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In Part II of my manifesto for the playoff Bulls preparation, we cover the offense. Here is Part I on the defensive side of the ball.
The Bucks closed the regular season ranked 14th on defense. But don’t let that fool you. They ranked ninth last year and first in each of the two seasons before that.
During the playoffs last year, they ratcheted up the intensity and execution, allowing a league-best 106.8 points per 100 possession — on par for a top-three number this season. This team is elite when they need to be, and it’s because of the shots they force opponents to convert.
Based on the shot profile allowed, the Bucks are have built a unique defense. Due to the size and length of each player in their starting unit, the Bucks allow very little at the rim. Unlike most teams, they’re willing to give up threes, but do a great job limiting rim and midrange attempts. Unfortunately for the Bulls, they’ll struggle to expose this strategy as they rely so heavily on rim and midrange attempts, whilst ranking last in 3-point attempt rate.
What the Bucks did to limit the Bulls
The Bulls go as DeMar DeRozan goes.
If DeRozan is isolated in a one-on-one matchup, there’s a high likelihood he generates a quality shot. In recognising the Bulls’ heavy reliance on DeRozan controlling the offense, opponents have countered his ability to bend defenses by sending two to the ball, often via a trap or hard double. This is necessary, as so few players in the league can guard DeRozan in single coverage.
And yet, despite DeRozan averaging 31.3 points against the Bucks this season, the Bulls lost all four games.
Bucks guards Wesley Matthews and Jrue Holiday are incredibly talented at staying connected on screens. They’ve had more success than any other team forcing DeRozan — and Zach LaVine — into tough shots one-on-one.
The danger here is what that means for the rest of the offense. If the Bucks don’t load up on DeRozan, the rest of their defense is in position and won’t need to sacrifice open looks out of rotation.
In other words, the Bucks will take their chances letting DeRozan go off for 40-plus because they believe they’ll be able to neutralize the rest of the team if they can stay in position.
To combat this, the Bulls need to execute their screens perfectly. That means timing and hard screens to get the step.
“Your screening is part of it, your spacing is part of it, your setup is part of it,” Billy Donovan said. “It’s not just necessarily DeMar, it’s the whole team. Everybody’s got to function well in those situations.
If DeMar doesn’t set it up well, it’s probably not going to work,” he continued. “If our bigs don’t screen well, it’s probably not going to work. If our spacing is poor, it’s probably not going to work. So there’s a lot that goes into that, but those guys have the ability one on one to get through and over and around screens at a really high level and you’ve got to be detailed in how you attack those situations.”
Attention to detail doesn’t only matter on defense. The Bulls need every extra inch of space they can get, and that means crisp, intentional movement on both sides.
As the Bucks gradually load up on DeRozan, this will allow LaVine a greater chance to take advantage. If LaVine catches fire from distance, it opens up lanes for DeRozan. The Bucks will do what they can to defend straight up, but DeRozan and LaVine absolutely have what it takes to force them to make some tough decisions.
Here’s what the Bulls can do to improve their chances
Attack early in the offense
The Bucks are a long, quick and smart team — a combination that is incredibly difficult to permeate. One of the best ways to do so is attacking before the defense can fully set up.
It doesn’t have to be a full-on sprint down the court after every miss, but getting a controlled transition will open up the paint and free up shooters. It also puts pressure on rim protectors to defend while backpedaling. Hopefully this earns the Bulls extra trips to the free throw line and puts the Bucks into foul trouble.
This becomes even more important half-court settings. Getting the ball to DeRozan and LaVine on the move helps them get a step on their defender.
The Bulls took the fewest threes this season, averaging 28.8 attempts per game. In order to improve their odds, the Bulls need to introduce more variance. It conflicts with their offensive identity, but by taking mores threes, they give themselves a chance to get hot and increase an already thin margin for error.
LaVine, Nikola Vucevic, Alex Caruso, Patrick Williams, Ayo Dosunmu, and Coby White all need to be ready to rain down threes whenever the Bucks defense gives up a clean look.
Say what you will about the value of the three-point shot, but at a baseline level, it provides the Bulls enough space for DeRozan and LaVine to get to their spots and create open looks.
“Those guys are elite players, they’ll do their job,” Caruso said. “We just have to make we give them space to operate and then take advantage of their defense when they commit or overhelp.”
Bulls need to read these situations better to set themselves up for success. In the above example, Vucevic would have been better off popping out to the wing here to provide LaVine with an outlet. With Green standing under the basket, Giannis Antetokounmpo is in great position to help defend the rim if, by some miracle, LaVine can get all the way to the basket.
The Bulls lack the desire to shoot threes, but that’s what the defense is giving up. They need to space the floor and make a few shots to prevent the Bucks from sucking all of the air out of the paint.
The critical importance of pick-and-pop
Vucevic has had a disappointing year shooting the ball, but he remains the Bulls’ third-best offensive weapon. As crazy as it may sound, if there’s one thing that gives the Bulls a legit chance to win a game in this series it’s Vucevic above the break threes this series.
This play is the perfect encapsulation of the floor spacing with Vucevic operating from the elbow vs. popping out to three:
In this play, Vucevic initially floats to the elbow where he clogs the lane and the Bucks squash the initial action. On the secondary action, Vucevic pops to the wing, prevents the help from being able to guard two at once and hits an open shot. Too easy.
As noted in the table above, the Bucks defense allows the highest volume of non-corner threes, including the third-highest percentage on such looks. That means Vucevic needs to be a high-volume shooter in pick-and-roll sequences.
With Lopez and even Antetokounmpo in at the five, the Bucks are in heavy drop coverage. That’s going to leave Vucevic by himself at the top of the key. This is potentially the Bucks achilles heel. Vucevic needs to be in that spot to give DeRozan room to work. And he damn well better take and make these shots because he’ll be wide open.
Get Vucevic in the flow
We all know the trope: everything is slowed down in the playoffs. Half court offenses bog down and a good, strong post threat is a reliable source of offense.
Vucevic has been painfully average in the post this season, scoring only 0.873 points per possession. With a marked size disadvantage against Brook Lopez and Antetokounmpo, that number will be even lower. Even after drawing smaller guards on a switch, it plays into the Bucks hand.
Vucevic is a fine post player and will have moments, especially against the likes of Bobby Portis or guards who have switched assignments. However, a more reliable source of offense needs to come from decisively getting to his spots and operating with LaVine and DeRozan in pick-and-roll actions.
I love the way the attention is initially all on LaVine for a stagger pindown, but swiftly moves into a pick-and-roll where Vucevic can attack space against a smaller big in Serge Ibaka.
The Bulls should look to get creative in a three-man game with their best offensive weapons. Putting three threats in the same action is incredibly difficult to defend in real time. Someone is bound to be left open.
This is one of the more creative plays the Bulls ran during the season series. Exactly the kind of thing that will keep the Bucks on their toes.
The Bulls secret weapon: Zach/DeMar pick-and-roll
Typically, the Bulls bring opposing bigs to defend pick-and-roll, which can be a great option. Whilst this will be the primary on-ball screen action, the Bulls need to be creative and offer up a different look.
By having two elite scoring wings, the Bulls can amplify pressure on a defense by using both DeRozan and LaVine in guard-guard pick-and-roll sequences. This is something the Bulls must try and, if it proves successful, continuously exploit and force the Bucks to find a counter. There are ways for the Bucks to defend these types of actions, including switching responsibilities. Doing so, though, puts their defense in rotation and forces communication, which may lead to vulnerabilities emerging elsewhere.
Again, the key here is to attack the pick-and-roll early while the Bucks are still on their heels. It’s much hard to lunge and contest a shooter if momentum is carrying the defender the wrong direction.
The Bulls have only used LaVine as a screener on 10 possessions, according to Synergy. But it’s been successful nonetheless. 12 points on those 10 possessions is great efficiency. I expect this to be a pillar of the offense until the Bucks can solve it.
It’s the playoffs! Not jail
The NBA Playoffs are wonderful.
The Bulls played the Bucks extremely close in the first two games. LaVine only played in two of the four contests. Caruso played half a game with a broken wrist. The Bulls may be at a deficit, but they’re tough. I want to see if they can step up to the challenge.
If they can, they have two guys that can get a bucket at any time. In DeRozan and LaVine’s isolation scoring ability, the Bulls are built to be a problem in the playoffs. I’m super excited to see what LaVine can do on the big stage for the first time. I can’t wait to see DeRozan take over in a close game down the stretch.
It’s been five years since the Bulls last playoff game. We may think we know how this ends, but I’m going to enjoy the ride.
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