Pippen: Bulls' D the key in the postseason
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It was an incredible regular season for the Chicago Bulls, winning 62 games and claiming home-court advantage throughout the entire 2011 NBA Playoffs.
Derrick Rose is the obvious choice for league MVP and Tom Thibodeau has made his case for Coach of the Year. Luol Deng has had by far his best professional season, playing all 82 games and establishing himself as an elite defensive player.
But when the postseason gets underway this weekend, none of that matters because the Bulls, along with the other 15 teams, will be starting from scratch. You can’t take any of the wins or accolades with you into the playoffs.
Chicago will open its run against the eighth-seeded Indiana Pacers, a team it defeated three out of four times this season. The key for the Bulls this series, and the entire playoffs for that matter, is to continue to be very strong defensively. That is the true identity of the Bulls, and when they are playing well on that end of the floor, they are going to be tough to beat.
Sometimes teams get caught up and look back on what they’ve accomplished during the regular season, but this is no time to get complacent and I certainly don’t think that will be the case with the Bulls. Rather, they need to focus on what got them to this point and made them the best team in the NBA. It wasn’t a story of the Bulls running and gunning as they outscored everyone in the league. They won games collectively as a team and defense has been the key.
Others will attempt to match Chicago’s defense in the postseason, as teams tend to turn up the intensity on that end of the floor in the playoffs. But whether they can match what the Bulls have achieved over the course of 82 games is another story. It’s not like flipping a switch where teams all of a sudden become better defensively because of their effort. It’s not that easy. The Bulls have worked all season long to create that chemistry and it will pay big dividends because it shifts to more of a defensive game in the postseason. Coaching staffs are able to focus in on one team and individual players, even specific plays. Everything that your team does is magnified and dissected by your opponents, so having that defensive presence already in place will be a big advantage for the Bulls.
Along with Derrick Rose, Luol Deng is one of the guys I believe has spearheaded this team this season. Between the two of them, they only missed one game this season. Without their durability and consistency, it’s tough to imagine the Bulls having this kind of success. Both players have come a long way defensively and I expect Deng, specifically, to start to be recognized for that. He’s a defensive standout on a very good defensive team. He’s definitely got my vote to be on the NBA’s All-Defensive first team. Rose has grown and made a lot of strides in that area too. It’s generally true that most teams’ success has a direct correlation on how well their best player plays. Obviously, Derrick is as talented as they come offensively, but his effort on defense has also helped get his teammates going. When you see that your leader is putting out that kind of effort, everyone else must follow.
Limiting turnovers in the postseason is crucial as well. Too many turnovers this time of year can cost a team a game. The games tend to shorten up in terms of the momentum—runs and things of that nature with a lot of timeouts—so you have to control the basketball. Taking good shots and sharing the ball are things that this team has done all season long.
A younger team like Indiana is going to want to get out and run. Danny Granger is their leader at 20.5 points per game, but Tyler Hansbrough’s game has really emerged as of late and he can be a handful. He’s one of those players who has not played enough in the league yet for the opposition to figure out. He’s had some big games here and there, but hasn’t been overly consistent.
The big story out of Indiana heading in to the playoffs is that Granger made comments about how they’d rather face Chicago instead of Boston and that stopping Rose will mean stopping the Bulls. But it is probably true to some degree. He was pointing out this team’s inexperience as much as anything, so you can understand why they may not want to go up against a group like the Celtics. While the Heat’s core has only been together this season, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade both of a great deal of playoff experience. So maybe Granger looks as Chicago as the lesser team in that they only have the one superstar. But he is missing the big picture in which the Bulls are the best team out there. Does he really want to face the No. 1 team in the NBA? Be careful what you wish for. The Bulls have won nine in a row heading into the postseason and boast a 36-5 record at home.
While the Bulls clearly had the upper hand in the season series, it’s a different season now. The Pacers started to play better following their coaching move at the end of January. Chicago’s lone defeat to Indiana came after that move, when on March 18, the Pacers won in overtime despite Derrick Rose’s 42 points, 19 of which came in the fourth quarter. The Bulls just need to look to continue their dominance over the Pacers, who were the only team in the Central Division to beat Chicago this season. Winning Game 1 is obviously huge, but it’s something that Chicago needs to maintain throughout the series, especially on their home court.
I think the Bulls have it in them to sweep this series. Coach Thibodeau will have them focused and ready to play. He’s had them playing at a very high level all season long and I don’t expect to see much slippage. If the Bulls continue to play at a high level defensively, limit their turnovers, play smart on the road and take the right shots, this series could be over sooner than later. And for Thibodeau, it’s a sharpening of his pencil as he ensures his team is clicking on all cylinders.