There haven't been many nervous nights for the Bulls this season, at least not since a string of victories in early February made it clear our lottery delusions were dead and this team would be in the playoffs. The Bulls hovered around the middle part of the East playoff picture for most of the post All-Star Game schedule, benefiting from another easy conference slate and the nightly intensity Tom Thibodeau mandates. I don't believe I have truly worried about this team since that triple overtime loss to the Magic on Jan. 15. I'm guessing that will change tonight.
The Washington Wizards didn't just defeat the Bulls in Game 1, they did it thoroughly enough to convince you this series might be a real obstacle. The playoffs are all about matchups, and the Wizards entered the series with an obvious advantage in the backcourt. The question mark for Washington was the viability of Nene, who had battled a knee injury throughout the second half of the season and complained as recently as eight days ago that 24 minutes was too many for his body to handle.
Well, so much for that. Nene logged 35 minutes in Game 1 and looked like the best player on the floor in doing so. As the veteran forward established himself against our Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah early in the first quarter, it was clear the Wizards were going to be a problem. Now the Bulls have their backs against the wall going into Game 2, needing a victory to ensure they don't face a two-game deficit with the series headed back to Washington on Friday.
To put it bluntly, the Bulls need this game, but they won't get it if they fall victim to the same issues that plagued the team throughout the series opener. With that in mind, here are a few things Chicago needs to focus on Tuesday night to get this series knotted up before it heads back to D.C.
1. Noah needs the ball
The Wizards did a great job of taking Noah out of spots where he could facilitate the offense from the high post in Game 1, and in doing so completely took the Bulls out of their regular offensive flow. Noah averaged seven assists per game in April, 7.5 in March and 5.8 in both January and February as the Bulls made their way up the East standings. Noah only had four assists in Game 1. It's no wonder the offense looked so out of sync.
The Bulls need to get back to doing what they do best with Noah, which is putting him in position to find cutters. Chicago did all year by feeding Noah after screens and dribble handoffs when opposing defenses were unsettled. In Game 1, the ability to keep the defense scrambled was replaced by a whole lot of standing around and waiting for someone to fire a three. That's not the Bulls' game, nor should it be. Noah is the team's best offensive player for a reason, and that's because of his guard skills. The Bulls need to utilize them to be effective.
2. Stop giving Nene so much damn space
A consistent theme of Nene's success in Game 1 was just how much space he had to work with. Matched against Noah, Nene was able to take advantage of the drop-back scheme the Bulls have had so much success with by hitting face-up jumpers and with a one-dribble power move to get toward the rim. Nene wasn't killing Noah in the low post so much as he was using the floor to gather momentum and fend Noah off with his strength when he wasn't hitting jumpers. Nene has at least 20 lbs. on Noah, and he's skilled enough to make the Bulls pay when Jo drops back into rim protection mode.
One change I'd like to see is Taj Gibson on Nene and Noah on Gortat. Nene has historically given Noah trouble, but the Bulls have the rare luxury of being able to replace one elite defender with another when Gibson is in the game. Gibson hardly ever drew the assignment in Game 1, but it seems like an obvious adjustment on Tuesday if Nene continues to rip through the Chicago defense.
3. Make your threes
"ANALYSIS: make threes!" is maybe not great analysis, but it is an undeniable truth for the Bulls. There is no one on this team who will consistently beat Washington off the dribble one-on-one. The Bulls score by finding cutters and swinging the ball around the perimeter until there's an open look. The problem in Game 1 was that the shots weren't falling, and that led to Bulls players passing up open looks from the perimeter because they didn't have confidence the shots would fall.
This is where the shooting fall-off from Jimmy Butler really hurts the Bulls. Mike Dunleavy's three three-pointers in the third helped push the Chicago lead to 13 points in Game 1, but after that the shots stopped falling. The Bulls finished the night 5-of-20 from three. When you shoot 25 percent on nearly a quarter of your shots (the Bulls took 81 shots on Sunday), you will not win. Those attempts need to fall.
4. Stop Andre Miller
One of the biggest swing factors in Game 1 was the performance of Andre Miller against Augustin. The 38-year-old beat D.J. off screens and off the dribble. He hit jumpers and got the rim for layups. The Bulls had no answer for him. His 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting was instrumental for a Washington offense that needed supplemental scoring with John Wall and Bradley Beal struggling.
It was always D.J. on him, which means the Bulls have an easy adjustment in their pocket. This is why Kirk Hinrich is on the team, right? The captain is much maligned from folks like us, but he can still prevent dribble penetration and generally played a fine defensive game in Game 1. Let him guard Miller. It was pretty clear D.J. can't handle him.
5. Get Jimmy going to the hoop
Here's how Jimmy Butler closed last season: 42 percent in March on threes, 56 percent in April on threes, 39 percent in the first round against the Nets on threes, 42 percent in the conference semis against the Heat on threes.
What happened to that player? Butler hasn't cracked 30 percent in a month from three since December, and missed a ton of open midrange looks in Game 1. Butler was still arguably the Bulls best player for the majority of Game 1, though, because he was able to find his way to the rim. That's when Jimmy is at his best, using his athleticism and strength to get to the rack and finishing once he's there. We don't need Butler settling for shots he hasn't made all season, and I'm not even talking about threes. It's all jump shots, really. Get Jimmy going to the bucket and good things will happen.