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Why the Bulls' interior help defense must improve

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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.

[RELATED: Butler takes on challenge of trying to overtake LeBron]

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.

How Coby White is putting it all together over most recent hot stretch

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USA Today

How Coby White is putting it all together over most recent hot stretch

The shots are starting to fall for Coby White. In seven February games, the Bulls freshly-turned 20-year-old is averaging 17.7 points, 4.4 assists and 3.9 rebounds per game while shooting 35.7% from 3-point range (eight attempts per). That’s good news for the Bulls. 

And better is that’s not all that’s going right for White. Yes, consecutive career-high 33-point games — something no rookie reserve has ever done — on cumulative 55% field goal shooting (12-for-22 from deep) will grab eyes, especially on the heels of a frigid stretch between the beginning of February and the All-Star break. But after Sunday’s losing-streak-snapping 126-117 win over Washington, Bulls coach Jim Boylen peeled back the layers of White’s growth.

“I think he's been aggressive in transition, I think his finishing has been terrific, he's had the ball up and out, he's got it out of his stomach, something he's working on,” Boylen said. “I think his work pre-practice, post-practice is paying off.”

And of White’s defense: “We make a defensive (film) edit on Coby after every game. And him and I watch it together… (Early in the season) he had, of his 14 plays on the tape, you know, seven of them were good and seven of them were bad. Now it's like 10 are good and four are bad. He's climbing in that way.

“What he's finding out is: If you get into the game defensively and you follow your assignment and all that, good things happen for you at the other end. It just does. And I think he's locked in that way.”

White’s restricted area finishing has steadily improved over the season (59.3% in February) — he’s getting to the rim and finishing through contact better than ever before (White’s seven free throw attempts versus the Wizards ties a season-high). In transition, he’s a blur running off live rebounds and steals, which could prove a boon for a Bulls team that lives in the fastbreak. His decision-making and ability to change speeds in the halfcourt stand out. Defensively, though not yet perfect, he’s staying more and more connected off-ball, rotating sharply and hunting loose ball recoveries.

If the jumpers are falling, gravy. But the game slowing down for White, and his confidence growing as a result, should excite the Bulls and their fans the most. White, for his part, has learned over the course of a curious rookie campaign to control what he can control.

“It feels good,” White said of his recent red-hot shooting. “But I think now I look at the game differently than I did at the beginning of the year. Now, I just look at the games like I'm gonna go in and play hard on both ends of the court, that's all I'm gonna do. And then control what I can control — I can't control whether I miss or make shots, so. I'm just going out there and playing hard.”

That comes from Boylen, who White lauded for pushing him to continue improving, especially defensively.

“Coach Boylen was preaching to me, you gotta play defense you gotta play defense, so I took it as a challenge. And I feel like I'm continuing to get better at it. I still can get better at it,” White said. “But he pushes me, he pushes me to be a good player, so I can't knock him for that and that's the type of coach I want.”

None of the above (nor Boylen’s unconditional trust in White) has culminated in his first career start, despite clamoring from some media and fans. But perhaps that’s OK. Boylen has often preached White’s increasing comfortability leading the Bulls’ second unit — even injury-ravaged — and that comfort is starting to show up on the floor and in the stat sheet. It speaks to the labeless approach the Bulls have taken to White’s development.

“We got a second group that's playing pretty good again, and we're also melding Coby into that first group at times in the game,” Boylen said when asked if starting White could be a possibility. “So, coming off two 33-point games, I don't know if it makes sense to [start him].”

To that point: White is still getting his fair share of minutes — he played 34 tonight and is averaging 30.6 in February — and a healthy amount of time on the floor staggered alongside Zach LaVine and Tomas Satoransky. White has also played valuable minutes down the stretch of games recently and his usage rate is up to 24.1% over his last seven games. Opportunity comes in many forms.

“I feel like I'm in a good position,” White said. “This year for me wasn't about starting, it wasn't about being this being that, it was just about me getting better over the season. That's the main thing in this league, you just keep getting better. You don't want to be a guy that just stays the same the whole time.”

White certainly hasn't. The overarching point is that nights like tonight (and Saturday against Phoenix) further emphasize how crucial his continued progression will be down the 25-game stretch of this ill-fated Bulls season — whatever form it takes. Talk of a playoff push has noticeably tempered around the United and Advocate Centers, but White’s been the center of plenty of conversations.

“You see how explosive he is,” said LaVine, who’s been highly complimentary of White all year. “Trying to figure out some nicknames for him. Either like propane or gasoline or something like that. His scoring is special. He can do it in a variety of ways. He's finding his rhythm. Kid's good. He's real good.”

If we land on a pseudonym by mid-April, it’d be a welcome sign.

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Bulls Outsiders Podcast: Coby White drops 33 in 2nd straight game

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NBC SPORTS CHICAGO

Bulls Outsiders Podcast: Coby White drops 33 in 2nd straight game

On this edition of the Bulls Outsiders Podcast, Matt Peck, David Watson and Allana Tachauer discuss Coby White becoming the first Bulls rookie since Michael Jordan to score 30+ points in back-to-back games; LaVine breaking the Bulls record for threes made in a single season; and Dwyane Wade's role in Derrick Jones Jr.'s controversial dunk contest victory.

0:40 - Allana's back and the Bulls losing streak is over

1:10 - White drops 33 points in second straight game

5:30 - Tomas Satoransky records team-high 13 assists

6:45 - Zach LaVine breaks Bulls single-season three-point record

8:35 - Bradley Beal scores 53 points and doesn't get victory

9:45 - Have injuries kept Bulls from reaching their full potential?

11:10 - Should Daniel Gafford start over Wendell Carter Jr.?

14:00 - Pros and cons of playing White and LaVine together

18:25 - Is LaVine in the Bulls long-term future?

20:50 - Injured Bulls look like boy band

22:45 - Did Wade rig dunk contest for Jones Jr.?

25:50 - Does Coby need to start?

Listen here or in the embedded player below.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Bulls easily on your device.