They say that the series doesn’t start until the road team steals a game from the home team. Well, out of the eight series that started this weekend, five teams won on the road. Things have gotten underway in the NBA playoffs and the competitive balance is there now more than it has ever been.
The Chicago Bulls weren’t able to prevent the Washington Wizards from stealing a game at home. They brought the heart and guts that they used throughout the season to grind out win after win to get to the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference without two All-Star players in Derrick Rose and Luol Deng. What they were missing, though, was the offensive punch that is required in NBA postseason action.
We discussed the Bulls’ lack of offense in our preview of this series. The Bulls have one of the best defenses in the league, but they’ve also got one of the worst offenses. No matter how much you make stops, you still have to score the ball. This is why even with Bradley Beal and John Wall being held to a combined 7-25 and just 29 points, the Bulls still couldn’t muster up enough for the win.
The Wizards did a great job of pressuring the ball and forcing Chicago into positions that they were uncomfortable being in. Joakim Noah is the fulcrum that makes the Chicago Bulls run. They run variances of the Princeton offense to maximize Noah’s passing talent while also getting their perimeter guys involved in the offense through screening and cutting.
But, just like with any offense, there is a way to disrupt the rhythm of that. With bumping and pressure, the Wizards did just that to the Bulls on Sunday. It all started with playing up close to Noah. The Wizards didn’t allow him any room to breathe–let alone find a clean lane to pass the ball. Pay attention to how closely Trevor Booker plays Noah here.
Noah had to make quick decisions with the ball. That’s something that he’s good at for a big man–he led the league in assists between the power forward and center position. But the fact of the matter is that he’s still a big. When things get tight, he can still turn the ball over. That’s why Noah had three turnovers to go along with the four assists on the night.
The Wizards’ gameplan was to keep the pressure on Noah and force him to either become a scorer and put the ball on the floor or try to make him force passes and turn the ball over. The Wizards did a good job of keeping that pressure on all night. There were open players that Noah missed because he didn’t get a clear lane of vision to the pass. In the screenshot above, Kirk Hinrich clearly has John Wall behind him as he makes his cut to the rim. But because Booker is pressuring Noah, he can’t see the cutter and make the pass.
The Wizards held the Bulls to only 13 assists throughout the entire game. The Bulls are normally a great passing team–in the regular season, they averaged 22.7 assists per game. That mark is good for 10th in the league. Their offense relies heavily on passing the ball and hitting cutters on the move toward the rim. The Wizards taking that away from them after the Bulls built a 13 point lead was the reason why they got back in the game.
Taking away the normal catalyst for the Bulls wasn’t easy, though. The Wizards had to guard Noah in more than one way. They had to make him put the ball on the floor and then they had to help from smart places. They never through direct double teams at him–instead, they waited until he put the ball on the floor and then chopped down on him from the perimeter.
This was the biggest key for the Wizards. They had to force Noah to pay attention to the outside and throw off his rhythm just a bit. If they could get his focus away from the cutters for a split second, they could throw the Bulls offense off enough for them to stage a successful comeback. That’s exactly what happened and the Wizards stole game one in the United Center.
The Bulls had a smart strategy to counter, though. Instead of forcing the ball into Noah on the outside, they used him as a screener and worked the Wizards with their dribble penetration. D.J Augustin and Kirk Hinrich were able to get in and cause havoc. The Wizards big men were forced to come out a bit and lost their boxout positioning. Chicago was able to turn this into an advantage through offensive rebounding and created extra opportunity for themselves.
If the Bulls can do that and vary their scheme up a bit more, they may be able to generate enough offense for themselves in game 2.