Anatomy of Futility: Charting the Hawks' 20 Point Half

Rare is the game that is more enjoyable to watch already knowing the result, but that was certainly the case for last night’s Hawks/Bulls tilt at the United Center.  Since I’m based on the West Coast and don’t leave my day job until 7, my normal M.O. for Bulls home games is to record and watch when I get home.  But this time, a rote check of Twitter revealed the halftime score: 48-20!  As incredible as that score was, it became even more so as I watched the Hawks score a perfectly respectable 13 points in the first 6 minutes of the game.  I became more incredulous as I did the math and realized the Bulls somehow allowed only 7 points in 18 minutes of NBA basketball against a Hawks team that still ranks a reasonable 18th in offense* even after this debacle.

*I’m now using “offense” and “defense” rather than “offensive efficiency” and “defensive efficiency”.  We’re beyond thinking offensive prowess is ranked by points per game, right?

How does a team allow (or score) only 7 points in 18 minutes on 34 possessions?  And was it more the Hawks’ ineptitude or Bulls’ brilliance?  

As one might suspect, this putrid result was equal parts great defense from the Bulls and horrible offense from the Hawks.

I charted these 34 possessions as follows*:

  • 4 forced turnovers
  • 6 unforced turnovers
  • 6 shots blocked
  • 5 forced misses due to good defense from the Bulls
  • 6 bad shots
  • 3 missed open shots
  • 3 decent shots
  • 4 baskets/shooting fouls totaling 7 points

*These add up to greater than 34 possessions since the Hawks attempted multiple shots on some possessions.

While some bad luck is necessary for a prolonged drought of this magnitude, it wasn’t like the Hawks were missing open shots left and right.   Even had they made every truly open shot they took it would only have netted an additional 8 points.  The Hawks committed unforced errors (either turnovers or bad shots) 12 times in the 34 possessions.  The Bulls essentially stopped them (via blocked shot, forced turnover, or good defense forcing a difficult shot) another 15 times.  The Hawks only succeeded (i.e., a good shot, made FG, or shooting foul) 7 times.  Another 3 times they got reasonable but not easy shots, basically a neutral result in terms of expected points per possession.

Despite the Hawks inability to score, I would not describe the offense as particularly poor in a schematic sense.  While Larry Drew could serve to rein in a few of the bad shots, the Hawks were able to get some nice opportunities near the rim off screens and deep postups.  But they were continually thwarted by the length of Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson.  Carlos Boozer even chipped in a block on a strip move.  Promising close chances for Hawks power players Ivan Johnson, Josh Smith, and Al Horford repeatedly resulted in blocks, turnovers, or missed layups, due largely to excellent individual and help defense by Chicago.

On the perimeter, the Bulls succeeded in forcing largely contested jumpers.  Even the Hawks’ reasonably open chances were almost invariably long twos, an inefficient proposition for nearly everyone on the Hawks’ roster aside from Al Horford.  In typical Thibodeau fashion, the Bulls allowed only four 3 point attempts among the 34 possessions, only two of which were open shots by good shooters.

Offensively, the Bulls only had 3 live ball turnovers during this stretch.  On a related note, the Hawks only got two fast break attempts, both of which they missed.  A key to the Bulls’ effective defense was the fact that the offense did not put it in compromised positions.

Ultimately, this nearly unprecedented stretch of futility was a deserved consequence of the efforts on both sides.  A great defensive effort by the Bulls coupled with the Hawks repeatedly shooting themselves in the foot resulted in a stretch of basketball only a mother (or a 90s Knick fan) could love.

For the truly masochistic, my charting of each possession is below the break.

Possession 1

Jeff Teague comes off a pick and roll and tries to curl under the roll man, expecting Kirk Hinrich to be trailing him after the screen.  But Teague runs right into Kirk Hinrich and picks up a justified offensive foul.  It was great defense by Hinrich, who fought over the pick much harder than Teague expected and surprised him with his positioning.


Al Horford posts up into a predictable 7 foot jump hook against his former college teammate Joakim Noah after a cross screen.  Noah is all over the hook and forces him into a brick.


The Hawks run a horns set which turns into a big handing off to Devin Harris for a 3 at the break.  Harris was relatively open (if on the move) when Richard Hamilton went under the screen. This isn’t a horrible shot, but a Devin Harris three off a screen is not an efficient shot with 12 on the shot clock.


Josh Smith posts up against Luol Deng and loses the ball on the drive thanks to Deng’s quick feet and surprising strength.

The Hawks have a nice offensive possession, screening for a Smith skip pass out of the post to John Jenkins in the corner.  Jenkins misses a wide open 3, but he’s a good shooter and this is a good shot.  Al Horford gets the offensive rebound and attempts to post up.  He was initially guarded on a scramble by Carlos Boozer, but the Bulls communicate and switch his man Noah back onto him.  This pays immediate dividends when Hamilton digs down.  In attempting to protect against Hamilton, Horford exposes the ball to Noah and is stripped.


Ivan Johnson isos at the top of the key and somehow drives past Noah for a lefty layin.  Ironically, this shot probably resulted in 3 later misses as Johnson got the idea he could score inside.  This was...incorrect, is the end of that sentence.


Lou Williams drives into 3 people in semi-transition and tries to bail himself out with a pass to the corner.  A hustling Hamilton gets back to intercept after missing a shot at the other end.


The Hawks have now gone to a bigger lineup with Smith at the 3 as Kyle Korver was getting abused by Deng in the post.*  This leads to Smith shooting a very contested 3 with 10 on the shot clock.  Horrible shot selection.

*Given the fervor with which Tom Thibodeau called isolations against former Bulls defensive weak link Korver in the first quarter, one shudders to think of the reception Carlos Boozer will receive in his first game against the Bulls following his amnesty sell-by date in July of 2014.  I anticipate he will be involved in roughly 75 pick and rolls defensively.


Johnson shoots an open 19 footer on a pick and pop.  Zaza Pachulia gets a number of tips but can’t get any to fall before Boozer secures the rebound.*

*Note to Carlos: You aren’t allowed to yell “give me that shit” when the guy just missed 3 tips over the top of your head before you lucked into the board.


Pachulia posts up, turns and faces, and misses a 14-footer which was very lightly contested by Boozer.


Johnson makes a nice cut to the rim and gets packed by Deng.

Six minutes into their historic stretch of futility, the Hawks have 2 points on 11 possessions, 4 of which ended in turnovers forced by good defense from the Bulls.  The Hawks also had a shot blocked.

2nd Quarter


Lou Williams runs a pick and roll with Kyle Korver, rejects the screen and gets to the rim, but has his shot blocked by Noah off of Williams out of bounds.


Johnson flashes to the free throw line opposite a pick and roll, receives the ball and drives to the rim only to be rejected by Noah.  Good offense, just better defense.


Williams misses an open 19 footer from the left wing off a semi-transition pick and roll.  Taj Gibson just gets in his vision with a late close.


Johnson gets open at the rim again on a nice duck-in, but gets blocked by Gibson.


It’s not Johnson’s night.  He tries a bounce pass to Korver under the basket that had no chance.  Not only was Korver not open, but he’s not going to finish inside there anyway. This was pretty much an unforced turnover.


A straight post up for Horford against Noah results in another ugly jump hook that has no chance.  Good defense by Noah.

Devin Harris runs a pick and roll with Pachulia and inadvertently throws an attempted cross court pass off Pachulia’s face.  About as ugly an unforced turnover as you’ll see.


Korver misses an open 3 in the corner in transition.  This was a good shot that just didn’t go down.  Horford gets the offensive rebound and throws a pass behind Korver which he loses out of bounds.  That’s now 3 horrible unforced turnovers in 4 possessions.


Atlanta’s offense is quickly devolving.  Smith starts on the right wing, almost loses his dribble, then somehow meanders through the lane, posts up on the left block against Noah, backs it out, and takes a contested 2 from the left baseline.  Horrendous.


Of a baseline out of bounds, Harris curls around a downscreen into the lane, receives the pass and misses a wild layup over Gibson’s help defense.  On the ensuing inbounds, Teague has to rush a 3 up against the shotclock and misses badly.


The Hawks run a nice play for Horford to get deep post position.  For no reason at all he spins baseline and steps out of bounds to the tune of an “oh man” from the Hawks’ color guy.  Another unforced turnover.


Smith receives the ball at the left elbow after a pick and roll and drives to the rim. He misses a tough layup over Gibson who did a good job staying with him.


Harris loses a pass into the backcourt.  Another execrable unforced turnover.  Synergy very accurately characterizes this as “no play type.”


The Hawks have scored!  Even this was quite difficult.  Horford gets deep post position and gets his hook shot thrown back in his face by Gibson.  After another miss he finally tips it in.


I’ll let Synergy handle this one: #5 Josh Smith > ISO > Jumper > Miss 2.


Jeff Teague gets in the lane off a side pick and roll and misses a contested floater.  Not a terrible shot, but one that probably only goes in 40% of the time.


Williams misses a contested 17 footer from the right elbow off another pick and roll with 15 on the shot clock.  These kinds of long twos are the lifeblood of a Thibodeau defense.


Smith drives past Boozer into Noah and gets bailed out with a foul call.  He makes 1 of 2, accounting for 20% of the Hawks’ 2nd quarter scoring.


In the Hawks’ second fast break chance of the quarter, Smith goes coast to coast and badly misses a layup over another great contest from Noah.  Hawks announcer: “Smith throws it over the rim.”


Smith isolated from the FT line against Boozer. Boozer cuts him off but he spins back for a hook shot and scores.  Poor Carlos Boozer; even in a period where the Bulls only give up 5 points he allows 60% of the Hawks’ output.


An utterly miserable possession by John Jenkins.  He dribbles back and forth along the right sideline for ten seconds against Jimmy Butler until he finally takes a fadeaway 17 footer that misses badly.  A limited spot-up guy like Jenkins isolating against a great defender like Butler is not what Larry Drew had in mind.


Smith posts up on Boozer and falls prey to Boozer’s patented strip move as he drives to the rim.  Boozer is credited with a block.


Horford runs a pick and pop and mercifully ends the Hawks first half with a travel after a shot fake.  This was yet another unforced turnover.


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