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May 10, 2012
Playoff Prospectus
Chicago Ain't Dead Yet

by Bradford Doolittle

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at Chicago 77, Philadelphia 69 (Sixers lead 3-2)
Pace: 91.0
Offensive Ratings: Chicago 84.6, Philadelphia 75.8

At one point while I was watching the Sixers-Bulls game on Tuesday, I Tweeted that the Eastern Conference playoffs have set basketball back to the peach basket era. That pretty much sums up how I feel about the style of play we've seen over the last couple of weeks. Part of it is the reality of playoff basketball, and much of it is because teams in the East have been missing so many key components. It's become a battle of attrition, and that certainly true in the Bulls' case.

Chicago hasn't won a playoff game with fewer points since it beat Miami 75-68 on May 22, 1997. How ugly was it? The Bulls won despite going 4 for 11 from the free throw line. They did it with the kind of smothering defense that has characterized the Tom Thibodeau era and unlike the rest of the series, the point prevention held up for 48 minutes. The Sixers shot just 5 of 19 in the fourth quarter and never got any closer than the final margin of eight points.

The standout statistic from the Bulls' defensive work in Game Five was that the Sixers converted just 8 of 26 shots at the rim, a 31-percent success rate that is barely half of league average. Thibodeau went almost all-out with defensive configurations. He played Carlos Boozer for 42 minutes, but otherwise cut the court time for Kyle Korver and Richard Hamilton. Ever since Game One, the Sixers' defense has been focused on taking away offense created by those two curling around screens. In Game Five, Hamilton played 18 minutes and Korver just six.

Instead, Ronnie Brewer got his most minutes of the series and provided a spark on both ends of the floor. That's the advantage of having a roster that's not only deep, but is comprised of players with different strengths. Brewer was able to push the ball down the floor off of Philly miscues for a couple of baskets, plus another one in which he missed a layup that was cleaned up by Luol Deng. He provided a lot more energy than Hamilton, who is not really suited to be a primary offensive player at this point in his career. Let's remember that he was acquired to complement Derrick Rose. With Rose out, Thibodeau has to look to the lineups that worked without him during the regular season. Since Hamilton was usually out with injuries of his own, those lineups invariably did not include him.

The Bulls allowed .94 points per possession with Hamilton on the floor on Tuesday. With Brewer, they allowed a miniscule .67. On offense, there was really no configuration that worked efficiently. It was just a matter of Boozer working in the post and Deng on the perimeter to get up a volume of shots that kept the scoreboard turning just often enough. The ball movement was better and that's something that was a hallmark of the Bulls' attack when Rose was out during the regular season. It's a trend that will have to continue if Chicago is to survive another elimination game. The Bulls are 1-13 in franchise history in elimination games on the road.

Doug Collins shouldn't panic despite his team's lackluster performance, though he certainly should freak out if it's repeated in Game Six. As impressive as that low percentage at the rim might be for the Chicago defense, it's a tough figure to repeat. For the series, the Sixers were 52 percent at the rim before Game Five, and that's a more reasonable number to expect going forward. Meanwhile, the Sixers' aggressive approach remained intact. They got 24 free throw attempts and have now outscored the Bulls 101-56 at the line in the series. And, remember, not only did the Sixers attempt the fewest free throws in the league during the regular season, but just two teams allowed fewer free throw attempts than Chicago. Something has changed and after five games, it's become a formula Collins can rely on.

Also, the Sixers outscored Chicago 23-9 on fastbreak points. For the series, the edge is 85-58. On top of all that, Philly continues to negate Chicago's anticipated advantage on the offensive glass. The Sixers actually hold a 59-56 edge in second-chance points in the series. On Tuesday, Philly beat Chicago 8-6 at its own game.

We don't know who is going to be available for the Bulls in Game Six. Joakim Noah may return, or he may not. Gibson is expected to play, but he injured his ankle and it may impact his ability to go for big minutes. These are bad signs for the Bulls, who probably can't survive on the road with another performance like the one they put forth on Tuesday. The Bulls may have learned something in terms of its rotation but even that remains in flux because of the player availability issues.

Meanwhile, the Sixers can keep doing what they've been doing the whole series and bank on the fact that they will shoot better on their home floor. The degree to which Tuesday's struggles were due to Chicago's defense rather than Philly's offense will determine if we have a Game Seven on Saturday.

(Note: Data from MySynergySports.com and NBA.com/Stats were used in this piece.)

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