NBA basketball is a four-act play, a game of runs, all of that, and the Bulls and Nets hammered home those cliches again on Thursday night in Game 3. The Nets got at the Bulls in transition early in the game, attacking before Chicago could set its defense, and it led to the type of first quarter deficit the Bulls have made a habit of putting themselves in: Brooklyn was up 17-5 just five and a half minutes into the game, and suddenly Game 3 looked a lot like Game 1.
If there's one thing we know about the Bulls, though, it's that they rarely roll over. Chicago clamped down defensively and it resulted in some of the ugliest playoff basketball you'll ever see. Per KC Johnson, the Nets missed 25-of-26 shots after that hot start. They scored only four points over the course of 13:45 between the first and second quarters. Credit Thibodeau and the players for making the adjustments, but it's obvious that the opponent has a lot to do with it.
The Nets are not good, and I think that's pretty clear at this point. They have three players who can score, and one is limited by plantar fasciitis. The Bulls know defense isn't a one-on-one proposition -- it's five guys guarding the ball, and the Bulls do it as well as any team. With that philosophy in mind, the Bulls are smart enough to know what they're facing and what they aren't -- please, no one say "KYP" in the comments, even if it's true.
So much of this comes back to Deron Williams, who is supposed to be the type of franchise-altering superstar that can single-handidly swing a series between two seemingly even matched teams, just like this one. Instead, we're learning the real difference-maker is Thibodeau and his quintet of intelligent, gritty defenders: Kirk Hinrich, Jimmy Butler, Luol Deng, Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah.
A major theme of this series is how the Bulls are limiting Williams by sagging off many of Brooklyn's lesser offensive threats. It's a strategy that can surely get them beat if the likes of Gerald Wallace, Reggie Evans or some of the chumps on the bench get hot, but the Bulls are definitely willing to take their chances.
Williams finished the game 5-of-14 from the field for 18 points, and it played a large role in Chicago securing a 79-76 victory to take a 2-1 series lead.
Here's a premium example of how the Bulls are sliding their defense from the third quarter of Game 3. The play starts out with Williams swinging the ball to Wallace on the wing and Wallace swinging it right back to him. After Williams receives the pass from Wallace, the court looks like this:
Notice how everyone has their eyes locked in on Deron. The Bulls' positioning is great on this, even if Jimmy is playing a little far off of Johnson. Jimmy's athleticism would allow him to recover and challenge the shot even if the ball is swung across court to Johnson for the corner three. That's not what's in the cards for this play, though. Deron is taking it to the hole and Bulls know how to defend it.
The play ends in Deron taking and missing a 15-foot floater. This happens because the defense is so good. Look at where Deng is now compared to where he started on the floor. He recognizes that Deron is going to drive and slides over in perfect position to stop the drive and contest the floater. Wallace is wide open for three but the Bulls and Nets both know he can't make that shot so he never receives the pass. Also notice how Noah is ready to slide in should Deron make it past Deng and how Butler is covering Evans (and ignoring Johnson) should Williams try to dump it inside.
This is great defense, and part of the reason why Brooklyn shot just 22.5 percent in the first half. It would have even been lower but Wallace somehow hit a three at the buzzer to cut Chicago's lead to seven.
I went back and looked at all of Deron's shot attempts in Game 3 to see where he found his success and where he didn't. Here's a quick breakdown:
1. Williams pushes the ball in transition, cuts over to the center of the arc and drains a three. Bulls defense simply wasn't set.
2. Williams drives hard to the lane in semi-transition and misses a layup thanks to solid defense from Hinrich and help from Noah.
3. After a Deng make, Deron brings the ball up in the halfcourt, tries to shake and bake Hinrich and jacks a three very early in the shot clock. Bad attempt, bad miss.
4. Nets run Deron off a down screen from right-to-left and he gets a decent enough look at a three-pointer, which he promptly air-balls.
5. Off semi-transition, Deron runs into the lane on a kamikaze drive. He's met by three Bulls defenders and badly misses a layup.
6. Picture post from above.
7. Off an offensive rebound, Deron gets a wide open look at a three and bricks it.
8. Deron makes a layup after a give-and-go. Bad defense, no one was defending the paint.
9. Williams runs across the floor off a baseline screen and drains a corner three before Jimmy can get there to contest.
10. Williams runs a half-circle cut from one wing to the other in the halfcourt off a down screen and buries a three.
11. Off a cross screen from Humphries, Williams jacks a misses a 17-foot jumper. Decent contest by Boozer.
12. Jacks a three at the end of the third, misses badly.
13. Bricks a three off a cross-court pass from Johnson. Solid contest by Deng.
14. Drives and lays it in with five seconds remaining as the Bulls defended the three-point line. This was the Nets' last bucket.