Why the Bulls' interior help defense must improve


Why the Bulls' interior help defense must improve

Midway through the third quarter of Game 2 between the Bulls and Cavaliers, a quick 14-0 run by the visitors had cut a 25-point deficit down to just 11, 72-61. After Pau Gasol missed a lefty hook, Tristan Thompson found LeBron James, who beat counterpart Jimmy Butler down the floor and went right at Pau Gasol, seamlessly going around the 7-footer for a layup and his seventh field goal inside the paint (check the 4:40 mark here). James would add two more buckets at the rim in the period, extending the lead back out to as many as 19 and subsequently ending any chance of a Chicago comeback.

That quick sequence in the third quarter has become an alarming microcosm of the lackluster interior help defense the Bulls have played through two games, and it'll need to change in a hurry if they have any chance of competing in the series.

In the Game 2 victory, the Cavaliers scored 42 points in the paint and made 17 of their 26 attempts within 5 feet, which for this piece we'll refer to as "shots at the rim." In two games the Cavaliers have shot 63.3 percent at the rim, slightly above their team average since mid-January (when their season turned around following a two-week hiatus from James) that ranked third in the NBA behind only the Lob City Clippers and ultra-efficient Warriors.

In the regular season the usual suspects led the way for the Cavaliers in that category, with James (69.2%) Timofey Mozgov (68.9%) and Tristan Thompson (61.2%) all ranking in the top-35 among players who attempted at least four shots per game from inside that distance. Kyrie Irving (56.7%) was 12th among guards in the category; for comparison, James Harden was right below Irving at 56.3 percent.

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The Bulls led the NBA in field goal percentage defense inside 5 feet in the regular season, limiting opponents to just 55 percent shooting on such shots. Though Joakim Noah played at less than 100 percent seemingly all year, 7-footer Pau Gasol was good enough as a rim protector and Taj Gibson was his usual energetic self on the second unit. It also helped that lockdown defender Jimmy Butler led the NBA in minutes per game and was as good as any perimeter player defending the paint. And the Bulls showed the regular season wasn't a fluke, limiting the Bucks in Round 1 to 44.6 percent shooting at the rim, by far the best mark of the 16 playoff teams in the opening series.

And through the first two games of the series, the Bulls post defense has been solid. Both Mozgov (55 percent) and Thompson (40 percent) are shooting well below their season averages on shots at the rim, combining to go 8-for-16 on such shots - a number the Bulls certainly will live with.

The issue, however, is that the Cavaliers perimeter players (James included) have lived at the rim and are converting at an alarming rate. This isn't Michael Carter-Williams driving to the cup anymore.

Not surprising for anyone who watched Game 2, James has led the way. His 10-for-13 mark on shots inside 5 feet brought his two-game percentage up to 70 percent (after a 6-for-10 performance in Game 1), a touch higher than his regular-season average. But the 23 attempts at the rim, or 11.5 per game, are much higher than the 6.9 he averaged in the regular season. The playoffs are a different animal, and James isn't messing around anymore. He's on a mission to get to the paint, and he's succeeding. Three other drives to the lane Wednesday night resulted in six free throw attempts and he had multiple assists come via drives to the lane.

Irving has also lived at the rim. In two games the 23-year-old has connected on nine of his 13 shots inside 5 feet, or 69 percent, or 13 percentage points higher than his regular-season average. He has attempted 6.5 shots at the rim in two games, up from 5.4 attempts in the regular season. Even Iman Shumpert, seeing extended minutes in the absence of J.R. Smith, is connecting at the rim, going 4-for-7 (57%), up from his regular-season average of 53 percent.

It's undoubtedly a small sample size, but considering how easy the Cavaliers have made things look at the rim in two games it's a safe bet that they won't be changing how they attack the lane. As well as Jimmy Butler has defended James throughout his career, it's impossible to expect him to cover the game's best player on an island for 40+ minutes. A healthy Derrick Rose has provided stability at the point, but he's been no match for Irving through two games.

[MORE: Cavs flip the script, post wire-to-wire victory over Bulls in Game 2]

Tom Thibodeau is notorious for being tight-lipped on strategy heading into games, perhaps no answer more repetitive than the cliche of his team needing to play five-man defense against the league's best players. But when it comes to James and Irving, it's a necessity. The Bulls conceivably could do a better job crashing the defense when one of those two All-Stars attacks, but with Smith set to return, Shumpert connecting on eight of his 17 triples through two games and James Jones always a threat (5-for-9 from deep in Game 2) it's a risky strategy to extend help from the perimeter on those drives.

That puts the onus on the Bulls big men to defend better at the rim, which admittedly is easier said than done against two of the game's best players.

And surprisingly enough, it's been the reigning Defensive Player of the Year who has been exposed most. Noah has struggled all postseason and has been a shell of his former self all year - though Tom Thibodeau has deflected much of that criticism - and in two games against the Cavaliers opponents have made 12 of 17 shots inside 5 feet against him (70.6%). Gibson (66.7%) and Gasol (59%) haven't been much better, and combined the Bulls' top three interior defenders have allowed opponents to shoot 64 percent inside 5 feet. Again, a small sample size, but less than stellar marks nonetheless. James went around help defenders Noah and Gasol three times each for buckets in Game 2, while Irving beat Gasol three times and Noah twice at the rim in Game 1, albeit on ridiculous finishes.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up for the playoffs, Bulls fans!]

The issues go deeper for the Bulls' interior - the Cavaliers scored 23 second-chance points on 14 offensive rebounds (including six from Thompson) again exposing what has been a marginal defensive rebounding Bulls team all year - but Thibodeau must figure out how to give Butler, the league's Most Improved Player, more help on James and Rose on Irving. The only scenario is a more concerted and tougher effort from the Bulls bigs, lest the Cavs start dialing up triples when perimeter defenders sink in.

Again, it's easier said than done against a honed-in James intent on setting the tone offensively and a red-hot Irving, but with few options to resort to it's what the Bulls are dealing with and will have to deal with the rest of the series.

All statistics provided via NBA.com.

Reflective Jimmy Butler looks back on time in Chicago during All-Star weekend


Reflective Jimmy Butler looks back on time in Chicago during All-Star weekend

LOS ANGELES — Jimmy Butler was absent from the scoresheet of the All-Star Game, unless you count a “DNP-Coaches’ Decision” as activity. Whether due to the All-Star festivities of the weekend or even the grinding minutes he plays under Tom Thibodeau, it wasn’t truly surprising to see him want to have a night off of sorts.

But what was mildly surprising was the reflection he displayed on Saturday at All-Star Media Day in reference to his time with the Chicago Bulls. Usually, Butler’s armor is up because of his feelings surrounding his draft-night departure.

“I learned a lot in Chicago,” Butler said. “Just all through the season and life in general. What to do, what not to do and how to adapt to any situation that you’ve been in. I’ve done that to the best of my abilities. I have a ways to go in that.”

It’s clear he’s still grasping the weight of his words as the best player on a team, or at least, the player whose words impact everything around him.

“A people pleaser? No, I just didn’t say much,” Butler said. “Now I just don’t care. I never talked whenever I was in the league at an early age. It really didn’t matter, nothing I did was gonna make or break us when it comes to losing a game. Now it does and I have a lot to say. Half the time it’s not the right time or right way to say it but it’s okay.”

Whether it was the battles with Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg or the internal struggles in the Bulls’ locker room through his ascension from bench warmer to rotation player to impact player to now, a legitimate star, he’s modifying his approach—just a tad.

“I’ve never been the best player on my own team. I was in Tomball,” he joked, in reference to his beginnings in small town Texas. “I wasn’t in junior college. At Marquette I wasn’t. I’m probably not now. In Chicago I wasn’t. You just pick up on it, watch others and learn.”

He admitted to writing in a journal and reading self-help books now that he’s in Minnesota. The novel he’s reading now, “Faith, Forward, Future” is authored by Chad Veach, a Los Angeles pastor and the subtitle of the book says “Moving past your disappointments, delays and destructive thinking.”

Whether he started the book following a slow start with the Timberwolves in November, where his nightly numbers looked like one of a high-level role player, he took some self-evaluation before leading the charge since, playing like an MVP candidate with 25.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists on 49 percent shooting since the start of December.

“It’s relatively new. Yeah, basketball is still basketball but it’s hard when somebody else is coming in and roles change overnight,” Butler said. “You gotta see where you fit in with the group. At the end of the day you gotta win. I didn’t feel the way I was playing was our best opportunity to win games.”

Bringing along the likes of Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, with Towns being a fellow All-Star for the first time, has been a process.

“I’ve never actually had to be a leader,” Butler said. “I just always done what I was supposed to do, didn’t say much and played hard. Now you know, everybody wants to call someone a leader.”

He disputes taking a softer hand, especially as Towns and Wiggins seem to struggle with sustaining concentration at critical moments. The Timberwolves won’t be able to make those mistakes during the playoffs, but he’s being more selective with his words.

“I’m not soft,” he said. “If I see something wrong, I speak on it. If you don’t like it, oh well. You’ll get over it.”

One thing he could take a bird’s eye view of was the aftermath of LeBron James and Kevin Durant’s comments to the “Uninterrupted”, where they were criticized by cable news hosts for speaking out against President Donald Trump.

No stranger to criticism, Butler would likely have the same approach if he dipped his toes into that arena.

“I like it. You got the right to say what you want and you speak on what you think is right,” Butler said. “Good for them. And they are magnified in a very big way. They embrace it and they’re doing the right thing, I’m all for it.”

And if the day comes where he doesn’t stick to sports, Butler’s directness and lack of diplomacy would certainly cause an interesting reaction.

“I don’t care. Whatever I believe in, I believe in,” Butler said. “Everybody else does it. You see everybody on Twitter and the Internet doing it and saying what they want to say. We just have a different job than the person to our left and right.”

Well, not quite a warm and fuzzy Jimmy Butler.

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment


Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

There were no Lakers or Clippers in the 2018 All-Star Game, but Los Angeles was well-represented with plenty of homegrown talent, plenty of historians with Los Angeles ties and all the pageantry L.A. can provide.

Russell Westbrook, Paul George and James Harden are among the All-Stars who came home to put on the biggest show of entertainment the league has to offer, and the new format featuring captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry produced one of the most competitive finishes in recent All-Star history as the spectacle wasn’t lost on DeRozan, who plays for the conference-leading Toronto Raptors.

“It was a dream come true,” DeRozan said. “I’ll forever be a part of this, and to come out and be a starter in my hometown, it was a dream come true.”

With Chicago hosting the event in 2020, one wonders if the city or the Bulls will be as represented.

“What better time to do it than in Chicago?” Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen said about his aspirations of being an All-Star sooner rather than later.

New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, to this point, is the only Chicagoan carrying the torch as an All-Star. For years, Chicago could claim their homegrown talent rivaled the likes of Los Angeles and New York, the self-proclaimed “Mecca”.

But now they’ve fallen behind in the way of star power, as Derrick Rose has gone from MVP to one of the biggest “what if” stories in modern-day sports. Jabari Parker was expected to be next in line but his future as a star is murky due to the same dreaded injury bug.

“I didn’t know that. But there’s a lot of great players (from Chicago),” Davis said Saturday during media availability. “Jabari is just coming back, Derrick is going through what he’s going through. That’s fine. D-Wade is getting older. We have a lot of great guys. Guys have been hurt, in D-Wade’s case he’s just getting up there in age now (laughs).”

Davis is arguably the league’s most versatile big man, keeping the New Orleans Pelicans afloat while DeMarcus Cousins is out with an Achilles injury. He’s had to watch the likes of George deal with free agent questions about the prospect of coming home to L.A., even after he was traded from Indiana to Oklahoma City in the offseason.

It still hasn’t stopped the chants from Lakers fans, panting after George in the hope he’ll be a savior of sorts. And even though his contract isn’t up for another few seasons, teams are lining up in the hope they can acquire him through free agency or trade.

It could very well be him getting the chants when the All-Star party comes to Chicago and he could be joined by the likes of Markkanen and Zach LaVine in the big game.

LaVine was in Los Angeles for the weekend and Markkanen opened eyes around the league with his showing in the rising stars game as well as the skills challenge.

Davis could wind up being the object of everyone’s affection and could find himself being recruited by the likes of LaVine.

Even though 2021 is a long way away, a guy can dream, right?

“I mean, I’m cool with a lot of dudes in the NBA. I feel like I’m a likeable guy,” LaVine told NBCSportsChicago.com about recruiting star players to the Bulls franchise. “I can talk about situations like that, it would be my first time being put in a position. It would be a little bit different but I think I can handle it.”

LaVine has his own contract situation to take care of this summer, being a restricted free agent but understands the Bulls’ salary cap position and their long-term goals.

“Yeah I think once the offseason comes and everybody settles down, and I’m comfortable, and I know the position I’ll be in,” LaVine said to NBCSportsChicago.com.

“I think we’ll start having those conversations because we want to get the franchise back to where it was, on that high plateau. That’s what it’s supposed to be.”

“I’m trying to solidify myself in the league to a certain degree. Once you start reaching those points you can talk to anybody to get to where you want to get to.”

LaVine attended several events over the weekend and shared the same space as several All-Stars in non-media settings. It’s easy to see why he would think he could have that affect with his peers.

Being careful about the rules on tampering, he said about a potential sit-down with Davis, “I would bring some Harold’s chicken to the meeting and we’ll be all good.”