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Billy Donovan coached a great Game 1. Here's what he needs to start, stop and continue doing

Timmy Samuelsson Avatar
April 19, 2022

Moral victories during the playoffs are an enigmatic concept.

A 7-point loss to the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks pushed the Bulls closer to elimination. It also represents an uptick in performance for a team who stumbled into the postseason.

Considering the Bulls had only won five of their last 15 regular season games, a narrow defeat to a viable title threat isn’t cause for a celebration. It also shouldn’t be dismissed or ridiculed. If anything, despite the outcome, this game feels oddly significant.

Unlike what we had become accustomed to, the Bulls rekindled their early-season defensive intensity. In addition, the offense was generating good, clean looks. The schemes on both sides of the ball worked. For this reason, the Bulls have discovered a pathway to building a competitive series, something which didn’t seem possible only a few days ago.

Head coach Billy Donovan deserves immense credit for devising a workable game plan. He should carryover this approach into game two. And, because I’m an extremely helpful — and opinionated — person, perhaps he can take aboard the following feedback and suggestions.

Start: Challenging Calls

Perhaps the lone blemish in Donovan’s coaching performance was his insistence not to challenge several egregious calls.

Take, for example, this play mid-way through the third quarter. Zach LaVine picks up his fourth foul on what is deemed a charge by the referees.

To my eyes, at least, Bucks forward Khris Middleton is still moving sideward when LaVine collects him. Speculatively speaking, this call is overturned if Donovan had challenged.

The above example merits debate. This foul call on Patrick Williams, though, was comically bad.

Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo is draped all over Williams. If this play is adjudicated correctly, Antetokounmpo exits the game with six fouls.

Again, Donovan elected not to challenge. The oddity in this example is, Donovan thought Williams was fouled. If so, why not challenge? With so little time left to play and his team down 3, this was the moment to send a call to review.

For clarity purposes, the refereeing didn’t cost the Bulls the game, nor did Donovan not challenging these calls. That said, if there is one area of his coaching which Donovan needs to be more adaptable, it’s his willingness to challenge calls. It’s a minor quibble, but a noteworthy one.

Stop: Playing Tristan Thompson

One meme is all we need to summarise the Tristan Thompson experience in Chicago.

Honestly, what value is Thompson providing the Bulls right now? Is his place in the rotation justified because he once was a starter on a team that mattered?

At this stage in his career, Thompson is a limited role player who hasn’t come to terms with his fading profile. Case in point, let’s review the following possession:

Rarely is it time for Thompson to try to manufacture his own score. Down 3 with 11 minutes to play in the fourth, the Bulls don’t need Thompson wasting seconds off the shot clock whilst he pounds the ball. Instead, this needs to be a quick read and pass to a more capable teammate.

Mercifully, Donovan relied on Thompson sparingly in game one, using him in 7:25 minutes across two stints. As a trade-off, Donovan wisely extended his rotation to 10 by pulling Derrick Jones Jr. into the fold.

For two reasons, this was a notable adjustment:

  • Donovan’s rotation pattern toward the end of the regular season excluded Jones; and
  • The Bulls matched the Bucks’ ‘Giannis-at-center’ lineups with Jones

The above represents a divergence from previous plans instilled by Donovan. Moreover, Jones spending time at center is not an adjustment Will Gottlieb and myself expected when building out the Bulls’ rotation.

During Jones’ minutes, the Bulls deployed length and athleticism to influence plays on both sides of the ball. So long as Thompson is giving the Bulls nothing and, as per the substitution pattern from game one, already playing few minutes, Donovan should lean into small-ball by favouring Jones as his backup five, thus completely removing Thompson from the rotation.

Continue: Using Vučević as a shooting option

The perception surrounding Nikola Vučević, his jump shot, and how to exploit the Bucks defense is arguably the most interesting test case of process vs. result within this matchup.

As noted by Will Gottlieb in part two of his playoff manifesto, the Bucks often employ a drop defense in pick-and-roll coverages. In doing so, this defensive scheme is prone to allowing a high volume of non-corner threes, particularly above the break. Given the Bulls use Vučević as their primary screen-setter, he’s a prime candidate to pop for a jumper after setting an on-ball pick. When he does, he will be open for three.

Given Vučević only made 31.4 percent of his threes during the regular season, leaning into his wayward 3-point shot seems counterintuitive. To be fair, there’s credence to this logic. However, this retort completely ignores what the Bucks defense will offer up to the Bulls. Furthermore, such a response is entirely focused on results and ignores process entirely.

The Bulls hold so few advantages in this series. Because of this, they must exploit any opportunity which is handed to them. Shooting open, above-the-break jumpers is one such option.

And so Vučević did, launching ten threes in game one.

By using Vučević as a shooting release, the Bulls attempted to capitalize on that which its opponents gave them. This is the efficacy of process.

Unfortunately, Vučević only made two of his ten 3-point attempts. The results-focused critics will argue this conversion rate is why shooting so many threes is problematic, and that such a ploy needs to be abandoned. Ok, so what is the alternative? Posting up Vučević inside so he can take contested shots against the Bucks’ massive frontline? Turning down open looks and forcing someone else to create points?

The only way for the Bulls to make this a competitive series is to introduce a level of controlled chaos. They can do so by creating as much variance as possible. Altering their shot profile by shooting a lot of threes, particularly those of which that are open because of the Bucks’ defensive scheme, is one way to do so.

Then with the Orlando Magic, Vučević did exactly this against the Bucks in the 2020 playoffs. In their first round matchup, the center averaged 8.8 threes per game, connecting on 40.9 percent. In the Magic’s lone win of the series, Vučević shot 5-from-8 from three.

Despite the series result, the Magic chose the correct process.

Donovan, Vučević, and the Bulls must continue to follow this template.

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