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Are the Bulls dead without Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose?

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Joakim Noah’s ankle sprain is expected to keep him out of Game 5 on Tuesday. (Landov)

We’ll never know if Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau did further damage to Joakim Noah’s ankle by reinserting him late in Game 3, when it was clear the center could barely jog, let alone box out Philadelphia’s Spencer Hawes for a 50-50 rebound. Noah missed Game 4, a third consecutive loss that left the Bulls trailing the first-round series 3-1, and now K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune reports that Noah is nearly certain to sit out the do-or-die Game 5 on Tuesday.

When Noah missed significant time because of a thumb injury last season, the Bulls felt his loss more on offense than on defense. That may be the case again now, though the Bulls’ defense may suffer a bit with the plodding Carlos Boozer forced into more minutes than usual. Still, the bigger issue for Chicago in this series is that it simply cannot score enough to win. Noah is not a great offensive player, and it’s tough to untangle his individual offensive impact because he and injured point guard Derrick Rose are so closely tethered in the Bulls’ rotation when both are healthy. Rose played about 80 percent of his minutes alongside Noah, and the Bulls outscored opponents by 250 points in their 1,079 minutes together, according to NBA.com. Those minutes composed only about one-third of Chicago’s season, and in the remaining two-thirds, the team outscored its opponents by about the same number of total points — 290, to be exact.

The 19 Chicago lineups that logged at least 10 minutes this season and included neither Rose nor Noah were a total of plus-165 over 702 minutes. But a deeper look is not so encouraging. A bunch of garbage-time lineups featuring the likes of Mike James and Brian Scalabrine blitzed opponents in short stretches that artificially inflate this plus/minus total. Seven of the 10 non-Noah/Rose units in question that logged more than 20 minutes scored at a rate that would have ranked 29th or 30th in the league, and the ones that were successful spent a huge chunk of their time going up against opposing bench units. They will face starter-quality opposition now.Another complicating factor: Boozer has played relatively few minutes with Taj Gibson or Omer Asik. And the time Boozer has shared with Asik, who brings zero range and unproven passing ability, has been horrid for Chicago. The Bulls managed only 94.9 points per 100 possessions in those 149 minutes, a scoring rate that would have beaten out only the historically awful Bobcats this season.

Again, it’s tough to isolate Noah’s contributions on offense, but he’s a more natural player from the elbow areas than  Gibson or Asik. Noah is a gifted passer from there, and he can work from the outside-in as a cutter, pick-and-roll finisher or even via the occasional running hook shot off the dribble. He and Boozer work well together to space the floor, and their chemistry was a key reason Chicago’s offense stayed afloat this season without Rose, scoring at a league-average rate when the reigning MVP sat.

That kind of spacing has been difficult to come by in this series, and especially in Game 4, with Noah sidelined. The Sixers have more or less contained those plays on which Richard Hamilton and Kyle Korver run off screens by having the big man guarding the final screener jump off early to trap Hamilton aggressively. The traps have prevented Hamilton from making the easy pass to the screener, often open along the baseline, and when Hamilton has managed that dish, the Bulls’ backup big men just haven’t been as at ease as Noah working in space.

The Bulls have tried lots of other things to manufacture offense in Rose’s absence, but few have worked. They’ve run Boozer through several different kinds of cross screens under the hoop and even tried a play similar to one Minnesota runs for Kevin Love, in which Boozer sets a high screen for Chicago’s point guard and then darts down to the block around another screen or two in the middle of the floor. They’ve run Luol Deng on his usual curl plays and stretched the playbook to create space on the pick-and-roll. They had some success, in fact, running repeated C.J. Watson/Boozer pick-and-rolls with a particular floor configuration late in Game 4:

This play works because the Bulls have a precise group of players stationed in a precise set of places, and because Evan Turner, hounding Watson all series, was out with foul trouble. Korver is up top, the closest  perimeter player to the pick-and-roll, and no sane defense is helping off him. It might help off Deng, a so-so three-point shooter even from his favorite locations, but Thibodeau has smartly stationed him in the right corner, as far from the action as possible. That leaves only the man guarding Gibson, who parks himself near the rim, far from Watson’s sweet spot.

But the Sixers quickly adjusted, and on the play Chicago fans will rant about for a long time, the fragile spacing vanished:

The Sixers here basically force Watson to pass to Boozer by having Watson’s defender, Jrue Holiday, jump in front of Boozer’s screen before Watson can even get to it. And once Boozer gets the ball in the lane, space closes immediately because Hawes is already right there with Gibson. Boozer has never been a great finisher, and if teams can add to the degree of difficulty on the finish, this is what happens.

And it happened the entire game. Philadelphia just had arms and bodies everywhere within 15 feet of the hoop, where Chicago generally operates. The Bulls are shooting just 49 percent from the restricted area in this series after hitting 58 percent in the regular season. They also are taking a much higher percentage of their shots in the area of the paint between the block/charge circle and the foul line — one of the lowest-percentage areas on the court, per NBA.com.

What can Chicago do? Continue to stretch the playbook, for one. The late-game pick-and-roll sets worked well for a bit, and this play from the late-second quarter was a nice way of using the entire width of court to manufacture spacing:

There are surely lots of other things Chicago’s top-of-the-line brain trust can conjure.

The Bulls also might think about going small, with Deng at power forward, at least for short stretches. That goes against Chicago’s entire identity as a behemoth offensive rebounding machine, but a big chunk of that identity left with Noah. Thibodeau went this way briefly when Game 2 was getting away from Chicago, and the Bulls had success with Deng at power forward early last season, when Noah was injured. Deng should be able to handle Thaddeus Young when Philadelphia plays its own style of small ball, though Young has gotten much better as a post player; that lefty hook has become a very effective shot.

Playing Deng at the “four” also offers the hope of goosing the offense by stacking the lineup with wing players and potentially helping the defense by making Boozer’s scoring less essential. The limitations of Gibson and Asik might not be as damaging if one of them is the only big man on the floor. It might also offer one way to avoid using the Boozer/Asik combination that has failed so badly.

Coaching from the couch is easy. Thibodeau knows his team a hundred times better than any of us, and he will find ways to maximize whatever talent he has. And you know this team will bring it defensively. Philadelphia will too, and that’s where things get tough for Chicago.

  • Published On 1:19pm, May 07, 2012
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