Talkin’ That Bull: Defensive Woes Cutting Into New Year’s Celebration

Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images Pau Gasol celebrates a basket during his career-high 46-point performance Saturday against Milwaukee, one of the few positive games for the Bulls this past week.

Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images
Pau Gasol celebrates a basket during his career-high 46-point performance Saturday against Milwaukee, one of the few positive games for the Bulls in January so far.

Michael Walton II writes about the Chicago Bulls and the NBA for We Are Regal Radio.

Michael is a student, freelance writer and high school basketball scout based in Chicago. He’s previously been published in TrueStar Magazine, the Redeye Chicago and thelyricallab.com.

Kicked off by their New Year’s Day win over Denver, the Chicago Bulls started 2015 with a nice three-game winning streak in which they averaged 109.6 points per, and then the hangover came.

Since beating Houston on Jan. 5, the Bulls have lost three of four games including completely unexplainable dropped games at home against the Utah Jazz and the Orlando Magic. The Bulls gave up season highs at the half (63) and overall (121) to the 27th ranked scoring team in the NBA on Monday.

Some of the Bulls’ mojo came back in a win Saturday over the Milwaukee Bucks in which Pau Gasol made some MVP noise with a ruthless 46-point, 18-rebound performance. The Bulls’ most pressing issue at this point in the regular season is one that they should be quite familiar with — they just do not show enough effort and energy against inferior teams. Seven of the team’s 13 losses are to below-.500 teams and four of those losses have come at home.

In highlighting two of Chicago’s losses last week — Wednesday’s 97-77 defeat to the Jazz and a 106-86 defeat two days later at the hands of John Wall and the Washington Wizards — we see the Bulls shooting on average 35 percent from the field. Likely this has something to do with Derrick Rose’s recent shooting slump, but mostly it is due to the team’s lack of energy on-court.

The Bulls’ regular season goal should be to make sure the road to the NBA Finals runs through Chicago, to do that they are going to have to catch up to the red-hot Atlanta Hawks, who have embraced coach Mike Budenholzer’s grand plan to make the Hawks into “Spurs East.” The Hawks have the third best three-point percentage in the NBA and their ball-movement is impeccable, but the key for Atlanta has been succeeding more than anyone could have imagined at the defensive end. And that is where the Bulls falter.

Monday night the Bulls allowed the Orlando Magic shoot 59% from the field and predictably, lost the game. No one player or position group was at fault either, this was an all-around poor defensive showing. Out of Orlando’s back-court Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton combined for 43 points and nine assists while emerging center Nikola Vucevic had 33 points and 11 rebounds and one nasty dunk on Gasol.

While the Bulls have shocked the league by having one of its best offenses this season, their defense has been only above average, which sounds nice but is cause for concern when you consider that the Bulls have been a top-five defense every year under Tom Thibodeau. Currently Chicago has a top-15 defense, giving up 99.1 points a game, last season it lead the league by giving up only 91.8 per.

And for all the talk of the Bulls depth, they still seem rotation-wise to be a big man short of fielding an elite defense. Joakim Noah is the only true center on the roster and his nagging injuries and knee surgery recovery have limited his post-defense effectiveness. With bruising post presences like Vucevic and the Utah Jazz’s Derrick Favors roughing up the Bulls’ withering Twin Towers (Noah and Gasol), the Bulls simply don’t have enough stoppers in the paint.

Taj Gibson is more than happy to do his share of the dirty work down low, but at his height and weight (6-foot-9, 225 pounds) he has no chance against bulkier players. If Thibs doesn’t plan on using Nazr Mohammed or Cameron Bairstow at all the Bulls need to work out some sort of deal before the trade deadline that would bring them a strong back-up center who can provide at least the slightest hint of rim protection.

Over their next three games against the Wizards, Celtics and Hawks, the Bulls will see a bunch of power forwards and centers who can score on teams in a multitude of ways. To win all three of these games the Bulls will need to commit to protecting the painted area and staying focused no matter the competition level, the latter issue will come to light once again Friday against the 13-win Celtics.

Bulls-Wizards Preview (Tonight, 7 pm, ESPN & CSN-Chicago)

But before the trap game in Boston there’s tonight’s nationally-televised showdown against the team that seems to relish beating the Bulls more than any of their other Eastern Conference rivals. This is a game Bulls fans should be amped for, John Wall celebrated a little too hard after the Wizards walloped the Bulls 106-82 last Friday.

In that most recent matchup in Washington, the Bulls missed 20 of their first 24 shots and were down 30-10 quickly. The Bulls biggest lead in the game was two points, proof that the Wizards controlled this game from start to finish.

As I mentioned above, Chicago fails at defending strong centers and Marcin Gortat finished with 21 points and 13 rebounds Friday, but if the Bulls plan to beat this Wizards team tonight and in the postseason they have to limit the effectiveness of John Wall. And to limit the effectiveness of the NBA’s assists per game leader, Rose and company will need to play the pick and roll better.

Thibodeau’s “ICE” concept is solid, but when Rose forces John Wall baseline into a paint defender, the Bulls rotations on the back end have to be solid. While the Bulls’ defense is built to give up the least efficient shot in basketball, Wizards coach Randy Wittman’s offense simply feasts on the mid-range shot.

The Wizards are one of the top-10 teams in the league in both assists per game and points allowed. This shows that they emphasize two of the most important things in basketball: sharing the ball on offense and playing tough defense. The Wizards don’t shoot many three point shots (second to last in the league in three-point attempts per game), which is unusual for a modern NBA team, but they capitalize by making the most of their opportunities when they do go long-range. In fact, Washington currently leads the league in three-point field goal percentage at 39.4%.

In the Bulls’ last game with the Wizards, Washington shot 53% from deep with Paul Pierce, Bradley Beal and a rejuvenated Rasual Butler getting more than their fair share of in-rhythm jumpers.

As the Wizards go for their fifth victory in a row at the United Center it will be on the Chicago defense to carry them in this game, a statement can definitely be made in this game for their continued reputation as one of the league’s best units. If the Bulls can close out on shooters and give the Wiz a healthy dose of Gasol mixed in with a little D-Rose 4th quarter magic, I expect them to win this game.

SIDEBAR ALERT: Let’s Have a Real Gasol MVP Conversation

ESPN recently had an interesting graphic on their website showing that Pau Gasol and his MVP candidate brother Marc Gasol have almost identical stats this season, yet Marc is the guy generating all the MVP buzz.

Though Marc is clearly in the tougher conference, Pau came over to a new team at 34 years old and has a signature, career high scoring performance on his record after Saturday. Pau is averaging career-highs in both rebounds and blocks and has shown an ability to have a renewed effort on defense at his advanced age is certainly impressive.

If Pau can keep up his current averages throughout the season then I really see no reason he shouldn’t win Most Valuable Player. The Bulls are still very much in the hunt for a No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and the older Gasol’s consistent play has been the main reason why.

Follow Regal Radio on Twitter @regalradio1 and on Facebook under Regal Radio; follow Michael on Twitter @ZenMasterMike

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