless, he will often lull his defender to sleep without even taking a dribble, and somehow get enough space for his behind-the-head release.

Starting Augustin would also allow Hinrich to play with the bench unit against Miller, against whom he is an ideal matchup due to his size and willingness to scrap on postups.  This would enable the Bulls to stop Miller without having to cross-match Augustin against wings like Ariza or Webster as suggested above.  While Thibodeau probably considers Hinrich a better matchup against John Wall than Augustin, the latter has successfully guarded him throughout the series as well.  Certainly, the dropoff between Hinrich and Augustin guarding Wall is less than the improvement if Hinrich guarded Miller.

Meanwhile, starting Gibson and Augustin would enable them to rest in the middle of the half and avoid getting worn down by playing almost the entire second half in one long stint, as Augustin did yesterday.  That kind of usage does not mesh with the latest research on how humans recover.

The proof is in the pudding with Hinrich and Boozer so far.  The Bulls have been outscored by 9.4 points per 100 possessions when Boozer plays, and 16.6 points 100 when Hinrich takes the floor.  Spotting these players’ minutes in situations where they are more likely to be successful could help to reverse that trend, while also allowing the Bulls to better their miserable starts in the series.

More Mike Dunleavy

A big reason the Bulls struggled to score down the stretch in Game 2 was Randy Wittman’s decision to match Ariza on D.J. Augustin, who until the last few minutes had killed the Wizards. Ariza was able to use his length to go over picks and bother Augustin’s shot from behind, eliminating the open threes he was able to get on pick and rolls.  The Wizards were able to put Wall on Hinrich with little chance of getting hurt.  The Hinrich/Augustin pairing has been fantastic late in the season, but the Bulls have two awful fourth quarters to show it has not been effective against Washington. At least trying Mike Dunleavy in Hinrich’s place is the logical step.

Dunleavy and Augustin are the only Bulls players who are must-guard threats from long range.  Hinrich has shot a decent percentage on threes this year, but has often passed up open shots in this series even when they are likely the best shot the Bulls are going to get.  And Butler is pretty much unwilling to shoot out there unless he is absolutely wide open.  Dunleavy has the height at 6’9 to get his shot off from the perimeter with even a sliver of daylight.  What’s more, playing a true small forward might encourage Wittman to avoid putting Ariza on Augustin (although I would not abandon that effective matchup so easily in Wittman’s place).  Moreover, Hinrich is not a threat to finish at the rim off the dribble either.  The Bulls have scored only 90 points/100 when Hinrich has played in this series. While such numbers are to be used with caution given the small sample size, they match up with Hinrich’s poor individual offensive statistics and his performance on film.

On defense, Dunleavy is a worse individual defender than Hinrich, but is perfectly capable of guarding Ariza while providing a bit more help defense and rebounding than the Kansas product.  It is a slight downgrade on defense, but the Bulls have struggled there anyway with Hinrich on the floor.

Taj Gibson Could Be a Weapon Inside

Gibson has made great strides as a post player this year.  While posting up is generally inefficient and Gibson is no superstar at it, it seems likely he could at least outperform the Bulls’ stagnant late-game offense, especially when Wittman goes with Booker in his closing lineup rather than Marcin Gortat.  This is not something that should be even close to a first option for a good offense, but when the Bulls have been struggling so badly it at least lets them go to a matchup where they have a half-decent advantage.

What Was That About Deck Chairs on the Titanic?

These logical adjustments could make a difference at the margins, but they are not going to give Chicago a reliable shot creator on offense down the stretch of games.  However, the first two games have not proved that Washington is definitively a better team than Chicago.  One would expect Chicago’s defense, which has allowed 108 points/100 so far, to improve quite a bit. And everyone seems to think that Thibodeau will eventually start outcoaching Randy Wittman, although the latter has done well so far.  His approach of using Nene to pressure up on Joakim Noah’s catches out on the floor has been very effective, especially when Noah turns his back to the basket.  Noah has been catching the ball at the arc rather than the elbow, disrupting his passing angles to backdoor cutters and making it difficult for the Bulls’ guards to shoot on handoffs because they are too far out.  Noah had a remarkable 109 touches in Game 2*, but threw 80 passes with only three assists and zero hockey assists.  Wittman’s squad has almost entirely erased Noah’s playmaking.  Of particular note is that the Bulls’ easy “system buckets” (in which they get players open through play design rather than more individually focused plays like pick and rolls) have been almost nonexistent in the series.

*A game-high, two more even than Wizards point guard Wall.

The Bulls have not been quite as awful as their demoralizing fourth quarters might indicate, but the two banked Washington wins will almost certainly be too much to overcome.  Nevertheless, the Bulls can maximize their chances with a few simple adjustments going forward.

Statistical support provided by NBA.com

About Nate Duncan

Nate Duncan

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst and attorney. He writes regular features for Basketball Insiders and chats weekly at 11 Eastern on Tuesdays.