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May 3, 2011
Playoff Prospectus
Lakers, Bulls Stunned at Home

by Bradford Doolittle

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Atlanta 103, at Chicago 95 (Atlanta leads series 1-0)
Pace: 85.8
Offensive Ratings: Atlanta 120.0, Chicago 110.7

After a week off, the Bulls came out sluggish. The shots they were getting were fine, they just weren't falling Derrick Rose missed all seven of his first quarter shots, then sat out the first half of the second quarter. The Bulls shot 29 percent in the opening period. Things picked up for them in the second quarter with the second unit on the floor. The interior defense clamped down on the Atlanta bigs, thanks to the dynamic defensive tandem of Omer Asik and Taj Gibson, and C.J. Watson sparked the Bulls' offense. Asik was quietly effective, reaching over smaller Atlanta players to keep offensive rebounds alive and taking out a flopping Jamal Crawford on one play to free up Kyle Korver for a three-pointer. After falling behind by 11, the Bulls gradually edged back into the game, though they still trailed by seven when Rose returned to the action. It wasn't an unfamiliar scene. The Bulls started slow a number of times in the regular season, and in more than a few of those games, it was the second unit that provided the spark.

Once Rose returned, still scoreless, he turned on the jets and it was all Bulls with the first unit--with Kyle Korver in place of Keith Bogans--back on the court, and Chicago started to take over the game. Chicago really started to force the ball into the paint and seven of the Bulls' nine third-quarter field goals came in the painted area. That did open up some good looks from the outside, but the jumpers still weren't falling. Meanwhile, the Bulls put the clamps on the lane on the Hawks' end, limiting Atlanta to just four points there in the third quarter. On a couple of possessions, Atlanta had five players spread out near the three-point line, and no one even attempted to drive into the middle. Nevertheless, Joe Johnson kept bailing the Hawks out with fallaway jumpers and Atlanta maintained the one-point lead they had at the break.

The Bulls' second unit returned for the start of the fourth quarter, but that first-half spark wasn't' there. A 17-4 Atlanta run overlapped the end of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth. The Bulls pushed back with six straight but Johnson hit a fadeaway from the corner to stop run. That's the way it went the rest of the way, with Johnson hitting tough shots and Crawford doing the same. Rose never went to line in game, and the Bulls' attempt at extending the defense and trapping further out on the floor only forced Atlanta to use up the entire shot clock before Johnson or Crawford would bail out the possession. It looked very much like Atlanta's series against Boston three years ago, when the sub-.500 Hawks threw a seven-game scare into the eventual-champion Celtics. As an assistant for Boston back then, Thibodeau had seen this act before from the Hawks. Atlanta just couldn't miss the really tough shots they got down the stretch, and stole Game One.

After the game, there was a sense of shock around the United Center. Someone asked me how long I thought the series would go, and I stubbornly said five games. "Five games for who?" the person said. I guess that I can't let go of the fact that the Hawks muddled through a mediocre regular season by getting outscored, lost their last six regular-season games and were missing Kirk Hinrich, the one guy that stood out as a difference from Hawks teams of years past, squads that have been banging their heads against their collective ceiling. But after beating Orlando and taking away homecourt advantage from the Bulls and sitting with that all-important Game One win--and the 78 percent chance of winning the series that history says is the benefit of taking the opener--it's time to take this Hawks team seriously. The Hawks, the team that we just can't seem to get a handle on.

This was a throwback offensive night for the Hawks, who got 23 percent of their shots out of isolations, averaging 1.14 points on those plays. Johnson and Crawford combined for nine field goals on isolation plays on their own. The Bulls allowed just .74 points per possession on those plays during the regular season. After the game, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau bemoaned the fact that "Johnson and Crawford got where ever they wanted to go." Perhaps, but few of those shots were uncontested. It was simply a virtuoso performance by those scorers, who combined for 56 points on 20-of-34 shooting, including a 7-for-9 performance from behind the arc. Whenever the Bulls tried to get a stranglehold on the game, Johnson or Crawford would respond with a flurry of points. They are tough shot makers, that is what they do. The Hawks averaged 1.2 points per possession on the game. The Bulls have allowed a number that high in just five of their 88 games this season, including the playoffs.

Rebounding was a big factor in the game as well. The Bulls hammered the Hawks off the glass in the regular season, but the rebound numbers were a virtual dead heat on Monday. Though they played limited minutes, Atlanta's bench brigade of Damien Wilkins, Zaza Pachulia and Jason Collins came in and hit the glass hard and brought plenty of energy with them. Larry Drew played primarily a six-man rotation on Monday, but brief appearances by those three were very important to the outcome of the game. The Bulls had 10 offensive boards, but were just 4-of-11 on second-chance shots. Atlanta blocked eight shots in the game, four by Josh Smith, and generally did a great job of contesting the Bulls once they got into the paint.

Jeff Teague played 44:37 in place of Hinrich and did a terrific job, especially in bothering Rose without fouling him. Teague is very quick, so I expected Rose to exploit him with his size and strength. It didn't happen. Rose was too perimeter oriented and the fact that he didn't get to the line after shooting 60 free throws in five games against Indiana was really disappointing for the Bulls. Look for Rose to take the ball to the basket early and often in Wednesday's Game Two. Luol Deng was the most effective Bull with 17 first-half points, but he scored just four points after the break and took just three shots.

Dallas 96, L.A. Lakers 94 (Dallas leads series 1-0)
Pace: 87.7
Offensive Ratings: Dallas 109.5, L.A. Lakers 107.2

The Mavericks have always been able to rely on their shooting to a remarkable degree. Dallas is one of the most successful outside-in teams of all-time, but the approach has to date run out of steam before championship trophies could be hoisted. There is something different about this year's Mavs, an aging group who don't have a whole lot of years of serious contention left in them, at least not with a core of Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, Jason Terry and Dirk Nowitzki. For now, though, the play of those frontliners and a deep bench is enough to put Dallas in the title conversation. The presence of Tyson Chandler may be enough to get them over the top.

I thought the key to Monday's Game One win by the Mavericks was the ability of Chandler, and Brendan Haywood in his stint, to neutralize the Lakers big-man contingent of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum in the second half. The pair combined to go 2-of-7 after halftime. After the Lakers held sizable advantages in the paint and off the offensive glass in the first half, the jump-shooting Mavericks actually outscored L.A. in the lane in the second half. Most of those paint points came off of the fastbreak and the secondary break, with Marion repeatedly beating Ron Artest down the court. After being outscored 10-2 on second chance points in the first half, Dallas held a 3-2 edge in the second. The Lakers got those two points on free throws; they were 0-of-5 from the field in second-chance points after halftime. With the Lakers' inside game no longer a factor, the L.A. offense turned into Kobe Bryant going one-on-one from the perimeter. It wasn't enough, especially down the stretch.

The Mavericks survived a terrible close to the first half and start to the second, during which the Lakers went on a 21-2 run. Dallas edge back in the third quarter, first by running more and getting into the lane. Then Rick Carlisle knocked the mothballs off Corey Brewer, and he responded by sparking the Mavericks on both ends of the court. The Lakers couldn't find consistent offense in their halfcourt sets, and the Mavericks stayed close enough for Nowitzki to take over town the stretch. The Mavericks used Kidd on Bryant in the game's most-important sequences. On the Lakers' next-to-last possession, Kidd held onto Bryant as he tried to take a handoff from Gasol. Bryant ended up stumbling and falling, and Kidd turned up with the ball. On the last possession, Bryant curled around a screen and lost Kidd enough to get a clean look at a three, but his shot bounded off the back of the rim.

Key number: According the Synergy Sports Technology, the Lakers averaged just .63 points on their post-ups. They were at .94 points per play on posts in the regular season, the third-best in the league. The Mavericks were the fourth-best team defensively on those plays at .83 PPP. So the Lakers' performance, especially after halftime, was on the extreme end. L.A. has to get back to playing inside-out basketball.

On the other end, the Lakers need to do a better job of contesting shots. Dallas averaged 1.45 points on their spot-ups. But that's going to happen. It's what the Mavericks do. Dallas shot just 11 free throws on Monday and the Mavs are the one team you can look at and say it doesn't matter. In Nowitzki and Terry, they have two of the league's best shooters. Nowitzki can get shots whenever he wants. With his style of game, high release and length, he looks like a guy shooting around alone on the playground most of the time. There is little the defense can do to bother Nowitzki, but the Lakers have to figure out a way to do just that. Even more importantly, the Lakers have to eliminate the easy baskets the Mavericks got at the rim. This is going to be a coin-flip series, it looks like, and little adjustments will go a long way to determining who will advance.

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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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