Put Away the Brooms, DetroitThis time, the Chicago Bulls decided to play for the full 48 minutes--or pretty close to it. Now the question is whether the Bulls can sustain this level of effort, concentration and execution on the road. In any case, their 102-87 Game Four win over the Detroit Pistons prevented an embarrassing sweep and keeps alive hope, however faint, of an improbable comeback. Luol Deng had his best game of the series (25 points, 10-15 shooting, 13 rebounds), while guards Kirk Hinrich and Ben Gordon contributed 19 points each. Hinrich also had a game-high 10 assists. Ben Wallace, who has been the most consistent Bull in this series, also had his best game with 11 points, a game-high 17 rebounds, three assists, two blocked shots and two steals; in contrast, Chris Webber, Detroit's starting center, had 0 points for the second consecutive game. Also, ABC's Hubie Brown narrated a nice highlight clip that demonstrated that even when he is not scoring that Wallace can contribute on offense, contrary to popular belief: in addition to his offensive rebounding, Wallace is a good passer.
Chauncey Billups led Detroit with 23 points and eight assists but did not have a good shooting night (5-14); many of his points came on fourth quarter free throws after the Bulls committed some bad fouls and got into the penalty very early. Of course, those points count just the same as points from field goals but it is interesting to note that the Bulls played pretty good defense when they avoided lazy fouls: Detroit shot just 31-83 (.373). The only Piston who really played well was Tayshaun Prince, who shot 8-16 and had 18 points, seven rebounds, four assists and three steals.
Chicago Coach Scott Skiles really cut down his rotation in this game, using only eight players and playing three of his starters for more than 40 minutes, including 48 for Deng and 46 for Hinrich. Rookie Tyrus Thomas brought some nice energy off of the bench with 10 points and seven rebounds in 14 minutes. He took some bad shots but he has too much talent and too much length to just sit on the pine.
The Bulls got off to a good start, just like in Game Three, but this time they did not cave in down the stretch. Deng and Hinrich each scored eight points as Chicago led 27-19 after the first quarter. There has been a lot of talk about Detroit's zone defense during this series but, as Brown noted repeatedly, any time that the Bulls were patient and made a couple passes they were able to get into the paint and obtain quality shot attempts. Also, once the Bulls got the defense moving with crisp passing they were often able to get favorable one on one matchups; most of the Bulls are able to get past Piston defenders in a one on one situation after the second dribble, as Brown mentioned. Brown added that teams generally play zone either to hide a weak defender or to change the tempo of the game.
The Bulls' biggest enemy against the Pistons has not been the zone but rather their own impatience and sloppy ball handling. I noticed this even during Detroit's blowout win in Game One. The "hidden" advantage that any decent NBA defense has is the 24 second shot clock. If you can disrupt the other team even slightly, whether through backcourt pressure, a deflection or a zone look that causes some tentativeness then the clock really works to your advantage. I have yet to see Detroit stop Chicago consistently when the Bulls space the floor correctly and attack with precision. This series has been more about willpower, concentration and execution under pressure then it has been about any supposed innovation by Detroit. That is why Skiles scoffed a few days ago when someone suggested that Detroit's zone has stymied the Bulls; Skiles said, correctly, that the Bulls have missed a lot of open shots and committed too many unforced turnovers.
The Bulls also turned the tables on the Pistons by showing a zone look of their own. There is an old coaching axiom that you should always press against a pressing team; pressing teams don't like to be pressed. Perhaps the Bulls figured that a team that often uses a zone would not like to face a zone. With Wallace, Thomas and Deng in the paint, the Bulls actually can play a pretty effective zone, shutting off the paint, forcing jump shots and then getting rebounds.
Obviously, you don't want to get carried away about one win when the Bulls will most likely go to Detroit and lose Game Five. The point is that the Bulls have largely dug this hole for themselves with their own ineptitude; it may be too late for them to do anything about it now but other teams can look at video, see the holes in Detroit's zone and make the appropriate adjustments. This Detroit team is a very solid squad that has a lot of talented players but it is hardly unbeatable and it is not as good as the 2004 championship team, though it may be the best team that Detroit has had since then.
Chicago led 50-43 at halftime but could hardly feel secure about that after blowing a 19 point second half lead in the previous game. Indeed, the Bulls went up by as much as 23 this time and still had to sweat things out down the stretch. They still led 77-56 at the end of the third quarter but the Pistons started the fourth quarter with seven straight points and eventually got as close to 87-80. What changed? Detroit made some shots at the start of the quarter but got a lot of points at the free throw line after the Bulls committed a lot of senseless fouls. The Bulls started kicking the ball all over the place and stopped running the basic zone offense that had been so effective for three quarters. Also, it was pretty clear that several players got a little tight as the margin got smaller. Gordon made a big three pointer at the 3:20 mark, the Bulls' first points in nearly two minutes, to make the score 90-80.
Detroit Coach Flip Saunders made an interesting--and by interesting, I mean suspect--decision after Billups' three pointer made the score 90-83 with 2:46 left. The Bulls had made just two shots in the previous two and a half minutes but he decided to employ the "Hack A Ben," intentionally fouling Ben Wallace. Supposedly, this strategy is "playing the percentages" but I think that somebody needs to recalculate the math on this one. If an NBA team scores on 50% of its possessions it is doing well; that works out to a point per possession (or slightly more once you add in the occasional three pointer or three point play). So as long as Wallace makes at least one out of two free throws, the "Hack A Ben" strategy is not likely to produce any advantage. From a non-mathematical standpoint, this strategy takes away any chance of forcing a turnover or missed shot, takes your own team out of its natural offensive rhythm and allows the Bulls to set up a half court defense as opposed to possibly having to stop a transition score. Also, the hacked player often seems to concentrate more because he resents being singled out. Sure enough, Wallace made three out of four free throws and the Pistons failed to score on either of the following possessions. What kind of message is Saunders sending to his team if he doesn't think that they can come back from seven down with 2:46 left without resorting to gimmicks? That is just a three possession game. Even if the Bulls used up the whole shot clock, the Pistons would have gotten the ball back with 2:22 left. Score quickly and it is a two possession game. One more stop and one more score and it is a one possession game with more than one minute left. This is the kind of decision that may not make a difference in this series but could matter in a closer series. It is interesting that one of the bones of contention between Ben Wallace and Saunders last year was that Wallace felt like the Pistons were getting away from their identity as a strong man to man defensive team. Now the Pistons play zone and resort to the "Hack a Ben."
In case you didn't know it, ABC mentioned approximately two million times that no team has come back from a 3-0 deficit and only a select few have come back from the 3-1 deficit that the Bulls currently face. I don't expect Chicago to accomplish this but a couple things are worth noting: (1) Detroit went from up 2-0 to down 3-2 versus Cleveland last year and came very close to losing Game Six; (2) Detroit has yet to have an answer for when the Bulls play with poise and precision--the Pistons' main trump has been that the Bulls seem unable to sustain that level of execution. Right now, the Bulls don't have to win three games; all they have to do is win one game in Detroit, something they did during the regular season, and then they can feed off of their crowd in Game Six. Detroit has a talented team and the Pistons are a pretty cocky group; they act like they are champions even though they have not won the title since '04 and have been leaving the playoffs earlier and earlier since then. Game Five could be interesting--if the Bulls are not satisfied with merely avoiding being swept.
posted by David Friedman @ 7:46 PM