Poorly Chosen Matchups Doom Bulls vs. Heat

It was a sad night for fans of the underdog, as the upstart Bulls lost what was likely their last chance to keep their series against the Heat interesting.  The key stretch in the game started at the 4:14 mark of the 4th quarter.  Carlos Boozer had just made 1 of 2 free throws* to bring the Bulls within 2.  The Heat would reel off 14 points in their next 6 possessions, with only one of the makes (a 26 foot LeBron James 3 with the clock running down) a difficult attempt.  The Bulls’ problems in this stretch were threefold:  Carlos Boozer, a bad choice of matchups, and two tough loose ball fouls on Joakim Noah that sent Chris Bosh to the line.

*I can only remember him making both free throws once in a clutch situation, in the last minute of the Bulls’ streak-busting win against the Heat on March 27.

Most Bulls fans at this point have accepted Boozer for what he is defensively.  He brings physicality against bulky post-up players, a quick strip move, adequate defensive rebounding, and absolutely zero help or transition defense.*  Against Brooklyn, Boozer had a perfect offensive matchup against Reggie Evans.  It was a rare chance for Boozer to attack a defender who was neither taller nor quicker than him, and he largely made the Nets pay until Kirk Hinrich was injured.  Even more importantly, Brooklyn lacked the personnel to exploit Boozer’s defense without resorting to the defensively inattentive Andray Blatche.

*One of Boozer’s most maddening habits is that he almost invariably waits a beat before getting back on defense.  Whether it’s because he’s “contesting” an already secured defensive rebound, attempting to hopelessly block an outlet pass, complaining to the refs after a missed shot, or simply mentally gathering himself for the arduous trip down court, his first move on a change of possession is never to sprint back.

Against Miami, by contrast, Boozer has always matched up horribly.  Even in the dark days before Miami’s switch to small ball, Boozer was mercilessly exploited by the Heat in pick and rolls.  Once Dwayne Wade or LeBron James got a head of steam, Boozer was powerless to stop their forays to the basket even if he hung back below the foul line while guarding Joel Anthony or Udonis Haslem.  And if he guarded Chris Bosh, Boozer’s weaknesses were further exacerbated by Bosh’s abilities to shoot the midrange jumper or drive past a close-out.  Moreover, Miami’s ball pressure on Chicago’s guards and fronting tactics have made it difficult for Boozer to assert himself on offense.*  The Bulls have basically abandoned Boozer postups against the Heat.
*For having such a big body, Boozer is also surprisingly bad at sealing his man in the post.  When the Bulls do try to post him, Boozer’s man is usually able to get around him to steal or deflect an entry pass a couple times per game.

For this reason, the Bulls have often closed games with a frontcourt of Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah against Miami.  Indeed, it was this group that so heroically finished Game 1 with a 10-0 run by forcing the Heat into difficult shots throughout.  I had hoped that Gibson would again close Game 3* but Boozer’s hot (10-16) shooting night apparently merited crunch time minutes in Tom Thibodeau’s eyes.

*Or at least merit an offense/defense substitution, which Thibodeau eschewed until the final minute.  This was in contrast to Spolestra, who freely subbed in Ray Allen on offense and Shane Battier or Udonis Haslem on defense on free throws throughout the last 4 minutes.

As it was, Boozer’s poor help failed to prevent two key layups in the key stretch (one a James and-one) that Gibson could have made a difference on.  But the failure to insert Gibson was exacerbated by the matchups chosen by Thibodeau.  In other words, he chose....poorly.

The Heat largely deployed a unit of Norris Cole, Ray Allen, Dwayne Wade, James, and Bosh.

The Bulls matched up as follows:


The Bulls deployed similarly against the Heat in Game 1, except with Gibson on Allen and Noah on Bosh.  Either way, I disagree with the matchups.  There is absolutely no reason to deploy one of the two best help defenders* on Allen, whose defender must be tethered to him at the 3 point line to avoid giving up perhaps the most efficient shot in the Heat arsenal.  

*Or, in Game 3, the only help defender.

In the future I would like to see the following matchups:


This lineup allows Gibson and Noah to help as liberally as could be hoped for against the Heat.  Wade, while dangerous, is not a spot-up threat and can be credibly guarded in isolation or on spot ups by Gibson.*  In fact, Gibson’s long arms and leaping ability make him one of the best in the league at closing out.  Subjectively, it seems rare that a spot up shooter makes a shot over him because of how well he challenges shots.

*Another possibility is putting Gibson on LeBron while Butler guards Wade.  I’ve advocated for this previously, especially as James has evolved more to posting up over the last few years.  Gibson was switched onto James late in the first quarter due to Butler’s foul trouble and he did a credible job.

These principles can also be applied whenever Boozer is in the game and the Heat are not playing two big men together.  Boozer has to guard Bosh or Chris Anderson, but Gibson or Noah should be on the worst shooter on the court, regardless of size.  While putting a big man on Wade may defy convention, putting one on Allen defies it even further.  It is the best of the unpalatable options for the Bulls defensively when Boozer is in the game.


  • Many have deemed the Bulls’ fouling tactics “throwback,” and some have even questioned Thibodeau’s integrity for allegedly encouraging these hard fouls.  Certainly, the Bulls have extensively resorted to intentional fouling to prevent layups and fast breaks by Miami.  And there is also a very good argument that intentional fouls should be eliminated from the game.  But that is a far cry from the hard fouls from playoffs of yore, where dangerous plays that could have easily injured players were more commonplace.  To suggest the Bulls are reminiscent of the old-school Knicks or Pistons does them a disservice.  Do any of the Bulls’ fouls in this series compare to these?

  • I think this series has proven that those who decried the departure of Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer for Marco Belinelli and Jimmy Butler were premature.  Belinelli has been much better against the Heat than Korver could have been.  Against a team with two wing scorers, Korver would have been essentially unplayable on defense.  Even in 2011 when Korver guarded Mike Bibby, the Heat consistently exploited Korver in isolations following a 3/1 or 2/1 pick and roll.  Belinelli can at least avoid being completely roasted in isolation, and can run some pick and rolls on the other end.  All told, I would much rather have Beli for this year and the $5 million trade exception for this summer, even if the latter never gets used.  What’s more, Korver would have been a free agent at the end of this season, in which the Bulls correctly calculated they could not win the title.
  • Butler has been even more of a revelation the last few months.  This season has been worthwhile if only because Butler has nearly developed into the two-way shooting guard the Bulls have long coveted.  His defense has proved outstanding, but more importantly he has shown the ability to be a positive and multifaceted player on offense.  His spot-up shooting on 3s from the corner has been reliable, but he has also shown the ability to be efficient with 1 dribble pullups, finishes at the basket, getting to the free throw line, and even the occasional pick and roll or postup.
  • Letting Omer Asik go to the Rockets is a far thornier move to evaluate.  It’s hard to say he would help much against the Heat now or in the future, and that is really the essential inquiry for a Bulls team that is the clear second-best team in the East with a healthy Rose.  When the Heat played Joel Anthony or Udonis Haslem, Asik was a fantastic matchup due to his ability to contest Wade and LeBron at the rim without fouling.  But with Haslem now a relative afterthought and Bosh the biggest player on the Heat, Asik would really have no one to guard.  Moreover, he cannot play with Noah, and I don’t think anyone would claim that Asik should play over Noah.  Against Miami, not having Asik simply doesn’t matter that much.*  Perhaps the best argument I’ve heard for retaining Asik is that the Bulls should not have let an asset go for nothing and could have traded him later.  This point has merit, but it is also worth remembering that had Asik remained with the Bulls he would not yet have proven himself worthy of the large contract he received.  Asik’s $14.5 million salary in year 3 (had the Bulls retained him) would have been a very difficult pill for another team to swallow for a player who had never been more than a backup center.  Were the Bulls unable to trade him, they would not have flexibility in 2014.  In any event, I believe it has ultimately turned out that there were in fact “basketball reasons” for letting the former Bench Mob go.

    *The regular season is a different story, as was the series against the Nets.

  • Wade was shockingly passive again in Game 3, taking only 7 shots in 36 minutes.  Even more amazingly, it seemed like Miami almost never passed him the ball.  He had two shots in the 4th, one off an offensive rebound and one a wide-open dunk.  An assist to Bosh on a pick and roll was his only other 4th quarter box score contribution, and I do not remember any other plays where he was involved in the primary action.  It has been said that Miami cannot win the title unless Wade returns to health and becomes more aggressive, but I disagree.  With Russell Westbrook out for the Thunder, who exactly scares the Heat even with a diminished Wade?  This year’s Heat could be the rare team that wins the championship without playing a team whose quality exceeds “gritty” (Memphis) or “smart” (San Antonio).  If the Heat win this year, Rose’s injury will mean that the Finals last year against Oklahoma City was their only series against another great team in their two championship years.


  1. They chose ... poooooorrrrly.

  2. Great points all around, especially about Noah's "throwback" foul. Ummm, not quite.


Keep it clean.