Posted by lethalweapon3 in lethalweapon3's Pre-Game Preview Blog, 15 April 2015 - · 24 views
“Now, that’s what I call a DEEP dish!”
Onto The Last One!
For Chicago Bulls fans, tonight’s regular season finale at the United Center with the Atlanta Hawks (60-21) brings a bit of a conundrum. Beat the Hawks, and their Bulls lock themselves into the 3-seed in the “OMFG LEBRON!” sub-bracket of the Eastern Conference Playoffs, taking on Jason Kidd’s fear-inducing deer in the opening round. Chicago (49-32) might prefer to land in what’s perceived as the kinder, gentler sub-bracket that’s headlined by Atlanta, perhaps getting an early shot at vengeance against the 5-seed Wizards.
Toronto’s walkthrough with the Hornets (nice scheduling, ESPN!) kicks off one hour earlier, and the Raptors (48-33), who STILL have yet to ever win 50 games, should have no problem getting franchise-setting win number 49 tonight. The Atlantic Division leader would win a tiebreaker for seeding against the Central Division runner-up. So, the likely Raps victory will put the 3-seed ball in the homecourt of the Bulls. If they want their road to the Conference Finals to come via the Wizards and the Hawks/Pacers/Nets (…okay, fine, the Hawks), Chicago has to find a way to play possum and fall short, against a Hawks team that has nothing of significant value to gain from winning.
The Bulls prevailed in their last three games to put themselves in this position. More importantly, they seem to have gotten over the yips with home games in the second half of the season. Through February, the bad-Celtics, bad-Pacers, bad-Jazz, bad-Magic, shaky-heat, and bad-Hornets all hung losses on the Bulls’ horns in their house. Since then, Chicago’s gone 8-2, winning six home games in a row to lock down homecourt in the first round.
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau has elected to sit Joakim Noah for the… ha! Just kidding. I mean, c’mon now, this is Tom Thibodeau we’re talking about here! The only ones that saved Noah’s tender knees and hamstring from a 35-minute outing tonight were GM Gar Forman and Basketball Ops VP John Paxson. Management and Thibs have been in a perpetual tug-of-war over the need to preserve Joakim (capping his minutes at 32) for the postseason, even forcing Thibs to sit him in fourth quarters while games hang in the balance.
If they could find a hangnail on Derrick Rose (last 3 games: 29.7 minutes/game 10.7 PPG, 3.3 TOs/game, 23.5 FG%, 15.4 3FG%), management would shelve him tonight, too. The primary starting-five for the Bulls (Rose, Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy, Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol) are 16-5 when they’re starting together. The benching of Noah will bring Taj Gibson back to the top line to play alongside Gasol, and head-to-head against the Hawks’ Paul Millsap, in his first game back his injuring his shoulder 11 days ago.
We won’t see Kirk Hinrich in uniform tonight, either, as The Captain is nursing a hyperextended knee. We will get to see two entertaining point guard matchups.
Jeff Teague, who is looking to make up for that missed bunny at the close of the home finale versus New York, will go against Rose. Along the way to a 17-point, 11-assist night (3 steals, 3 blocks, 2 turnovers), Teague had Rose looking silly at times during Atlanta’s 107-99 cruise over the Bulls back during their January romp. Rose shot 14-for-43 (4-for-17 on threes) during his two meetings with the Hawks this season.
Dennis Schröder (14.0 PPG in his last two appearances) did not play in that contest, and after resting against the Knicks he’ll have a fun time against Chicago’s Aaron Brooks. Each should provide a spark of offense for their teams once the game starts grinding down. Schröder will have to keep working on his defensive chops and force the Bulls into turnovers. He’ll tie his season-long drought at seven games if he does not record a steal tonight.
Al Horford doesn’t know whether he’ll be tangling with Brook Lopez or Roy Hibbert this weekend (…okay, fine, Hibbert). But for as long as he and Millsap are in, he should have his way offensively against Pau Gasol. Pau is a renaissance man, an All-Star at age 34, enjoying his best offensive season since 2011 (18.5 PPG, 11.8 RPG), and he’s doing that in Chicago, no less.
The Bulls are far better offensively with Gibson-and-Gasol (106.9 O-Rating) than they are when Noah is doing that point-center thing no one understands (103.2 O-Rating Gasol-Noah, 97.3 Gibson-Noah). But he can get exposed against active centers, like Horford, that make him play the fullcourt, leaving defensive fixtures like Gibson (playing despite a sore shoulder) abandoning their man to help. Although he shot 0-for-4 on threes in the January meeting, Millsap’s ability to keep Gibson honest by hovering near the perimeter keeps Chicago’s defensive coverage spread thin.
Gasol made up for Rose’s inefficiencies in January with 22 points and 15 rebounds against Atlanta. But that was more than offset by Horford, whose 22 points all came from the field (11-for-13 2FGs). The Bulls contracted their defense to deal with Horford and Jeff Teague’s relentless forays into the paint, opening things up for Kyle Korver (7-for-9 3FGs), a nightmarish cover for Butler and Dunleavy.
Keep an eye out for our old friend Nazr Mohammed, who will get to play in his 1000th NBA game tonight whenever he appears. Thibodeau will also begrudgingly (does he do anything any other way?) unleash his rookies off the bench. Chris Vivlamore reports that over a hundred Creighton alums are on hand to cheer on their Bluejay alums, Atlanta’s Korver and Bulls rookie Doug McDermott. McBuckets probably isn’t so sure he caught a break getting traded to the Windy City from Denver on draft night.
While it seems Thibs’ restraints were about the only thing that kept sixth-man Nikola Mirotic from getting Rookie of the Year hardware, a greater problem is a months-long shooting slump that Mirotic is slowly starting to shake off. The man called Three-kola is connecting on just 31.7% of his three-point shots and 30.5% on two-point jumpers all season. Those shots look even worse since January 1 (31.2 FG% from 8-feet-out).
Stats-wise, though, the rookie has been Chicago’s most effective defender (team-best 99.8 D-Rating), which is probably why he gets the scant minutes (20.0 per game, ninth-most on the roster) that lotto-pick McDermott doesn’t.
Offensively, the Bulls’ secret-sauce is their ability to draw contact and get trips to the free throw line. Their 26.2 free throw attempts per 100 possessions are the most in the East (3rd in NBA), while their 78.2 team FT% also ranks third in the league. Butler, Chicago’s leading scorer (20.0 PPG) and Mirotic are among just eight active NBA players averaging 20+ minutes who get at least 27% of their points off of free throws. Every starter aside from Noah make 80% of their free throw shots, as do Brooks and Mirotic.
Chicago is 15-5 (3 OT losses, no losses since January 29) when opponents are called for at least 25 personal fouls, a mediocre 17-15 when foes foul under 20 times in a game. The Hawks have to keep the clock running on the Bulls. They must contest the Bulls outside the paint, but need to hold their defensive positioning to avoid blocking calls, and must not get caught reaching for swipes on ballhandlers.
The Hawks have a chance to finish the season giving up the fewest points in the Eastern Conference. Their 97.2 opponent PPG is just behind Indiana (97.1) and neck-and-neck with the heat (97.2) and Bucks (97.3). I trust Atlanta is perfectly fine with letting the Pacers try to secure that top-spot tonight.
In any case, the Hawks do want to finish strong defensively as they head into the postseason to face either Indiana or Brooklyn (…okay, fine, Indiana). Sefolosha’s defense will be missed against his old team (4 steals @ CHI on Jan. 17). But Millsap, in his return, will make defensive cohesion simpler, compared to the patchwork job The Mikes (Muscala and Scott, the latter out to rest his back and forearm) provided during his absence. With the starting unit back together, tonight should be a fun, pressure-free conclusion to the regular season, if not much more.
Let’s Go Hawks!