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Chicago Bulls three-point defense opens up the door for disaster

Will Gottlieb Avatar
April 2, 2024

In a pivotal matchup with Play-In implications, the Chicago Bulls squared off against the Atlanta Hawks, seeking to solidify their postseason position. However, the Bulls (36-40) struggled to limit the Hawks’ three-point shooting, ultimately falling short in a 113-101 loss and emphasizing the importance of shoring up their perimeter defense as they navigate the final stretch of the season.

It’s well documented that the Bulls aren’t a strong three-point shooting team. At the same time, they allow the most threes to their opponents of any team in the league. While they have done well to offset their struggles with offensive rebounding, efficient two-point shooting and trips to the free throw line, not shooting threes and allowing a lot of them can certainly result in some explosive losses.

While it’s too reductive to say whoever wins the three-point battle is going to win the game, their last five games paint a convincing picture.

Loss: Washington Wizards shot 14-of-49 (28.6 percent) compared to Bulls’ 10-of-35 (28.6 percent)

Win: Indiana Pacers shot 13-of-42 (31 percent) compared to Bulls’ 12-of-27 (44.4 percent)

Loss: Brooklyn Nets shot 25-of-44 (56.8 percent) compared to Bulls’ 9-of-30 (30 percent)

Win: Minnesota Timberwolves shot 11-of-37 (29.7 percent) compared to Bulls’ 17-of-29 (58.6 percent)

Loss: Atlanta Hawks shot 19-of-40 (47.5 percent) compared to Bulls’ 7-of-28 (25 percent).

Better yet, this season, in games the Bulls win, they shoot 38.4 percent from deep while opponents shoot just 32.8 percent. In games they lose, they shoot 33.9 percent while opponents shoot 40.2 percent.

See the trend?

“I mean I don’t know if I necessarily agree with that, you know always works that way because there are other ways to offset,” Billy Donovan said.

“The other thing too is, you can look at the other way you can try to take away all threes and then basically give up higher percentage shots. You can give up more shots at the basket, you can give up more free throws.”

As we know, the Bulls defense is built to remove the paint first, second, and third. They send Nikola Vucevic to help contain dribble penetration at the point of the screen, collapse the paint, and then rotate out to shooters.

As a result, they allow the highest frequency of threes to their opponents of any team in the league.

“There’s always a battle at the point of screens offensively and defensively and I thought really on both ends of the floor they won those battles there in a lot of ways,” Donovan said. “I think that contributed to the ball getting where it needed to go. Putting us in some rotations, and some long rotations at times, but you know, they shot the ball exceptionally well you give them credit for doing that.”

This strategy has its merits. It protects Vucevic from ending up on an island against guards and allows the team to understand and execute their role without having to adjust to different defensive schemes on the fly.

Though the Bulls’ defense has been substandard this season (21st overall), they did finish top-five last season, while allowing the highest volume of threes to their opponent. The difference is, last season they allowed 30 percent of their opponents’ shots to come from beyond the arc. This season, that number has ballooned to 42 percent.

Another issue: corner threes allowed. The Hawks made 7-of-12 corner three-point attempts in the first half alone.

“You’re gonna get into some binds,” Donovan explained. “It wasn’t that. It was pulling off the corners and being in the wrong position. Not enough awareness on the backside. I think they were six-of-nine maybe or seven-of-ten from corner threes. Like there’s no way we should be giving up corner threes. That just shouldn’t happen.”

Unfortunately for Donovan and his Bulls, that has happened all too frequently this season. The Bulls allow the second-highest corner three-point frequency to their opponents in the league. This follows the same pattern as total three-point volume. Last season, they let up the sixth most threes (10.7 percent). This season, they’re up to 2nd (12.1 percent).

“Sometimes when there’s a roll and the ball gets skipped across the floor and you’re in long X-ing or rotation, that can be hard. And we had some of those issues tonight, in particular ones, but some of them were quite honestly some strong-side corner threes.”

One example Donovan specifically called out was Hawks’ wing Vit Krejci’s fifth three of the first half, a buzzer-beater to send the Hawks into the break up 61-53.

In this example, Coby White pulls too far into the paint to help cut off the drive at the expense of leaving his man open. Can’t help one pass away.

To be fair, the Bulls corrected a lot of their mistakes in the second half. The Hawks shot just 1-of-2 from the corners and 5-of-14 from three overall. But after making 14-of-26 in the first half for a grand total of 19 threes on 40 attempts on the night, that’s always going to be difficult to overcome.

It’s a make-or-miss league, after all.

“There are some times you’re just gonna get in some binds,” he explained. “They got into some binds too. We didn’t make those shots. Last night against Minnesota we made some of those shots.”

Play-In Race

In spite of the loss, the Bulls clinched a Play-In berth thanks to a loss from the Brooklyn Nets.

While a win would have put the Bulls comfortably in the driver’s seat to finish as the ninth seed, their loss opens the door for Atlanta to make a play for home court in the first Play-In game.

Though the Bulls still have a 0.5-game cushion over the Hawks in 10th, they also have the tiebreaker. Atlanta will have to finish the season with a better record in order to jump ahead in the standings.

Their win tonight keeps that option alive, for now.

Prior to the game, had the Bulls with an 89 percent chance to finish as the ninth seed. After the game, that dropped to 77 percent.

Magic number to finish ninth is six games. Had the Bulls won, that number would have dropped to four.

At a .529 average win percentage, the Hawks have the 10th most difficult remaining schedule in the league. They have three home games and four on the road with one rest disadvantage (games where they have more rest than their opponent) and no rest advantages.

At a .507 average win percentage, the Bulls have the 13th hardest remaining schedule. With two more home games and four on the road, the Bulls have one rest advantage and one rest disadvantage remaining.

Buckle up!

Up next: the Bulls have three days off before hosting the New York Knicks on Friday.

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