Young, rebuilding teams and top-five defenses typically are mutually exclusive subjects.
But Monday’s showdown with the veteran-laden Bucks will showcase two of the league’s top-four defenses and the top-two for the month of December.
The Bulls’ defensive rating of 99.8 for December, just 0.4 behind the league-leading Bucks, has vaulted them to fourth overall on the season. Their 104.2 defensive rating trails only the Bucks’ 101.3, Nuggets’ 104 and Raptors’ 104.1.
“We’ve improved defensively from the first week of the season. I give the credit to the guys and my staff. We’ve worked very hard at it. Our guys are committed to it. They’ve taken pride in it. They’ve honored their mistakes and improved,” coach Jim Boylen said following Sunday’s practice at the Advocate Center. “I want us to be a defensive team. It’s very important to me. And I think the Chicago Bulls need to be a defensive team. I think it’s important for the city and for who we are.”
Boylen, who grew up in a working-class family in Grand Rapids, Mich., could’ve gone into a spiel about blue-collar work ethic. He could’ve talked about chairman Jerry Reinsdorf long valuing that end and the organization’s proud history dating to Norm Van Lier and Jerry Sloan and onto Johnny Bach’s Doberman defense.
Instead, Boylen talked about wanting to improve even more.
“We don’t do everything well every night,” he said. “What we do try to do is keep people in front of us, make people play through our hands and over the top of us. And then we try to shift and close as efficiently as we can.
“We still need to work on our defensive rebounding. But overall, I think we’re connected pretty well. And our communication for most of the time is pretty good. And then we have, to me, a couple elite guys out there in (Kris) Dunn and (Wendell) Carter.”
The Bulls lead the league — by a wide margin — by forcing 18.4 turnovers per game. They are tied for fourth in allowing shots at the rim but rank 13th in opponents’ percentage from that distance. They limit opponents to the third-lowest 3-point percentage.
“I feel like we’ve all bought into the scheme,” Carter said. “It was a new thing for us once Jim became the head coach. It was tough for us at first. Everybody didn’t understand the whole premise of the defense. But everyone understands it now. The defense is just to protect everybody on the court, from the bigs to the guards.
“We just continue to practice. I feel like we’re not perfect yet, but I feel like each and every day we work on it we get better and better.”
This scheme, which features plenty of aggressive blitzing of pick-and-rolls and a subsequent demand for the right rotational reads, drew plenty of scrutiny early in the season. Players even subtly questioned it at times.
Boylen and his staff stuck to it, although the pick-and-roll coverages are tweaked during games to reflect opposing personnel.
“He felt like he knew exactly how the scheme would play right into our strengths as a defensive team. We got vertical spacing. We got people who are really good on ball like KD,” Carter said of Dunn. “So it just helps us all to be good on the defensive end.”
Dunn entering the starting lineup for the injured Otto Porter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison has helped. He leads the NBA in three-steal games with 14 and is tied for second at 2.1 steals per game.
Carter’s constant communication is a factor as well.
“Me and KD kind of anchor the defense when we’re in together,” Carter said. “It’s kind of a contagious thing where when you hear one person talking, usually everybody else starts to talk, gets excited, starts flying around on the defensive end. I definitely think it works and everybody’s bought into it, for sure.
“We just weren’t communicating (before). For myself, I feel like I’m one of the better defenders on this team and when the best defender isn’t communicating and getting everybody else juiced up, it’s kind of hard for everybody to be engaged on the defensive end.”
Other factors have benefitted the Bulls. They have played the league's easiest schedule to date based on opponents' win percentage. Close to half of their games have been against teams with offenses ranked in the bottom third of the league. Opposing teams have been missing top players. And the poor percentage from such a close range reflects not only the Bulls’ ability to contest shots but some luck in opponents’ misses.
Check back after January, in which nine of the Bulls’ 17 opponents currently have winning records, to see how much these defensive trends have stuck. And the Bulls absolutely have to rebound better; they have lost that battle in 21 games.
But for now, the Bulls are feeling good about their defensive progress.
“I’d have to say I’m surprised. Usually, young teams don’t defend as well,” Boylen said. “We’ve done a heckuva job of improving as the season has gone and creating habits that have made us effective defensively. We have to maintain those habits. I think we can get even better defensively because of the rebounding aspect and the defending without fouling.”
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