“HOLDING ONTO HIS KNEE… HOLDING ONTO HIS KNEE AND DOWN.”
If you’ve seen any nationally televised basketball game this season, you’ve probably heard these gut-wrenching words oddly placed in an adidas advertisement, under the guise of redemption. The phrase, spoken by announcer Kevin Harlan, is ripped from the Chicago Bulls’ first playoff game last season against the Philadelphia 76ers, when star point guard and former “M-V-P” Derrick Rose planted awkwardly going up for a floater, tearing his ACL.
That knee has kept Rose out for the foreseeable future — some reports indicate a March return, if at all — and the Chicago Bulls have adjusted accordingly. Their stellar defense hasn’t missed a beat, anchored by center Joakim Noah and bullhorn of a coach Tom Thibodeau, and Chicago ranks first overall in the NBA in defensive efficiency. Thanks to Thibodeau’s system, predicated on packing the paint and quick rotations, the Bulls have allowed the fewest three-point attempts and the lowest three-point percentage in the league, as well as a low percentage of shots attempted at the rim. This isn’t a new development for Thibodeau’s Bulls — they’ve ranked first in the NBA in defensive efficiency every season since Thibodeau joined the coaching staff.
(Side note: people call Avery Johnson “The Little General,” but Tom Thibodeau runs a regiment: Thibodeau has two players averaging over 40 minutes per game this season, Noah and small forward Luol Deng. Deng has played 6,197 minutes in Thibodeau’s tenure, behind just Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin — in 10 and 13 fewer games, respectively — and leads the NBA in minutes per game for the second straight season.)
Accordingly, the Nets have struggled to score against Chicago. In seven matchups in the past two seasons, the Nets have only won two, never topping 100 points in any contest and shooting just 42.3% in those seven games.
But, as we all know by now, the Brooklyn Nets are not the New Jersey Nets: Travis Outlaw and DeShawn Stevenson have been replaced with Gerald Wallace and Joe Johnson, Brook Lopez is “around” (though it’s not confirmed if he’ll play), and Deron Williams has teammates that won’t drop his passes. That said, two of the Nets’ strongest suits — spotting up around Deron Williams and posting up with Brook Lopez — are the things Chicago is best at defending.
Chicago’s offense is another matter; even if Lopez doesn’t play tonight, the Nets should have some success containing the Chicago Bulls’ offensive attack. Without the reliably darting Rose rocketing through defensive space, the Bulls have struggled to create open looks from their ball movement and spacing. After ranking fourth in the NBA spotting up last season, they’ve plummeted to 25th without Rose. Losing Kyle Korver to Atlanta didn’t help there either. Additionally, Chicago’s most reliable three-point threats this season — Kirk Hinrich and Rip Hamilton — have both dealt with injuries. (Hinrich is a game-time decision tonight). If the Nets can control the glass — the Bulls have the sixth-best offensive rebounding percentage in the league — they should improve their defensive efficiency by a tick or two tonight.
That’s, of course, assuming the team’s schedule doesn’t ruin them. Coming off a double-overtime game at home, the Nets traveled to Chicago today for the second half of a back-to-back with two starters coming off 50+ minute nights. The Chicago Bulls, conversely, haven’t played since Wednesday, a 96-89 victory over Philadelphia.
The game starts at 8 P.M. tonight.