With Ayo Dosunmu (neck) and Andre Drummond (shoulder) out for the game, it wasn’t a stretch to think the Chicago Bulls defense may have suffered against the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday night.
That’s exactly what happened in the 114-109 loss. And while they missed Dosunmu and Drummond, this game saw a familiar trope early on this season in which the Bulls opponent begins the game unconsciously hot from three.
Following a trend so far this season, the 76ers shot 6-for-10 on three pointers in the first quarter and finished the first half 10-for-20. This after the Spurs opened the game 5-for-6 from deep, the Pacers went on a 7-for-8 stretch in the third quarter, the Celtics starting the game 8-for-9, the Cavs 5-for-6 and the Heat 6-for-8. That’s six of the Bulls first seven games where opponents have gone wild from deep.
At this point, it’s not a coincidence.
While the Bulls have been somewhat effective eliminating corner threes (12th in the NBA as a percentage of total attempts), they are allowing the 12-highest percentage of three pointers and the highest opponent three-point percentage in the NBA. In other words, Bulls opponents are taking a ton of threes, and shooting 44.2 percent on them.
Meanwhile, the Bulls are middle of the pack when it comes to defending three-pointers, but opponents are actually shooting 4.5 percent better on defended three-point field goals than their average on uncontested shots. So some of these insane shooting splits will come down, but the Bulls have to tighten up their defense nonetheless.
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A lot of the damage can be squashed by simply eliminating paint touches. If the Bulls can cut down on the number of times opposing offenses get to the rim, they inherently won’t have to go into rotation — effectively nipping the problem in the bud.
The first 76ers bucket of the game is a simple pick-and-roll between James Harden and Joel Embiid. Don’t get me wrong — this is one of the most difficult actions to defend in the entire league. But it shouldn’t be this easy for them:
From there, a cascade of breakdowns occurs, and it becomes harder and harder to defend as the offense moves the ball around the perimeter.
“For us, when the ball is coming down hill at the basket, right, generally, you’re going to be put into some rotations,” Billy Donovan said prior to the game on Saturday night.
“We have got to be a big help team. And we’ve got to protect the paint. Because when we don’t protect the paint, you’re giving up rim drives, you’re giving up fouls and you’re giving up corner threes.”
It’s going to be impossible to keep Embiid out of the post, especially when you have to stay home on James Harden so he doesn’t kill you on step-back threes.
So when you bring the big, in this case Nikola Vucevic to the level of the screen to cut off the drive, you have a tradeoff. Embiid gets a nice pocket pass here, and instead of letting him get downhill, both Alex Caruso and DeMar DeRozan step over to help.
The 76ers see this coming and clear out the corner with a well-timed hammer screen action that gives Tyrese Maxey an open corner three.
Plays like these are tough to defend — you’re basically asking your defense to be two steps ahead.
“If you’re dealing with a team that’s staying stationary, it’s a lot easier to close out,” Donovan said. “But if you have people moving and cutting at the same point, you have to recognize and realize what’s getting ready to happen kind of before it happens, where help is coming from and where you have to rotate.
Again, the Bulls won’t be perfect, but they do need to be better at executing more manageable rotations, such as double teams out of the post. Most teams don’t have a low block scoring machine. But against a team that does, like the 76ers, you don’t have a choice.
When the help comes, usually from either the baseline, or in this case, from the top, the rest of the group has to sink into the paint and be ready to defend three-on-four.
“So what ultimately happens is we’re having to close back out,” Donovan said. “But we’ve got to have a better awareness when we are helping, where is our man, what is going on and then how do we move from there. And there’s been times where we get caught in some two-way stunts. We get caught not seeing where our guy’s going, we lose vision sometimes.”
The Bulls won’t be perfect every time, no one is. But they have it in them. And when they finally did start executing, it got them back into the game.
The Bulls held the 76ers to 4-for-9 in the second half from beyond the arc, which got them back into the game. The percentage allowed is still too high, but limiting attempts is a much better indicator of team defense.
And it can come down to good offense beating good defense. That’s what happened at the end of the game, when Embiid knocked down the go ahead three on a pick-and-pop with Harden.
“We did everything we wanted to do,” Donovan said. “The hard part is if you leave the coverage too early, you’ve got Harden coming straight down hill. Vooch did a good job, we tried to get back to him. He knocked down the three so give him credit. But there wasn’t anything that our guys, no blown assignment or missed assignment on that, no.”
Chasing perfection on defense may seem futile, but you have to try. And while some of these opponent shooting numbers will come down to Earth because math, they do need to be a lot better in their execution or they will continue to fall into these vicious holes early on in games.