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The Chicago Bulls season was objectively a success. The team finished with the most wins since the 2014-15 season amid a rash of covid protocols and injuries. But the five-game playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks exposed a rash of team deficiencies that they were unable to overcome for the majority of the season. With the second round of the playoffs underway, it’s an excellent time to take note of the lessons that the Chicago Bulls can take from the remaining playoff teams.
Spacing is key
Five of the eight remaining playoff teams finished top 10 in 3-point field goals made.
The other three? Phoenix, Memphis and Philadelphia. Phoenix attempted the second-most midrange shots in the regular season, knocking them in at a 44.6 percent clip (second in the league). Memphis led the NBA in offensive rebounds and offensive rebound percentage combined with a tenacious penchant for creating turnovers (second in deflections per game; first in steals). Philadelphia possesses the most dominant big man in the NBA.
In the season-ending loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, the Chicago Bulls attempted 52 three-point shots. And this was without their best outside shooter in Zach LaVine! Chicago shot just 30.4 percent on what NBA.com describes as wide-open 3-point attempts. Head coach Billy Donovan and the Bulls knew that the Bucks were going to crowd DeMar DeRozan.
”It was pretty obvious they were going to load up on DeMar,” Bulls coach Billy Donovan told reporters. ”I thought he played a great game. I thought he generated good shots. He didn’t have a high assist total because we really didn’t shoot the ball particularly well, but he would have had an enormous amount of assists if we had shot the ball better.”
Heading into the offseason, the Bulls have to upgrade their shooting to properly space the floor for DeRozan and LaVine. Having multiple non-shooters on the floor is a recipe for an early playoff exit.
Versatility reigns supreme in today’s NBA
The Boston Celtics are the blueprint for what a modern roster looks like. Stocked with wings and bigs who can move their feet, the Celtics can shape-shift throughout a game. Against Milwaukee, the Celtics deployed lineups that featured Al Horford and Robert Williams playing together.
They’ve run out lineups with 6-foot-6 forward Grant Williams guarding Giannis Antetokunmpo. Williams moves his feet well laterally, and he’s strong enough to absorb the blows that Antetokunmpo throws in the post. The former Tenessee Volunteer has guarded everyone from Kevin Durant and Antetokunmpo to Jrue Holiday and Kyrie Irving. Williams is a role player that always makes winning plays — I know, very cliché.
In-Game 3 of the Milwaukee-Boston series, Williams shuffled his feet to keep Holiday in front of him, forcing the one-time All-Star into a tough step back that Williams got a finger on.
Versatility doesn’t just derive from the players’ abilities but also from the lineups that teams can run. DeAndre Ayton’s ability to protect the rim and switch out on the perimeter in spurts is vital for the Suns. Al Horford offers similar capabilities for the Celtics (both Milwaukee and Phoenix are top ten lowest frequency of shot attempts at the rim).
The Memphis Grizzlies have pivoted away from Steven Adams in the playoffs, opting for Jaren Jackson Jr. at center against Draymond Green. That’s the beauty of these playoffs. There’s no ‘correct’ way to build a winning team. The Bucks are having success playing a with their two-big looks. Meanwhile, the Warriors’ most-played lineup has a front court of Draymond Green and Andrew Wiggins.
Good teams make you pay for having a bad defensive player on the floor. Matchup hunting is all the rage in playoff games the further you advance.
In the second half of Game 2 of the Suns-Mavericks series, Phoenix put Mavericks star guard Luka Doncic in 19 ball screens. The Suns and averaged 1.81 points per chance per ESPN and Second Spectrum. Chris Paul relentlessly attacked Doncic, showing that if he’s not going to guard then, the Mavericks don’t have a chance in this series. After trailing at halftime, Phoenix scored seventy-one points in the second half alone, ultimately winning the game. Head coach Jason Kidd admitted as much in his postgame scrum.
The Miami Heat haven’t even tried to play Duncan Robinson extended minutes against Philadelphia due to his poor defense.
Meanwhile, the two teams on the other side of the bracket are both utilizing that same tactic. Steve Kerr’s egalitarian offense downplays matchup hunting for prolonged periods. But in Game 3 of the Memphis-Golden State series, the Warriors hunted Ja Morant and Kyle Anderson in pick-and-roll. The Grizzlies gave the Warriors a taste of their own medicine, when Morant hunted Jordan Poole.
This lesson applies to the Bulls in two ways
LaVine and DeRozan will have to play defense or risk being exposed. Teams are going to hunt for a favorable matchup continuously. As we’ve learned this year, Ball and Caruso can only clean up so many of the defensive miscues. Chicago finished 23rd in defensive rating in the NBA after flirting within the top ten for the first few months of the season. As the Bulls look to upgrade the margins of the roster, they have to identify if the player is a 16-game player or an 82-game player.
Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley made the Chicago Bulls a competitive organization once again. But the standard shouldn’t be to make the playoffs. The standard should be about competing for championships and raising banners at the United Center. To do that, they’ll need to apply these lessons they can take away from this year’s best of the best.
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