Before Saturday’s match-up with the Atlanta Hawks, the Chicago Bulls looked like they were in trouble. With Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah and (of course) Derrick Rose all missing, the short-handed Bulls were taking on the talented, if slumping, Hawks, who have plenty of firepower to take down a team missing three of their best players.
Unfortunately for Atlanta, Chicago has Tom Thibodeau, and Thibs is a master of making overmatched teams look not-so-overmatched by using clever defensive strategies to limit the opposition offensively. He did it against Atlanta by (forgive my cliché high school coach jargon) taking the Hawks out of their comfort zone early and forcing players who don’t usually excel in spot-up attempts to take and miss a lot of spot-up jumpers. Atlanta finished the game averaging 0.41 points per play (PPP) on spot-up attempts – shooting 3-16 from the field, 1-8 from 3-point range. This is well below their season average of 0.9 PPP, which is 9th in the NBA overall.
Here’s the first spot-up attempt of the game:
After Jeff Teague receives the ball on the right side, the Hawks run a weakside pin-down to free up Josh Smith, which allows Teague to pass Smith the ball just behind the 3-point line. The screener, Al Horford, rolls away from the screen and gets extremely deep post position on Taj Gibson before Gibson realizes what is happening. All in all, it’s a really nice play to start the game by Atlanta.
But when Smith goes to feed Horford in the deep post, Gibson slithers out from behind him and knocks the ball away, forcing Horford out of his deep position. Horford dishes to Stevenson who misses short.
This play is notable for two reasons. First, it’s clear that Chicago was told not to allow Horford to catch the ball in the post, if at all possible. Second, look how much space Luol Deng is allowing Josh Smith so far from the basket:
Since Smith passes the ball immediately after catching it, it’s clear that this first set is something Hawks coach Larry Drew wanted the team to go to early. But right away, the Bulls send Smith a clear message: If you want to shoot, you certainly may.
What’s interesting is that Smith, on his next spot-up opportunity, buried a mid-range jumper. He then abused Deng off the dribble going to the basket and scored easily. So the next time Smith caught the ball in the post, Chicago responded quickly, doubling him and forcing a tough cross-court pass.
Chicago’s rotations are a work of art on this play. Kyle Korver’s screen under the basket forces Jimmy Butler to switch onto Smith, which would not have ended well for the Bulls if Taj Gibson hadn’t come over to double-team him. As soon as Gibson leaves his man (Horford) under the basket, Deng is there to defend if Smith tries to thread a pass in to Horford. But Gibson is cutting off Smith’s angle, so he tosses the ball across the court to Stevenson, once again.
You can see that Hamilton, running toward the Hawks logo near the top-center of the screen, initially went to cover Smith’s passing lane to Kyle Korver, far and away Atlanta’s most dangerous spot-up threat. So to recap: Chicago survived a switch that got Jimmy Butler defending Josh Smith in the low post by double-teaming Smith and managed to rotate so well that Atlanta’s best shot, with Horford, Smith and Korver all in the game, was a contested 3-pointer by DeShawn Stevenson. Throughout the play, Chicago showed very impressive awareness, knowing exactly where every offensive threat was lurking and knowing how and where to rotate accordingly.
This wouldn’t be the last time Chicago forced Smith into passing out of the low post to a player who isn’t known for 3-point prowess. Later in the second quarter, very similar rotations would force a nearly identical result.
Once again, Smith gets the ball with good post position, this time on Luol Deng. Deng initially tried fronting Smith, but as the ball is reversed back around the perimeter, Deng isn’t able to get back in front him again, and Marco Belinelli comes down to help. Immediately, as if he was on a string, Nate Robinson (of all people) rotates correctly, cutting off any passing lane to Kyle Korver and forcing Smith to pass to Jannero Pargo. Pargo fires up a 3-point attempt, but even this is pretty well contested by Robinson who comes flying over to defend it.
It’s worth noting that Smith did actually play pretty well against Chicago, scoring 19 points on 9-16 shooting. But by allowing him to take whatever jumpshots he wanted (he missed open looks off a drive and kick and a pick-and-roll horns set as well, and in both cases there was no defender within 10 feet of him), and by making it difficult to get the ball to Kyle Korver, the Bulls hampered Atlanta’s spot-up shooting in general.
The Bulls are a nightmare to gameplan against not because they kill you with multiple individual weapons, but because every player has bought into a defensive system, because Tom Thibodeau knows each team’s weaknesses, and because they play together as a cohesive, chaotic unit.
Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.