Chicago Bulls Atlanta Hawks playoffs

Last night the Bulls dropped Game 1 to the Hawks; disappointing, to be sure, but even during an off-year Joe Johnson is capable of big games like the one he put up last night—12 for 18 from the field, five for five from three-point range. Today things are a bit better: Derrick Rose is going to be the MVP, something I highly approve of.

But just as important, Tom Thibodeau won coach of the year. Rose has been given a great deal of credit for the Bulls’ consistency through injuries to Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer, but Thibodeau has clearly put together a defense that can survive hits to its two star big men. In fact, the latter has looked stiff recently, as a result of his innocuous-sounding but painful case of turf toe.

What was surprising about last night’s game is that the Hawks seemed to play into the Bulls’ hands: they scored 40 of 103 points in the paint (to 48/95 for the Bulls), 8 fast break points (to 18 for the Bulls), and seven three-pointers (to eight for the Bulls). One of the biggest accomplishments of Thibodeau’s defense has been to force opponents to shoot more two-point jumpers, as Basketball Prospectus’s Dan Friedman points out. The reasons are pretty clear: you get the benefits of lower-percentage shots without the risks of threes.

And last night, the Hawks hit their jumpers: all three players in double digits were guards. The closest-in shot Joe Johnson hit was nine feet. Thibodeau blamed intensity, not a hot hand, but some nights the jumpers are going to fall better. (And the Hawks, as we’ll see in a second, take and make a lot of jumpers.)

It’s further borne out by Hoopdata’s advanced box score from last night. From 3-9 feet the Hawks shot six for 13. From 16-23 feet—in other words, the long jumpers the Bulls are trying to force—they were 11-26. The Hawks took more shots from 16-23 feet than any other distance. (The Bulls, alternately, were four for 18 from 16-23 feet.)

In short, the Hawks did what the Bulls wanted them to do, and they killed the Bulls at it. Interestingly, the Hawks take the second-most shots from that distance than any team in the NBA (23.6 per game, compared to the Wizards’ 24.5) and shoot the second-highest percentage from there (43.3 percent, compared to the Mavericks’ 45 percent)

Which is better than the Hawks breaking down the Bulls’ game plan, I guess, since it’s worked so far this season. Take these two metrics from Basketball Reference:

Thibodeau has put together an excellent defense, but they’ve run into a team that thrives in the one area of the court that the Bulls allow the most shots. So it could end up being a tougher series than people were expecting.

In other Chicago sports recognition news, look who’s the next Sports Illustrated cover boy (via @ajwalsh):

Starlin Castro sports illustrated

This portends disaster, but I’m looking forward to reading Albert Chen’s profile. The latest news about Castro is that he’s one of two players 21 or younger to get 40 hits in April; the last was A-Rod.


Photographs: Chicago Tribune