The Chicago Code
It doesn’t seem that long ago that we were right here, with a playoff series between the Miami HEAT and Chicago Bulls about to begin. It’s been two years, in fact, and back then the Bulls were the team with a firm grasp of what it was. Derrick Rose was healthy, Tom Thibodeau’s defense was elite and the HEAT were still just as apt to trip into the rut of isolation offense as they were to wow you with execution. Miami took that series in five games, but Chicago was there every step of the way, succumbing only to one of the more incredible comeback flourishes in recent memory as Dwyane Wade and LeBron James shellshocked the United Center with jumper after jumper in the final minutes of Game 5.
That series was a remarkable achievement, in retrospect, less a glimpse of what the team would become and more a reminder of the incredible baseline afforded Miami by its talented core of players.
Rose’s injury likely cost us the rematch last season – the defenses of Indiana and of course Boston were right at home in Chicago’s stead – but now we’re back, and while just about everything is different, Chicago is still, deep down, the same.
Since that five-game rap battle two years ago, the HEAT have evolved into one of the most efficient offenses in league history while the Bulls have been hit with injury after injury. Rose is the most noteworthy, but Joakim Noah has been on the mend for half the season with plantar fasciitis, Kirk Hinrich and Taj Gibson have been in and out of the lineup, Luol Deng has spent much of the last week in the hospital and the offense often lives and dies on the streaky shooting of Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli.
But there’s still that defense. Oh, that defense.
The Bulls get due credit for being a tough, physical team but this isn’t one of the league’s best defenses through one plug-and-play starter after another because of some devotion to the ‘No Easy Shots’ school of fouling. Thibodeau’s is a highly intelligent scheme built on precision and discipline, words that don’t lend themselves as easily to the league’s brand of storytelling yet perfectly represent the difference between Chicago and the other 85 percent of league defenses.
Just as no human body is impervious to wounds, no defense can protect the entire court at all times. Five men can only cover so much ground, but Thibodeau has this team trained as an immune system, his uniformed white blood cells isolating every scrape and gash within half-seconds (10:33 mark) in attempts to expel the leather parasites from vital organs.
But unlike the human body, this defense chooses where it is going to feel the pain by following a few simple tenets.1. Shut Off the Middle
The Bulls don’t like the ball being in the middle of the floor. They hate the ball being in the middle of the floor going in the direction of the rim. To prevent this from happening, Bulls perimeter defenders will regularly shade the ball to the left or right of the paint in order to push attackers down the side of the floor and into help defense. If the ball is in the true middle of the court and no strong side has been established, the defender might square his shoulders, but for the most part the defender is going to push the ball into other defenders in order to limit an offense’s options and force high risk, over-the-top passes. The attacker never has more options than when the ball is in the middle of the floor.
You’ll see this used in practice to varying degrees, depending on who has the ball, and the orientation of the court. If LeBron James is on the right wing, the defense will tilt him to the right. If Dwyane Wade is closer to the right sideline, his defender will almost align his feet North-South.
The more time the ball is sticking near the sidelines, the more Chicago’s defense is winning. If Wade and James are consistently getting over the top of the defensive tilt or cutting between the primary and help defender, Miami’s offense is going to be in good shape.2. Cut Off the Corners
As we've discussed before, the Bulls allow fewer corner three attempts than any team in the league. They are able to do so in part because they make very smart rotations, at times forgoing a wing closeout entirely in order to stop the swing pass to the corner. But Chicago’s base defensive formation is designed to make corner closeouts short and precise.
No team plays the corners as tight as the Bulls, but that doesn’t mean the shots can’t be had. The corner defender on the strong side of the ball is not supposed to help on dribble penetration – these defenders do a good job of appearing active as opposed to many defenders that simply stand in place motionless because they’ve been told not to move – but the weakside corner defender is still part of the help rotation. The easiest way to peel that weakside defender off his spot is to trigger multiple rotations, which is accomplished by getting the ball into the middle of the floor. Hence, Chicago’s hate of all things middle.
None of this is possible, however, if the Bulls weren’t the most trusting defense in the league.3. Seal Off the Rim
At some point, the ball is going to slice down the middle of the floor in the hands of a dynamic offensive player. Maybe if the pick-and-roll was an illegal action the Bulls could throw a couple perfect games pushing action to the sidelines, but a solid high screen is going to open up a driving lane. And when that happens a defense has to have a contingency plan.
For most teams, this involves a series of help rotations that continually send defenders at the ball. Some, like the Indiana Pacers and Brooklyn Nets, keep a bigger, slower center back in the paint, asking them to in effect catch the ball as it drives towards them. The Bulls do the same with Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson, having them play well behind high screens and concede mid-range space in order to establish a barrier in front of the rim. Well, it’s less a barrier and more of a bubble. Once the ball gets to Noah or Gibson, they use the same technique as the perimeter defenders, turning their hips and pushing the attacker down one side of the paint.
Where the Bulls differ from similarly styled defenses is that Noah and Gibson are frequently left on an island, trusted to corral the basketball and force a tough shot without other defenders sucking into the paint and in turn opening up beneficial passing lanes.
There are of course exceptions to all of these rules. Thibodeau’s machine is more complex than this, but the scheme’s simple quest is to prevent the most efficient shots in the game, which come at the rim and in the corners. That’s where the series will be won or lost. The Bulls will struggle to score at times, especially without Luol Deng. They’ll have a couple of good shooting nights from Nate Robinson – bound to cool off a bit after hitting 60+ percent of his mid-range shots against Brooklyn – and Marco Belinelli. They’ll have some bad turnovers that lead to Miami runs. The HEAT cannot surrender too many offensive rebounds and they can’t consistently get outhustled to loose balls.
But basketball is a game of space. The Bulls have space they want to protect, the HEAT have space they want to invade. Chicago wants to keep the ball away from the middle of the paint and the corners, the HEAT have some of the best rim attackers and corner shooters in the league. Something has to give, but it’s the team that takes more and gives less space that is going to win that side of the floor. And if you’re winning the battle of space, then let the shots fall where they may.