Jim Boylen switches it up, shortens Bulls' rotation in loss to Celtics

Jim Boylen switches it up, shortens Bulls' rotation in loss to Celtics

A couple hours before the Bulls’ third straight loss began, head coach Jim Boylen said playing an opponent finishing a back-to-back set of games wouldn’t change his strategy.

Then he used an eight-man rotation and played Thad Young small forward minutes for the first time this season.

The move didn’t prevent the Bulls from falling to 10 games under .500 following their 111-104 loss to the Celtics, which wasted Zach LaVine’s 35 points. And Boylen wouldn’t commit to using the shortened rotation again.

But Boylen’s decision to only use Young, Coby White and Daniel Gafford as reserves pushed all the starters’ minutes but Lauri Markkanen’s north of 35. And Markkanen was headed close to there until he exited with 4 minutes, 9 seconds left after rolling his left ankle when Marcus Smart fell on him.

Markkanen walked gingerly out of the United Center late Saturday. The Bulls next play in Dallas on Monday.

The shortened rotation led to starters’ minutes more typical for frontline players and also featured fewer offensively-challenged lineups. Nevertheless, the Bulls shot 42.5 percent.

“I wanted to give it a look. And I played three big guys together. This was the team to do it against. And I liked it,” Boylen said. “I’ll have to evaluate it. I’ll have the numbers [Sunday]. But I liked it. It’s something I’ve been thinking about. And we’ll see.”

Boylen pointed to the Celtics’ use of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward as the main impetus for the experiment.

“They have three 6-8 guys who handle the ball,” he said.

Young said Boylen informed him of the move at the morning shootaround.

“Set screens. Space around the 3-point line. There’s no real difference in playing small forward or playing power forward,” Young said. “For me, it was just going out there and playing some extended minutes and being able to be out there with Lauri and Wendell [Carter Jr.] at the same time. That was kind of different. I think we were fine. We were better as far as the defensive side and moving the basketball.

“But when you start shifting guys, it throws a lot of different things off for what we do as a team. This is very unusual territory when you start moving guys in and out of the lineup. It’s just one of those things we have to continue to figure out as we go.”

Ironically, Young’s camp expressing displeasure over his lack of playing time two weeks ago is what initially led to Boylen fielding questions about trying Young at small forward. Boylen downplayed those questions and gave no inkling Saturday’s change was coming.

Young scored 12 points in just over 27 minutes.

“Thad did a good job because he can guard multiple positions. He’s tough. He’s a vet. He knows exactly what he’s doing,” LaVine said. “It’s a new offense for him. It’s been a little tough for him. But he’s a dude who you love having on the team. You know what he brings. You know his mentality. He hit a big 3 and came up with some big stops and steals. I love having Thad out there.”

Markkanen’s ankle injury forced Boylen to bring Young back and also burn his final timeout after he used two in the third quarter because, in his words, he didn’t like the Bulls’ energy.

"We practice to not have timeouts,” Boylen said. “I'm not in fear mode that we don't have timeouts because we're prepared to not have them."

As for the rotation, be prepared for anything.

“I’ve been wrestling with it, thinking about it. We haven’t been able to practice [the shortened rotation] a whole bunch because of our practice time,” Boylen said. “I’m not going to say we’re going to do it every game. And I’m not going to say we’re not going to do it. I wanted to look at it. And I’m glad I did.”

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No, Zach LaVine wasn't ranting at Jim Boylen in latest viral video

No, Zach LaVine wasn't ranting at Jim Boylen in latest viral video

In the final moments of a hard-fought 124-122 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder Tuesday night, Zach LaVine was caught on camera saying something to the effect of, "I've got 40 [expletive] points."

LaVine has been broadcast multiple times this season appearing to exhibit expasperation over late-game timeouts called by Jim Boylen, so some segments of NBA Twitter took this as another show of frustration towards the Bulls' head coach. But it seems that's not the case.

According to reporting by Eric Woodyard of ESPN, LaVine was merely jawing back and forth with Thunder guard Dennis Schröder. Common practice in a closely-contested game.

The report quotes LaVine, himself.

"You get into the heat of the battle and between players when you guys are talking, you talk smack sometimes, right? And that's all it was," LaVine told Woodyard. "We were still down. Dude was talking a little mess to me and I just let him know 'Look, I've got 40, I don't know why you're talking to me.

"I don't know why they said they thought I was talking to Jim but it was just people being competitive in the game talking."

In the play following the clip, LaVine nailed a pull-up 3-pointer from the logo for his 41st points of the night. It was LaVine's sixth 40-point game of the season, but despite his brilliance, the Bulls dropped to 20-39 and 1-9 in their last ten games with the defeat. A tale as old as time.

It's obviously been an up-and-down season for the Bulls, but consider this 'controversy' dead on arrival.

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Why the Bulls' loss to the Thunder was a statistical anomaly

Why the Bulls' loss to the Thunder was a statistical anomaly

For myriad reasons, the Bulls’ 124-122 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder Tuesday night was something of an outlier. Zach LaVine and Coby White combined for 76 points, smashing records left and right along the way. The Bulls won the third quarter 38-19, a rarity for a team that entered the night 26th in the NBA in third-quarter point differential.

And, perhaps most jarringly, the Bulls attempted 18 NBA.com-defined midrange jumpers (anywhere between the paint and the rim), making 11 (61.1%) — by far the most they’ve taken and made in a game this season. 

The Bulls have rather famously spent the third year of their rebuild touting a new-look offensive system centered around a complete eschewing of the midrange zone and an added emphasis on 3-pointers and rim looks. They’re currently tied for first in the league in restricted area field goal attempts per game (33.6), ninth in 3-point attempts per game (35.2) and 26th in midrange attempts per game (7.3).

So, how much of an outlier was the Bulls’ 11-for-18 outing from midrange in the Thunder game? 

This season, the Bulls have taken 10 or more midrange jumpers in a game just 14 times, and before Tuesday, had never made more than five. Against the Thunder, 18% of the Bulls’ 122 points came via the midrange, compared to the team's season-long mark of 4.5% (26th in the NBA). The performance sets new  season-highs for makes and attempts from midrange for the Bulls (they've made exactly five midrange jumpers in six different games and attempted 14 once). And in 58 games prior to the Oklahoma CIty matchup, the Bulls hadn’t shot more than 50% on midrange jumpers while attempting more than nine in a game.

Zach LaVine and Coby White were the biggest benefactors of this anomaly. The two combined for 15 of the Bulls’ 18 attempts and 10 of their 11 makes from midrange, using them to key an improbable second half rally that ultimately fell short (the two went 7-for-10 from midrange between the third and fourth quarters).

“I had to take ’em,” said LaVine, who shot 6-for-9 from midrange and 19-for-35 from the field in the game. “I could tell my shot was short, I missed all my free throws. And I couldn’t get, on the 3, everything was short. So I just, for me personally, I knew what I had to do to help us. You know, just gotta adjust. I know how to adjust my game, I work on it. It might not be our system, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.”

This is not intended to paint a picture of strategic mutiny within the locker room — LaVine made that chide about the team’s ‘system’ good-naturedly. But it’s a fun statistical blip, and a reminder that even in the most progressive, regimented offensive infrastructures, there is room for nuance.

Take these two attempts as examples, one from LaVine and one from White. Both happen rather naturally in the flow of the offensive possession (though both are mid-shot-clock) and exploit sagging or backpedaling Thunder defenders.

Strictly by the numbers, neither LaVine nor White are eye-poppingly efficient from midrange. But if defenses are going to concede these types of looks often, it doesn’t hurt to mix a few in over the course of a game to keep opponents on their toes — especially if they’re hot. Both LaVine and White are clearly comfortable shooting from that area and have the lift to get clean shots off on occasion.

Of course, the Bulls aren’t going to change the way they play based on one torrid shooting night. They’re 29th in the league in shooting percentage on midrange looks (33.6%), even on low volume. But sometimes, when the game ebbs in a certain direction, you just have to roll with it. Head coach Jim Boylen acknowledged that point.

“I thought Zach made a couple midrange shots in that third quarter, he got his feet down and he took ‘em. I think Coby’s done a nice job of taking some of his midrange and turning them into assists,” Jim Boylen said. “A guy understanding where his efficient shots come from is part of the growth process. So we chart those things and we look at those things.

“I think it comes down to decisions and feel. You know, end of the clock, you gotta take a two you take it. What we don’t want is contested, mid-clock twos, those are — and we make some of them, everybody makes some of ‘em — but [limiting contested, midclock twos is] what we’re striving for.”

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