Bulls on the Wrong End of History This Time

(published May 26, 2011)

Getting a sense of déjà vu, Bulls fans?

It’s the 1990s all over again.

Only this time, you’re the Knicks.

You have a tough, stifling defense.  You have an overall edge in size, strength, and nastiness.  You have one and only one reliable scorer.

As it was in the ‘90s with the Knicks and Patrick Ewing, you have a number of players not named Derrick Rose who are capable of getting hot for a while, but in the fourth quarter their performance is a crapshoot.  (As in, Oh, crap – they’re shooting.)

You have Carlos Boozer.  The Knicks had Charles Oakley.

You have Joakim Noah.  The Knicks had Charles Smith.  (Every New Yorker just bent over and groaned.)

You have Bogans and Deng and Korver.  The Knicks had John Starks and Anthony Mason and Greg Anthony.

And this time, it’s your opponents who have Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.  (No offense to Chris Bosh.  Or to Horace Grant, for that matter.)

The Pat Riley Knicks of the ‘90s were perpetually one scorer short.  Down the stretch, they needed a reliable perimeter shooter who could hit the open jumper when the defense collapsed down low around Ewing.  They tried Kiki Vanderweghe, Rolando Blackman, Derek Harper, Hubert Davis – no one other than the maniacal Starks emerged as a frequent threat, and “frequent” and “reliable” are very different things.  (Google “2-for-18” with the quotation marks if you want to see the difference.)

When your offense revolves entirely around one man, a good defense can take him away when you need him most.  Jordan didn’t win until his team added Pippen and he learned to trust John Paxson and Craig Hodges and B.J. Armstrong and the others who were open when defenses cut off the middle on his drives.

The Bulls need the ball in Rose’s hands, and they need him to slash his way to the basket – which he’s generally been able to do – but Miami has done an excellent job of clogging the lane in the fourth quarter and daring him to pass.  The Heat has kept Boozer and Noah from being much of a factor, and no shooters have stepped up to spread the defense and ease the pressure inside.

Rose is showing the effects of the workload he bears as the team’s point guard and sole offensive threat.  Just 4 of his 33 field goals have come in the fourth quarter (and overtime) of the four games.  In the three Miami wins, the Heat have used the fourth quarter to turn a six-point lead into a ten-point victory (holding Chicago to ten points in the period), a three-point lead into an eleven-point win, and a five-point deficit into an overtime game Miami won by eight.

It doesn’t help the Bulls’ cause that LeBron James is looking again like the best basketball player on the planet.  His offensive explosion Tuesday on a night when Dwyane Wade was ineffective was nearly overshadowed by his terrific shutdown defense on Rose down the stretch.  James has the quickness to cut off Rose’s path to the lane, and the size to overwhelm him if he tries to shoot from the outside.  At several points in the game he burst to the rim with a unique blend of locomotive power and delicate efficiency, laying the ball in the hoop almost before the defense knew he was driving.

Chicago’s best chance to pull off an unlikely comeback will be to get tough and physical with Miami, and knock some people onto the floor.  Of course, the good people of Chicago would never stand for such tactics by a basketball team, judging by the howls of outrage that still echo from the Bulls-Knicks series of two decades ago.

The Miami Heat is becoming a team before our eyes.  For Bulls fans, it’s a movie they’ve seen before, on the other side of the looking glass.






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