Even in the course of watching hundreds of games that bleed into one another, certain random possessions stick in your memory: Draymond Green throwing an extra pass that defines the Warriors, Ricky Rubio hitting Kevin Garnett for a midrange jumper that links generations, some gorgeous piece of Atlanta ball movement in the second quarter of a February game.
I was sitting on the floor of Los Angeles International Airport in November, waiting for my flight and busting through a Bulls-Raptors game, when I saw this:
I haven’t been able to get it out of my head since. The end result isn’t all that great — a semi-contested corner 3 from a below-average 3-point shooter. But it represented the possibility of what these Chicago Bulls might become.
Look at all the options the Bulls tick through in just a few seconds. Jimmy Butler sets a cross screen under the rim for Pau Gasol, designed to spring Gasol for a post-up — option no. 1. That flows right into option no. 2: Butler making a flex cut, popping out behind a Joakim Noah screen, catching the ball, and transitioning right into a pick-and-roll with the Bulls’ spiritual keystone.
Butler drives to his right, which forces Terrence Ross, guarding Derrick Rose along the left wing, to sink in and bump Noah in the lane. Turns out, that bit of help is what the Bulls have been meaning to pounce upon all along. Gasol slides into position on the left block, catches the entry pass from Butler, and immediately swings the ball to Rose — all while Ross is still tangled with Noah at the basket.1
This is known as “shorting” a pick-and-roll.
These Bulls were still learning each other. They weren’t yet well-versed in all the options on this play — when to lean on each of them, and the timing in which they should flow into each other. It was fun imagining how dangerous the Bulls could be once they grew together.
Chicago ranked fifth in points per possession in 2011-12, the best mark of the Tom Thibodeau era, during which ferocious defenses have mostly carried middling offenses. Rose missed more than a third of that season with various injuries, but Chicago secured the no. 1 seed in the East and seemed poised to bring an elite two-way team into an Eastern Conference finals rematch with the Hollywood as Hell Heat.
We all know what happened the day those playoffs started for Chicago. Rose tore his ACL at the end of Game 1 against Philadelphia, with the Bulls comfortably ahead, and the franchise has never been the same. Think of all that has taken place since:
• Rose missed all of 2012-13, came back, tore his meniscus twice, and looked mostly like a broken player.
• The Bulls gradually sloughed away parts of their core. Omer Asik and Kyle Korver left in cost-cutting moves, and the team traded Luol Deng, its iron man, for draft picks and cap relief — a good trade that nonetheless sapped morale.
• The team’s medical history got uglier. Deng had multiple conflicts with Chicago’s doctors, a slow boil that erupted in 2013, when the Bulls publicly downplayed what turned out to be a serious illness and then botched a spinal tap. Asik tried to play on a broken leg, Taj Gibson limped around on a busted ankle, and it seemed at times like Butler might never come out of a game again.
• The minutes issue drove a well-documented wedge between Thibodeau and the front office. There were playing time edicts, a mysterious yoga instructor who suddenly had a ton of say-so over playing time, the bitter firing of genius assistant Ron Adams, a contract extension that sat unsigned, and endless rumors of a cold war. Somehow, grown men who work at finding ways to put an orange sphere through a circle proved unable to have a prolonged civil dialogue over mundane basketball issues.
People close to Thibodeau are convinced the Bulls will fire him after this season, though the front office has always played down the tiff in terse public statements.
The Bulls, true grinders, trudged on. They gutted through first-round playoff series with rosters that had no chance to go further. They were temporarily inspirational. You adored them in the moment, like when they outworked a soft Brooklyn team on the road in Game 7, but when you sat back and thought about the big picture, they were just sad. We lament the Thunder as a potential lost dynasty. The Bulls are the Eastern Conference version.
They made the conference finals in 2011, Thibodeau’s first year, and pushed the debut LeBron-era Heat team in a five-game series that was more competitive than the 4-1 result would suggest. Gibson screamed and dunked his way onto the national radar, and it took a bunch of stagnant LeBron and Dwyane Wade jumpers to put away the Bulls in close games.
It looked like a rivalry we’d see over and over. Noah hated the Heat, trash-talking them during and after games. Chris Bosh cried once after Chicago brutalized Miami in the regular season. It was perfect.
Chicago has never gotten so far again. That’s why one possession from a meaningless early-season game in Canada stood out so much at the time. The Bulls had a chance to score points again, and in new ways. Gasol was a post threat who could ping-pong passes with Noah, Butler was ready to take on a more ball-dominant role, and Rose could ease back in as something less than a superstar. He could take the wheel when needed, drive more off the catch, and create three or four transition chances that wouldn’t materialize in any other way — easy points that could swing a game in May.
And then, because these are the Bulls, everything fell apart. Rose got hurt again, Noah and Gasol struggled to mesh, Doug McDermott contributed nothing, and the glut of frontcourt talent made it hard for Thibodeau to find Nikola Mirotic enough minutes at power forward. The last season of the Thibodeau era was sputtering away.
That’s why Chicago’s 3-0 lead on the Bucks is so exciting: Rose has looked almost like his old self at times. The Bulls overall have looked ragged, but they’ve been electric with Rose on the floor. They’ve scored 111.5 points per 100 possessions against Milwaukee’s second-ranked defense with Rose playing, a mark that would have outranked every team offense, per NBA.com.
He’s pushed the pace off misses, generating easy points that can compensate for all the times when Chicago’s offense slows to a slog:
The Bucks have had Ersan Ilyasova and Giannis Antetokounmpo leap out hard on Rose-Noah pick-and-rolls, and Rose has looked both explosive and slithery splitting defenders and getting into the lane:
Rose has forced some shots — every star ball handler does — but he’s mostly shown good judgment in taking what the Bucks’ defensive scheme gives. Rose doesn’t need to try those high-risk splits every time. He’s happy to draw out the trap, hit Noah open on the roll, and let the big fella work a 4-on-3:
He’s also shown keen passing vision from inside the lane. Look at this bullet to Mike Dunleavy Jr.:
The Bucks probably don’t need to attack Rose/Noah pick-and-rolls so aggressively; the combination doesn’t feature enough shooting to justify the mad rush. But this is how the Bucks play. They hit first, confident all those long arms behind the play can scramble around and force the Bulls into third, fourth, and fifth options as the shot clock dwindles.
Milwaukee in the overtimes Thursday started playing a more conservative style on Rose wing pick-and-rolls, directing him toward the sideline, but Rose eventually got around it:
Not everything is rosy. Rose is still taking too many long jumpers, and a lot of the pull-ups he made in Games 1 and 3 — including a ridiculous bank job Thursday night — just aren’t sustainable. The Bulls offense has died with reserve-heavy units, and even the “A” lineups laze through way too many possessions in which nothing of substance happens. The Bulls walk the ball up, spend eons trying to enter it to Gasol or Gibson in the post, and don’t really have a backup plan in case some defender dares deny a passing lane:
This stuff just won’t cut it against the best teams:
Noah can’t jump, or finish anything at the rim. Smart teams abandon him at the elbow, inviting him to hoist, and Chicago doesn’t have enough perimeter shooting to punish opponents for that.2 Kirk Hinrich is back to ruin everything. Milwaukee has largely neutralized Gasol’s post game with hard double-teams, and the Bulls haven’t been able to swing the ball for open jumpers consistently enough. Michael Carter-Williams and Jerryd “Long 2” Bayless are ignoring Rose away from the ball, making it harder for the Bulls to attack elsewhere:
If teams try this against, say, Andrew Bogut, he can just run a dribble handoff with one of the Splash Brothers. If Bogut’s guy is someplace else, the Splash Brother will have a clean shot if Bogut’s pick hits flush.
Rose has been uneven on defense — stout against the Carter-Williams post-ups that have become a Milwaukee staple, but confused and aimless away from the ball. Mirotic can unclog Chicago’s spacing at power forward, but Thibodeau has played him almost exclusively on the wing unless another Chicago big is in foul trouble. He’s also hurt, because, duh, these are the Bulls. Chicago will need him to loosen the offense at some point.
Look how much more room Noah has with Mirotic dragging an opposing big man to the 3-point arc:
Mirotic’s shooting is dangerous enough to draw a third defender on pick-and-pops, and Butler especially has become smart about using that opening to cut toward the rim:
Still, things are fine — for now. Rose is back, and the Bulls are starting over again. They’re up 3-0, with time to finish the feeling-out process that began on possessions like that one in Toronto a gazillion games ago. Just starting that journey with Rose again gives hope they might finish it, or at least get far enough along to challenge the Cavaliers.
Because there he is again: LeBron, the reviled (in Chicago) King, with Uncle Drew and a starry big man from UCLA who has shown only intermittent interest, even during these playoffs, in the grime of defense. (Kevin Love is killing it from deep, though, and the Cavs have used him well as a pick-and-roll screener against Boston.) Four years later, and one round sooner, it’s likely that a Chicago team with a semi-healthy Derrick Rose will get another chance to vanquish an old foe. It might be their last one under Thibodeau. All we can ask for, after so much trauma, is to see these guys give one honest go of it.
Some quick notes on Spurs-Clips — the only series that matters at this point after the Warriors’ miracle at Smoothie King Center:
• On offense, the Spurs don’t adjust so much as lean more or less on one of the many options that spring up organically in their side-to-side system. One thing they did in Game 2 — have the second big man set a flare screen on the weak side — caught the Clippers by surprise during classic San Antonio side pick-and-rolls. Watch Boris Diaw on the left wing as Patty Mills and Tiago Splitter run a pick-and-roll on the right side:
Diaw in that situation would normally flash into the paint to make himself a target for Mills — and perhaps trigger one of those Spursian big-to-big passing sequences in which the ball zips from Mills to Diaw to Splitter.
But the guy in Diaw’s spot here always has the option to set that back screen instead, and it proved especially effective against a Clippers defense always leaning toward the on-ball action:
• Danny Green did well on Chris Paul in Game 2, and depending on San Antonio’s point guard rotation, I’d expect to see Green on Paul even more tonight. Kawhi Leonard can do the job better, but he’s swallowing up J.J. Redick off the ball, and the Spurs like that Leonard-Redick matchup. Cory Joseph is a potential wild card, especially if Tony Parker can’t go.
• The first half of Game 1 proved how much San Antonio needs Splitter to hound Blake Griffin on defense and keep the offense flowing with interior passes. Aron Baynes just isn’t up to it under the kind of duress the Clippers present, and Diaw can log only so many minutes.
• Speaking of Diaw: As complex as basketball can be, it sometimes feels as if a close series will come down to which ignored role player starts hitting jumpers first. The Spurs, like most teams, are leaning away from Matt Barnes, and the Clippers have smartly dropped away from Diaw on a lot of pick-and-roll action.
Diaw shot just 32 percent from deep this season, and he has looked reluctant at times to let it fly.
• The Spurs started switching a bit more than usual on Clippers screening action, a mark of respect for how viciously the Clips can slice through any opening once teams start rotating on Paul pick-and-rolls. It was a hit-or-miss strategy, one that can leave Parker checking Griffin on the block — forcing all kinds of emergency help.
Having Leonard guard Paul can ease that a bit, since Leonard can switch onto Griffin and at least hold his own — especially by using his speed and octopus arms to deny entry passes to the post.
The Spurs did this a lot on those jumbo pick-and-rolls in which Griffin and Jordan screened for Paul at the same time. Those are brutal to defend, and the Clips have used them a lot when Leonard is on Paul.
• I let out a little yelp when the Spurs, in a glorious bit of crunch-time frivolity, totally fooled the Clippers with this Leonard back cut:
That’s Manu Ginobili’s move! Ginobili has been clowning people for years with that little cut. It’s fun to watch Leonard absorb all of these Spursy quirks.
• The Clips could try to post up Barnes if the Spurs hide Parker (or Mills) on him. It’s risky abandoning your (very effective) base offense to chase a mismatch with a player who doesn’t work the block much, but in a game of 90-plus possessions, I’d try it once or twice just to see what happens.
• The Spurs also experimented with a Diaw–Tim Duncan pick-and-roll, which is delightful. It drew some switches, and though those switches don’t produce any bad matchups for the Clippers, Duncan is more comfortable posting up against Griffin than against Jordan.
• I won an auction for an autographed Duncan photo on eBay in 1998, when I was in college. It’s now 2015. The Spurs are playing through Duncan post-ups in borderline must-win playoff games. What planet is this?
• I still think the Clippers will, and should, try Spencer Hawes at some point in this series. He can do so much for their spacing. It’s truly amazing the Clippers are trying to win a title with six competent NBA players. It’s possible Doc Rivers shouldn’t be an NBA general manager.
• Fatigue looms as a potential issue, even with all the off days. The Spurs are exhausting to defend, and the Clippers play an exhausting defensive system — a deadly combination. It could have contributed to Griffin’s late turnovers in Game 2, and it represents a major edge for a deep Spurs team — even one that might not be as deep anymore, with Parker and Splitter hurting.
Enjoy the games, everyone.