Posted May 20 2011 11:37AM
DEERFIELD, Ill. -- It seemed, at the time, to be merely some post-practice hi jinks, Chicago Bulls deep-deep reserve John Lucas III playing a little 1-on-1 the other day with Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen.
Pippen, in street clothes and sneakers, had a smile on his face throughout as Lucas, at 5-foot-11 giving up eight or nine inches in the matchup, buzzed about the Bulls legend. But a telling spot of sweat, small at first but growing bigger by the second, appeared between Pippen's shoulder blades on his dress shirt, tails hanging loose from his jeans, as he started to take the friendly competition more seriously.
Pippen drained jumper after jumper with that little hop and straight-up-and-down shooting form of his. And looking not a pound heavier than his playing weight of 210, with no visible gray in his hair at age 45, Pippen looked like he could step into a swingman role tomorrow for his former team.
Uh, don't get your hopes up, Chicago faithful. It's been more than seven years (and three months, two weeks and four days, as of May 20) since Pippen -- a Bulls "ambassador" these days -- last participated in an NBA game.
That the Bulls and their fans might wish that Pippen and his 17.5 ppg playoff scoring average could ride to their rescue in the Eastern Conference finals is perfectly understandable, though.
Swap Pippen in for just about any Bull besides Derrick Rose in Game 2 and Chicago probably is looking at a different outcome. Even Luol Deng, who scored 13 points to rank second behind Rose's 21, needed 15 shots to hit five -- and didn't have as much success in thwarting his man, LeBron James (29 points), as the lockdown-defender Pippen might have.
But to flex a popular NBA saying (thanks, Rick Pitino!), Pippen isn't walking through that door -- well, at least not as an option for Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau. The answers -- or not -- to the Bulls' dreadful offensive performance in losing both their 1-0 edge in the best-of-seven and home-court advantage in the series will have to come from other sources.
One of those, the Heat defense, the Bulls will have little control over in Game 3 Sunday night or thereafter. Oh, they can try to push the pace when they rebound a Miami miss, hurry upcourt a little to fully utilize Rose's speed before the home team gets set. But the Heat dialed up their effort from Game 1 to Game 2 and, rewarded, aren't likely to dial it back now.
"Their defense was outstanding," Thibodeau said after the game. "I thought they were into us. They fought us. Their ball pressure was great. They challenged shots. And then when the ball was up on the board, they were in the fight."
That leaves the Chicago side, where the Bulls were across-the-board bad Sunday. They shot 34.1 percent, scored a playoffs-low (by nine!) 75 points and managed only 28 field goals on 82 attempts. That included 3-of-20 from the arc. Then there was their 16-of-26 showing at the foul line. Ugly, ugly and ugly.
Let's put it this way: If an NBA team is going to miss 54 shots in a game, it had better be making at least 36 field goals. That would be a 40.0 percent success rate. If it's going to miss 17 3-pointers, it had better be making eight or nine. If it's going to miss 10 free throws, it had better be making 30 or so.
Had the Bulls done any one of those things in Game 2 -- all reasonable or even low expectations based on NBA historical data -- they would be taking their talents and a 2-0 lead in the series to South Beach. Eight more field goals, five more 3-pointers or 14 more free throws all, by themselves, would have made up the 10-point difference.
Rose mostly blamed himself, as he is wont to do in MVP fashion. As the focal point of Heat coach Erik Spoelstra's defense, the Bulls point guard shot 7-of-23 and was 0-of-3 from the arc. Most conspicuously, the vexing, contorting layups with which he normally torments opponents' interior defense were lacking, bouncing off harmlessly or missing entirely. That is when he managed to shake Miami's traps and double-teams to even find a seam in the lane.
"We tried different bodies on him all night," Dwyane Wade said. "Mario [Chalmers], myself, Mike [Miller] all had him. We made it tough for him when he got the ball."
Said Rose: "If anything, they closed down the lane. But I missed a lot of layups, shots that I normally hit. They just weren't falling."
Neither were his teammates'. Deng, Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver, Joakim Noah and even Keith Bogans, like Rose, all were held below their playoff averages through the first 12 games. Add them up -- Deng -4.1, Boozer -5.0, Korver -4.4, Noah -0.8, Bogans -0.2 -- and Rose (-.7.8) could have been right on his previous number and the Bulls still would have lost. Certainly, the minuses swamped Taj Gibson's (+1.7) and Ronnie Brewer's (+4.0) modest bumps from average.
There are a things going on in Miami's defensive approach now. Choking off Rose is job No. 1, of course. But in clogging the lane, the Heat make it harder on Boozer and Noah as well. Deng, perhaps to make LeBron James work at the defensive end, has been trying to create off the dribble more than we've seen all season. But it's not his strong suit -- he is better when cutting without the ball, when curling out to find a neglected spot on the arc. And don't forget, three of Deng's 13 points came on that plucky but lucky fling from 50 feet to close the first quarter.
Korver's lack of quickness on defense makes him a risky proposition even when his 3-pointers aren't rimming out, as a couple did Sunday. But Thibodeau knows he needs scoring from some place, so there was no quick hook like Korver got in Game 5 vs. Atlanta (4:18, 0-of-0). As for Bogans, his nightly allotment of two 3-pointers to the Bulls' cause figured to slip given his defensive to-do list against Wade.
Rose, after the clunker, said the Bulls lost because of their "intensity and defense." But it wasn't true -- if you can't win a game, even a playoff game, when holding the other guys to 85 points, you are in trouble. Chicago lost because of concentration, because it didn't attend to details and because its shooting, in every permutation, was off. Way off.
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