No MVP? No Problem: The Bulls Defence Works Without Rose
After they held the Atlanta Hawks to an NBA record low 20 first half points earlier this week, Adam Digby takes a look at the Chicago Bulls defence and how it is helping the team win despite the absence of one truly standout player.
It’s the 1991 NBA Finals and, early in the first quarter of Game Two, Michael Jordan picks up what would already be his second foul of the game. Desperate not to resort to sitting the great one, Phil Jackson instead decided to switch Scottie Pippen onto Magic Johnson and protect his star player. Almost by accident, the coach delivered one of the most iconic moments in basketball history as the 6’7 Pippen picked up the 6’9 point guard, harassing him as soon as he crossed half court and negating the height advantage the Lakers legend enjoyed over almost every other player he faced.
“A little bit bigger, a little bit stronger, able to bump…” said Mike Fratello in commentary and those thoughts were echoed in later years by Johnny Bach. As they marched to their first ‘Three-peat’, it was the Assistant Coach who famously first referred to Jordan and Pippen as Chicago’s ‘Dobermans’. Thanks to the Hall of Fame pair, that great Bulls team were among the first in the game to use defence as a weapon, the duo’s athleticism, intelligence and size allowing them to attack opponents with a ferocity rarely seen before.
“Send the Dobermans out there to get him. Scottie and Michael would go out there and attack a player on the defensive end of the court, which was always such a good asset for a basketball club to be aggressive defensively…” – Phil Jackson, September 2010
The words of Fratello could also be used to describe the current Bulls defence for, in a world where LeBron James and Carmello Anthony are playing at power forward and centres are seemingly a thing of the past. While much of the league follows Miami and New York in embracing ‘small ball’, Chicago are something of a throwback with clearly defined front and back court players placing length among their most valuable attributes.
However, with Derrick Rose still recovering from the ACL tear suffered in last season’s playoffs, this current crop do not rely on the individual defensive skill which Jackson had at his disposal. Instead, thanks to the acumen of Tom Thibodeau, they defend as a unit and employ well thought out and intelligent schemes in order to shut down opponents. Thanks to stellar coaching and the players commitment to defence, the Bulls rank among the NBA’s best in a number of categories including Opponent Field Goal Percentage (47.1%), Opponent Points in Paint (37.3) and Opponent Points From Three Pointers (17.1).
For those looking closely enough, those three specific stats contain the secret of Thibodeau’s success. The Bulls rotate exceptionally well, keep the ball out of the lane, their basic goal to force teams into taking poor percentage shots. They seal off the perimeter from dribble penetration, cut off passing lanes and force players into rushing their shots. It isn’t over complicated and is much more concerned with energy and effort. Since his time with the Boston Celtics, the half court pressure defence utilised by Thibodeau has been mimicked and copied by numerous clubs with the Heat, Celtics, Lakers and even Mavericks employing their own variations of it.
The coach is obsessive about defence, often using a measuring tape in practice to ensure his players are inch perfect, yet his approach is extremely simple; eliminate high-percentage shots - especially those from in the lane paint and outside the three-point line. It is almost a certainty that any shot from beyond the arc against his team will be from a player not comfortable there. One essential principal is to ensure every ball screen or drive is forced to the baseline where a big man – aided by the relaxation of the illegal defence rule and no longer forced to be guarding a specific player – waits to help trap the ball handler.
By preventing quick ball rotation from one side of the court to the other while smothering anything that goes baseline, ensuring that is exactly where the weight of the defensive pressure forces the action. The whole philosophy was summed up when ESPN’s Jon Greenburg interviewed Ronnie Brewer earlier this year. “He wants us to play solid and follow the principles of playing the right way,” the guard said of Thibodeau. "It's tough for us, because it's against all instinct - you want to go gambling and get the ball. For the good of the team, you can't really pick your spot, and you've just got to play the defence."
There is perhaps one more factor to the defence that must be discussed for, while the absence of Rose is often lamented, any close game involving Chicago recently will also often see them go without Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer. Yet this is by choice as Thibodeau opts instead to use the defensive prowess of Taj Gibson and Omer Asik with increased regularity. "Defensively our second unit is very, very special," says Noah of the pair, going on to add that "they bring a lot of energy and they're very, very hard to score on.”
Frustrating the Opposition
All these qualities were plain for all to see as the Bulls dominated the Knicks on their own floor just before Christmas. The game may have been widely noted for the four ejections – including Noah himself – but it showcased the team at their suffocating best. They stifled their opponents, racking up a 25 point lead and, once the game had gone away from them, New York also lost their composure.
They began arguing almost every call, resulting in Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler and coach Mike Woodson all being tossed out. Whilst it may look like ill discipline it was merely a result of the straitjacket Chicago put them in for the second straight game after holding the Knicks to season lows of 85 points and 32.1% shooting earlier in the month.
"It's five guys playing defense, together," said Brewer in that same ESPN interview, "that's how it's supposed to work." With the Chicago Bulls already ranked fifth in the Eastern Conference and with last year’s MVP taking part in pre-game shootarounds, it most certainly is working.
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