Tuesday, March 8, 2011
By Mark Schanowski
So, raise your hand if you thought the Bulls would be battling Boston for the top seed in the East over the final six weeks of the regular season.
Its been an amazing ride watching Derrick Rose lead the Bulls into the ranks of the NBAs elite teams. Right now, a lot of national writers with M.V.P. votes are proclaiming Derrick is their choice to win the award. So, I guess Derrick knew what he was talking about when he responded to my question about personal goals back on Media Day in September with Why cant I be the M.V.P., why cant I be the best player in the league?
Led by Rose and the ultra-thorough approach of first-year head coach Tom Thibodeau, the Bulls have taken the league by storm. They rank 1st in the NBA in opponents field goal percentage and 1st in points allowed, and when a team is that good on the defensive end, theyre going to have a chance to win every game.
Since the return of Joakim Noah, the Bulls have been even better on the defensive end, holding opponents under 90 points almost every time out. Noahs ability to block shots and rebound in traffic gives the Bulls a last line of defense they didnt have when Kurt Thomas was starting at center.
And, the improvement of rookie center Omer Asik has given the second unit that same ability to change games with defensive play. Ronnie Brewer has been more aggressive playing the passing lanes, knowing he has Asik and Taj Gibson behind him to erase any mistakes.
The question is, can the Bulls catch Boston for the number one seed in the East?
There are obvious advantages to finishing first, starting with earning home court advantage throughout the conference playoffs. And, the chance to play a team with a losing record in the first round like Indiana or Charlotte, instead of the star-studded Knicks or Doug Collins dangerous 76ers. And, the likelihood of avoiding Miami in the conference semifinals.
But will the Bulls go all out to finish 1st?
A lot depends on what the standings look like on April 1. If theyre still within two or three games of the lead, look for Thibodeau to go for the top spot. The Bulls have a head-to-head matchup with the Celtics at the United Center on April 7, which could go a long way to deciding which team claims first place. Looking at the Bulls final 20 games, 10 are at home and 10 are on the road. Nine of the teams have winning records, while 11 are under .500.
Getting the top seed would be a huge accomplishment for the Bulls, but realistically, the Bulls will be keeping a close eye on Miami in their rear-view mirror. A potential second round series against the Heat would be an NBA instant classic, and the Bulls want to make sure any Game Seven would be played at the United Center instead of South Beach.
Is Rose wearing down?
One potential concern down the stretch is the demands being placed on Derrick Rose to direct the offense and take over as the crunch-time scorer. Roses shooting percentage from 3-point range has been falling like a rock over the last five weeks. He connected on just 25 percent of his tries from beyond the arc in February, and missed his first 16 tries in March.
I had a chance to talk with my studio partner, Kendall Gill, about Derricks mini-shooting slump. He recommends Rose go back to his driving game and try to scale back on the long-range jumpers.
NBA players routinely wear down over the course of a long regular season, and the best way to get your rhythm back is attack the basket and try to get more free throw attempts. Thibodeau says hes not concerned about Roses recent struggles from long distance. Thibs says Rose continues to put in extra work at practice, and as long as he does that, he has the green light to shoot them in games.
The larger concern for me is how heavily the team relies on Rose to break down the defense late in close games. Granted, Derrick is the best offensive player and gives the Bulls the best chance to get a basket or a trip to the free throw line. But I would like to see the Bulls run more post-ups for Carlos Boozer to give defenses something else to think about. When the Bulls get the ball to Boozer in the post, opponents have to decide whether to send a quick double team, or allow Carlos to back his defender into the paint. And, when the double team comes, Boozer is a willing passer who will get the ball to the open man.
Kyle Korver struggled with his outside shot in the fourth quarter against New Orleans, but he shot an NBA record 53 percent from 3-point range last season, and teams have to honor him as a threat to score on any possession. Thibodeau likes to use Korver down the stretch of close games for just that reason. As we head into the stretch run towards the playoffs, its all about figuring out how to tighten rotations for games that matter the most. Look for Korver to be on the court when the Bulls need a big basket late.
Right now, the Bulls are playing 10 guys every night, and its possible that will continue into the playoffs. But Thibodeau stuck with Rose at the beginning of the fourth quarter against New Orleans instead of going to his usual substitution pattern of bringing in C.J. Watson. That means five or six extra minutes for your best player, and the Bulls have to be careful not to wear Rose down before the grueling playoff chase even begins.
As always, we love to get your feedback. Please post your comments on the race for the top seed and the scoring burden placed on Rose in the section below. And, most of all, enjoy the way the Bulls are playing right now. The fun is only beginning!
Mark Schanowski hosts our Bulls pre- and postgame studio coverage with 15-year NBA veteran Kendall Gill. You can also watch Mark on SportsNet Central, Sunday through Thursday at 6:30 and 10 p.m.