Bulls offense finding success in midrange game, face Knicks Thursday

The Bulls are third in three-point field goal percentage while being near the bottom of the league in three-point attempts
by Sam Smith
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The Bulls reinvented themselves this season, a contender once again after a fallow, lost four years in the NBA's rebuilding woods.

But in some respects the Bulls also have contributed to something that might even be bigger for the NBA, reinventing basketball as it once was played.

Not that past is necessarily better but, like peace, it deserves a chance. If past isn't prologue, it's also not worth a tempest as a response.

"Sometimes guys' personnel and strengths are in the mid range and driving the ball to the basket," Bulls coach Billy Donovan acknowledged after practice Wednesday. "You don't want to change a player into something he doesn't do well; you want to let him play to his strengths."

In other words, if you don't have Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, be the Slash Brothers rather than the Splash Brothers.

The Bulls this season, second in the Eastern Conference behind the Brooklyn Nets whom the Bulls visit Saturday, are contributing to a renewed, if embryonic, trend of declining three-point field goal attempts.

Zach LaVine converts a layup over the Utah Jazz.

Zach LaVine converts a layup over the Utah Jazz.

With the success of the Golden State Warriors midway through the last decade and the urging of the shot happy, analytics-driven Houston Rockets, the NBA began tilting almost universally toward a surfeit of three-point shot attempts. The mantra formula was becoming that no shot was worthwhile—if also to be disparaged—other than a layup, a free throw or a three-point, to some the growing rival of the mathematics based somnambulistic baseball analysis that has turned the sport into such a sleepy game.

Though it was merely a first act Tuesday night, and one without some of the major actors with Thompson still recovering from injury and Devin Booker hurt early in the game, the mid range driven Phoenix Suns took over the Western Conference lead from the three bombing Warriors with a win in Phoenix. They'll play again Friday in San Francisco.

But it was significant perhaps more than the result than the message sent around the NBA that it's best to allow players to be who they are rather than who you want them to be. That also there are many different ways to win a basketball game and have a successful season, and as coaches always preach, if not always seem to believe, you put players into position to succeed with the strengths they have.

Donovan has practiced that effectively with the Bulls at 14-8. And joining the 18-3 Suns among the league's top teams, but also the teams attempting among the fewest three-point shots in the league.

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"I love taking threes," said Donovan. "But I also think a lot of it is personnel based. Even though people analytically want to take that shot, sometimes there are players who are not as effective with it. I (also) do think if you start to look at a lot of these games, especially playoff games, baskets are so hard to come by you've got to have people who can play in the midrange and get to spots and generate a good shot. I've always thought at the end of the game you just want points at that point in time. Once you hit the six minute mark, the analytics kind of goes out the window."

That seemed never more apparent than in last year's NBA playoffs with the midrange heavy Suns reaching the Finals. And even though the title went to the Bucks, normally among the most frequent three-point shooting teams, Milwaukee employed mostly midrange play led by Giannis Antetokounmpo in crucial times.

The Bulls this season have reversed their fortunes with a formula designed to produce good shots (with good shooters) no matter the area of the court. The Bulls are third in three-point field goal percentage and fourth in overall shooting accuracy. The Bulls also are next to last in three-point attempts with the Suns with 17 consecutive wins one ahead at 28th in the league in three-point attempts.

The middle-of-the-pack Western conference Timberwolves are leading in three-point attempts. The contending Warriors, Bucks and Jazz are in the top five in the three-point attempts. So it's surely not a strategy that's being abandoned.

Though it is being countered more effectively this season by teams like the Suns and Bulls. Plus, some of the better East contending teams, like the Wizards and Hawks, also are low volume three-point shooting teams.

The Hornets are in the top half in three-point attempts and sized down against the Bulls earlier this week with five three-point shooters in the game much of the time. But the Bulls pulled away to make it an easy victory with a variety of offensive sequences.

The Bulls will try to continue with that momentum Thursday in New York against the Knicks, though without Coby White. The hard luck guard (this season) tested positive for Covid, according to Donovan. That means he probably will be out about 10 days, like recently returned Nikola Vucevic. White was just returning from shoulder surgery and likely will see his playing time revert to rookie Ayo Dosunmu.

Donovan also said Zach LaVine continued to be hampered by a flu-like illness, which bothered him Monday against Charlotte. Donovan said Donovan flew with the team Wednesday and he expects LaVine to play Thursday in New York.

It's against a Knicks team under coach Tom Thibodeau which is among the top 10 in the league in three-point attempts. Alas, poor Thibs we thought we knew him. When Thibodeau was Bulls coach in the early 2010s, he rejected the long distance shooting strategy. The Bulls in his seasons were always toward the bottom of the league in long distance attempts.

Coby White makes a layup against Denver

Coby White will miss some time after testing positive for Covid, Bulls coach Billy Donovan said on Wednesday.

Thibodeau, a statistics techie, has rolled more with the analytics even if his best three-point shooters this season are recently promoted Alec Burks and Derrick Rose.

It's been a more natural evolution for the Bulls with the addition of DeMar DeRozan, who has weathered the whispering for a decade that he's playing the wrong way. It hasn't been so for the Bulls this season with DeRozan leading the Bulls in scoring at 25.9 per game and sixth in the league (LaVine is ninth).

This while DeRozan among perimeter players is the principal proponent of two-point field goals, trailing just Anthony Davis is such attempts and fifth overall in made twos. Ahead of him are basically a quartet of seven footers with Davis, Nikola Jokic, Kevin Durant and Antetokounmpo. It also was one of the inside secrets of the championship Warriors that with Durant they attempted more mid range shots than many expected.

The Bulls also are among a growing group of teams rejecting the notion that it is, as often said, a copycat league and to succeed you have to follow what the winners have done.

It was reminiscent of what hurt so many teams in the 1980s when they tried to find a 6-9 point guard to counter the Lakers with Magic Johnson. What everyone discovered is there was one Magic. Like there's one Steph.

Bring the best of who you are.

It was enough for four All-Star games for DeRozan, if not universal recognition. Which is perhaps why his acquisition wasn't as celebrated around the NBA last summer as much as it has been recently.

"It's basketball at the end of the day. You put me out there, I'm going to figure out whatever needs to be figured out for us to be successful," DeRozan said earlier this season about his game. "I don't overthink it. I think that's when a lot of people get in trouble, when you try to overthink this game. It's a simple game. You understand what it takes, what needs to be done and you go out there and execute it and do it to the best of your abilities. That's what it's all about. I don't get caught up in, ‘I got to do this, do this.' Whatever it takes to win, that's all I care about."

DeMar DeRozan fades away and shoots over Steph Curry.

DeMar DeRozan fades away and shoots over Steph Curry.

DeRozan, if not exactly a personal protege of Kobe Bryant's, used the late Lakers star as inspiration for his game. Growing up in Los Angeles, the 6-6 DeRozan tried to model his play after that of Bryant's with the clever footwork and accurate shooting. If it didn't so much excite critics this summer after his acquisition by the Bulls, it's perhaps starting to make believers as the Bulls and DeRozan are among a growing group to defy the conventional analytical wisdom on the road to team success.

It's hardly to suggest following a three-point regimen will thwart others than the Warriors. But that there are many ways to skin an active shooter (support animal rights and references).

"It's really case-by-case," said Alex Caruso. "We've got guys who shoot really well in the mid-range. DeMar's made a career off of it, multiple time All-Star, getting to his spots, lot of influence from late great Kobe Bryant that he's done a lot of work on his footwork. So we have a lot of confidence in him and the shots he takes. Some players, good shots are layups or catch and shoot threes. Some players on our team like Vooch (Nikola Vucevic), good midrange shooter, DeMar's good midrange shooter, Zach shoots well in the midrange. It's about getting open shots and making sure we're getting quality shots. You kind of play the hand that you're dealt."

Three and four of a certain kind has been an effective hand for these Bulls.

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The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.


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