It takes a lot of little things to win close games in the NBA. Part of the formula is smart coaching decisions, another part is players who can perform in the clutch, and it doesn't hurt to have random chance on your side as well. For the past 5 years, the Chicago Bulls have been lucky to possess all of the above. The team has been great in close games, and here's why:
The Right Coaching
Tom Thibodeau's regular season record in games decided by 3 points or less was an impressive 38-21, including 7-2 last year.
His success in close games changed in the playoffs though. In those contests, he was a far more disappointing 3-7.
*2011 and 2012 playoff records were both 0-1
Despite the lack of success in the playoffs, the Bulls' consistency in winning close games over the years is very impressive.
Thibodeau did a lot of smart things at the end of games. He would save timeouts judiciously, substitute offense for defense, and get the Bulls good scoring opportunities at the end of games.
NBA Writer Kelly Scaletta tracked various teams' offenses in situations where a shot would tie or take the lead in the last 24 seconds of a game. According to his statistics, the Bulls were faced with this situation 18 times and produced 17 points with an effective field goal percentage of 47.22%. Only the Grizzlies, Rockets, Hawks, and Spurs shot better.
On the defensive end, opponents had 26 opportunities to tie or take the lead against the Bulls and produced only 11 points in those situations. The Bulls held opponents to a paltry 21.2% effective field goal percentage on those shots.
The Bulls used this combination of one of the best defenses in close-game situations along with a surprisingly great late game offense to pull out a bunch of close victories last year.
Thibodeau's success in late game situations was often taken for granted. His predecessor, Vinny Del Negro, was a far worse 11-13 in regular season games decided by 3 points or less. That record improved to 3-3 in the playoffs, mostly due to the incredible first round playoff series that the 2009 Bulls played against the Celtics which included 7 overtimes.
Del Negro had the terrible habit of wasting all of his timeouts early on in games, making it difficult to substitute in players, draw plays, or advance the ball.
One of the most noteworthy examples game after Game 2 in the 2009 playoffs against the Celtics. KC Johnson wrote in the Chicago Tribune article the following day:
Allocating timeouts is a skill - Cavs coach David Blatt almost cost the Cavs game 4 of the playoffs last year by forgetting how many he had left. It was rumored throughout the year that assistant coach Tyronn Lue was in charge of timeouts because Blatt was having a hard time understanding TV timeout rules. Del Negro's poor timeout usage continued to haunt him in his next stint with the Clippers.
Thibodeau was an often-overlooked master at using his timeouts, and it helped him win the close ones more often than not.
The Right Players
How Will Hoiberg Fare?
Hoiberg's record in 5 years at Iowa State was similar to Thibodeau's. He was a very impressive 16-9 in regular season games decided by 3 points or less but suffered some crushing close losses in the NCAA tournament.
In 2015, his #3 seeded Cyclones were eliminated in a first round upset. They lost by a single point to #14 seed Alabama-Birmingham. Hoiberg lost another close one in the 2013 tournament, losing by 3 points to #2 seed Ohio State in the third round. Overall in the NCAA tournament, he was 0-2 in close games.
Hoiberg inherits a team of seasoned veterans that are used to high-pressure situations. He has all the tools to continue the team's success of being very good in close games. The NBA has strange TV timeout rules, intentional fouling rules, and other late-game adjustments that coaches need to get a handle on quickly.
As a former NBA player, Hoiberg should have a leg up on other new coaches in adjusting to late game NBA strategy, but only time will tell if he can continue the tradition of leading a team that can find a way to win the close ones.