NBA Basketball Column: Free Throws
Ride with the Bulls
Most were wrong.
Coach Tom Thibodeau deserves a ton of credit for leading his team to a 29-18 record, good enough for third in the East. For two decades as an assistant coach, he specialized in defensive strategy, and his philosophies have transferred over to the Bulls. Chicago allows the second-lowest field goal percentage, third fewest points per game, and ranks in the top three in just about all other defensive categories. It should be no surprise that Chicago has maintained its defensive dominance without Rose, since the superstar has never been known for his lock-down D.
One such lock-down defender is Luol Deng, who's performing brilliantly on both ends of the court. Every night he guards the opposing team's best player, and still pours in 17 points, seven rebounds and three assists per game. The one troubling figure in his stat line should be noted - he averages a league-leading 40 minutes per game. Deng has missed the last few games with a hamstring issue and has a history of injury, so Thibodeau ought to monitor his playing time closely when he returns.
The next most valuable piece is the outspoken and first-time All Star, Joakim Noah. I'd guess Noah is Thibodeau's favourite player to coach because the man plays with huge, but controlled intensity. There isn't a player who gets more out of such a limited skill set (observe his form on his jumpshot; it is cringe-worthy). Noah averages 11 PPG, mostly off lay-ups and dunks, which he gets through sharp cuts, offensive rebounds, and athleticism. He pulls down 11 rebounds per game, four offensive, so he creates extra possessions - critical for a below average offensive team. Rounding out his statline Noah puts up two blocks and a steal every night. Outside of the stats, he hounds opposing forwards on the defensive end, and with his speed guards the pick and roll beautifully. If Noah is forced to switch onto a guard as a result of the pick and roll, he's so quick laterally that the defense isn't really at a disadvantage.
Dominant offensive players, which Noah clearly is not, are generally annointed All Stars. Therefore Noah must be damn effective defensively to get the All Star nod.
The other half of the Bulls starting frontcourt - Carlos Boozer - has also made a big impact. Often maligned for disappearing in the playoffs - he's shot 43% from the field in the post season for Chicago - his regular season contributions this year cannot be denied. Not only is he putting up 16 points and 10 boards per game, but he's doing it in only 31 minutes - highly efficient. Also it seems that every game Boozer has a highlight reel dunk as part of his point total, which signifies an extra intensity and focus that his coach surely appreciates.
The rest of the roster looked highly suspect heading into the season. Inconsistent score-first guards like Marco Belinelli, Nate Robinson and Vladimir Radmanovic were added. Richard Hamilton and Kirk Heinrich appeared to be on the steep decline (the former still is). Some guy named Jimmy Butler was supposed to contribute to the team. The only steady bench player left from last year was Taj Gibson.
But it's all come together. Belinelli, though shooting 39% for the season, has hit key shots. Robinson's unbridled energy off the bench has created 12 points off a palatable 43% from the field, along with four assists. Gibson puts in his reliable seven points and five rebounds per game in a minimal 20 minutes a night. And Butler adds another seven PPG off 50% shooting.
Hardly impressive stats, but like I said, it's all come together - on defence. Every player has bought into Thibodeau's defense-first mentality, and it's a good thing, since they have no one who can create their own shot, and no great outside shooting.
Head coaches often get too much credit or blame for their teams successes and failures respectively. The NBA is a superstar-driven league, where if you don't have one, you don't win come playoff time. Coaches can't control whether they have a superstar on their roster, but Tom Thibodeau can control the intensity and effectiveness of his defense. He deserves recognition for his team far exceeding expectation.
While the Bulls are desparately hoping Rose returns with enough time left in the regular season to get his rhythm back before the first round, their D will allow them to compete with anyone in the East.
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