Never did I think the Bulls would be staring at a 2-0 series deficit heading to Washington, but here we are. The Bulls' normally solid closing lineup just hasn't gotten it done. The dual point-guard look of D.J. Augustin and Kirk Hinrich that I tossed bouquets at toward the end of the year has been a disaster in the two games, getting outscored by 32.4 points per 100 possessions overall, per NBA.com's stats page.
We've covered some aspects of the Game 2 collapse pretty extensively, but I'd like to look at a few other things that hurt the Bulls.
Nene vs. Noah Part Deux
Nene dominated Joakim Noah in Game 1, and I was expecting Noah to have a bounce back performance in Game 2. Sure enough, Noah did play better, scoring 20 points and grabbing 12 rebounds. However, it wasn't good enough, for several reasons.
Coach Nick detailed how Nene has pretty much taken it to Noah in these first two games, and after dropping 24 points on 11-of-17 shooting in Game 1, the big Brazilian had 17 points on 8-of-13 shooting in Game 2. Nene started slow, but he came on strong late and was key in securing the win in overtime. Nene had a ton of success against Noah, shooting 7-of-9 against the Defensive Player of the Year, according to SportVU.
But instead of rehashing Nene's offensive success against Noah, I want to look at the other side of the ball. Yes, Noah did have 20 points on 8-of-14 shooting in Game 2. But what was concerning was the fact that he only had three assists (0 in the fourth quarter and OT) and five turnovers (four in the fourth quarter and OT). This coming after a Game 1 where Noah had four assists and three turnovers.
That poor ratio is a far cry from March and April, when Noah racked up a 2.71 assist-to-turnover ratio. So what gives? Obviously piling up assists often depends on teammates, and Noah's teammates haven't exactly been helping him out. Through the first two games of the series, Noah has averaged 10.0 assist opportunities, but those opportunities have only created 8.0 points per game, per SportVU.
However, it must be noted that Noah has the third-most touches per game in the playoffs, as well as the third-most passes per game, per SportVU. And despite this, Noah's number of assist opportunities isn't all that high compared to some of the other players. There are a couple of explanations for this. One, the Wizards are doing a nice job defending the other Bulls when Noah is trying to initiate offense from the high post.
The other is that Nene has done a damn good job making Noah uncomfortable when he has the ball in the high post. Instead of giving Noah space like many opponents have this season, which then allows Jo to make reads much easier, Nene has been crowding him and forcing tougher decisions/passes.
A couple examples of this came late in Game 2. With the Bulls up 91-88 with just under two minutes to go, Noah received an inbounds pass on the wing outside the three-point line. Instead of backing off, Nene got right up in Noah's grill, forcing a horrendous pass to a posted up Jimmy Butler that was stolen. Early in the overtime, Nene again pressured Noah outside the three-point line on the wing, leading to a head-scratching pass to the middle of the lane that was easily picked off.
The Wizards have clearly done a solid job scouting what the Bulls like to do with Noah offensively, and it's also nice having the personnel to defend it. Nene is able to play so close to Noah because he can generally defend against the drive thanks to his mobility, although Jo has had some success taking the ball to the hoop. That's something I'd like to see more often, especially if it can get Nene in foul trouble.
Beal's big game
Bradley Beal struggled with his shot in Game 1, but it was clear from the outset that he meant business in Game 2. Beal, and also John Wall, came out aggressive, with the duo combining for 17 points on 6-of-10 shooting in the first quarter. Those six first-quarter field goals were one less than they had all Game 1.
Beal slowed down in the second and third quarters, but then he was great when it counted, scoring 11 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter. Beal took advantage of a few mad scrambles to set up himself for open threes, which he calmly knocked down. The youngster also showed off some deft touch on a floater after he freed himself from Jimmy Butler to cut the deficit to one late.
Beal did have quite a bit of success when going at Butler in Game 2, scoring 13 points on 4-of-5 shooting in those situations, according to SportVU. That's pretty impressive considering Butler's prowess as a defender, and it's easy to see why people are so high on Beal. He's still not the most efficient player, but he's athletic, has a smooth stroke and has the tools to become a big-time scorer. Beal and Wall will be quite the backcourt for years to come.
The three-point shooting
The Bulls are one of the best teams in the league at defending the three, and they only allowed 11 attempts in the first game. It was quite a different story in Game 2, with the Wizards getting up 23 threes and burying nine of them for a tidy 39.1 percent mark.
As mentioned, a few of those threes were just sort of bad luck. Beal nailed a couple threes off scrambles for loose balls, which can be tough to defend. However, the Bulls had some really uncharacteristic breakdowns in transition which led to some wide open threes, especially early in the game. The Wizards didn't take full advantage of some of those great looks (2-of-6 on transition threes, per Synergy), which helped allow the Bulls back in the game, but Chicago was definitely playing with fire with some of the open shots they were allowing.
Meanwhile, Ricky noted the Bulls' wretched three-point shooting, as they're 10-of-37 through two games. The Bulls have taken two transition threes in the two losses, missing both of them.
There has been quite a bit of grumbling about the rotation already, and I don't want to do much more. To me, it's clear that Butler shouldn't be playing entire games, and Thibs should be more flexible when it comes to rotations if things aren't working. Both Aggrey Sam at CSN Chicago and Doug Thonus at Bulls Confidential went in pretty hard on Thibs regarding his lack of flexibility, and I don't have much more to add. Basically, Tony Snell and Mike Dunleavy should play more, and MAYBE Carlos Boozer should see some more tick if he's playing well (he was embarrassing in the first quarter of Game 2). Jimmer Fredette isn't the answer against these Wizards guards, although I admit it would have been nice to see more Jimmer in the regular season just to see what he was made of. But that didn't happen, and based on Thibs' defensiveness when answering questions about the rotation, I don't envision much changing. Or maybe he'll surprise us?
The shrinking of the intensity gap
I [-yfbb, here] found this quote from Taj Gibson on Wednesday pretty telling:
"We watched the film, it came down to we were like a fingernail short every time. Guys were diving for the balls, scrambling around, and they just made some great plays, playoff-style basketball I guess...[They are] a hungry team. They go up, we go up, but the way they start the games off, the way they finish them, especially on defense, getting loose balls, scramble plays, rugged-basketball kind of style, that's kind of our style if you think about it."
This is emblematic of the fear of Bulls fans even as the regular season wins were piling up: in the playoffs, everyone tries to play that style. There was reason to believe maybe the Bulls were more used to it, but clearly Washington has had no issues dialing up their 'heart, hustle, and muscle' in the playoffs. The Bulls advantage in that department has shrunk.
The team's (led by Gibson) offensive rebounding is one of their strengths, and does require a skill and not just effort, but the Wizards came in a top-10 unit in defending it. So while Taj and the Bulls had monster first halves on the offensive glass, it's been a major key in both games that he and the team have seen that margin recede into the second halves of games. As it's been said (probably too) many times, there's no playoff gear for the Bulls to reach, so hopefully staying full throttle (did I handle that motor reference correctly?) is sufficient and the Wiz drop off a bit.