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.
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.
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.
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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.