Lack of a deal put Bulls in this position
The Bulls' brass failed to go out and get the piece the team needed -- and it shows
MIAMI -- Games like the Bulls' loss Sunday night are why there was so much angst in Chicago at the NBA trading deadline in late February, when team executives decided not to make a deal for a big-time scorer, when they decided to stand pat and go into the playoffs with the roster they had, the roster with just one legitimate defense-wrecker. Don't get me wrong, given the team's youth, upward arc and the wisdom of looking at the big picture, Gar Forman and John Paxson probably did the right thing keeping talented young bigs Taj Gibson and Omer Asik, who are so much more difficult to find than a shooter.
Almost certainly it'll pay off down the line, but the price the Bulls are paying in the conference finals is that the lack of a deal means the Bulls don't have enough offense now, not when Miami can send 6-foot-11 Chris Bosh and 6-8 LeBron James to double-team 6-3 Derrick Rose, as happened more than a few times. Miami's 96-85 Game 3 victory produced more than a few storylines, including Bosh's second huge game of the series.
But what should stand out even more is that the Bulls don't have enough offense to beat Miami in a seven-game series. Back in late February, when Forman and Paxson decided to put off finding a scorer to complement Rose until the summer, Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen said, "We'll be able to beat good defenses, but against a team with great defense and scorers like Miami, we just won't have enough firepower."
Pippen said that day he understood completely the decision not to trade one of the young big men for a quick-fix scorer who might not be the answer, but there was still a reality the Bulls would have to confront: The offensive talent isn't there. Not yet. Of course, Pippen is dead-on; it's not even debatable. Against a defense as creative and as athletic as Miami's, the Bulls need another wing player who can create his own shot off the dribble. They need a player who can make a defense pay dearly for double-teaming Rose, a player who when he sees his teammate doubled begins to drool at the prospect of a 25-point night.
The Bulls don't have that player now and as a result they're going to have a damned difficult time scoring enough points to beat the Miami Heat. The Bulls lost Game 2 in Chicago shooting 34 percent and Game 3 here in Miami on Sunday night shooting 42 percent. A total of 85 points isn't going to cut it, especially on a night when Carlos Boozer made eight of his last 14 shots and finished with 26 points and 17 rebounds. Miami, meanwhile, has no such trouble; the Heat shot 51 percent despite being outrebounded, 41-32. So even though the Bulls held a 17-7 edge in second-chance points, Miami still controlled the game because the Bulls were never a serious offensive threat.
Rose's 8-for-19 wasn't the worst shooting night he's had or will have in the playoffs. The bigger problem was what to do against Miami when the Heat brought two defenders, either as a result of covering the pick-and-roll or simply throwing two men at Rose to make him give up the ball. It worked like a dream. In the fourth quarter, Rose saw more than a few possessions of a Bosh and James tag team, and it's the first time in the MVP's three-year NBA career that I recall seeing a look on his face that essentially said, "What the hell am I supposed to do now?"
The answer should be to swing the ball to a teammate who can break down a weakened defense, but the Bulls don't have that player. Luol Deng can get his own shot, yes, but not like, say, Jason Richardson, a 6-6 slasher who can get from the top of the circle to the rim in two dribbles consistently enough to make Miami stop doubling Rose. And it wasn't just the double-teams. Miami formed what at times looked like a pocket around Rose, sort of the reverse of what an offensive line does for a quarterback. And Rose, truth be told, didn't handle it all that well. He had zero assists in the first half, in sort of a Westbrookian stretch of basketball, while missing 8 of 12 shots.
Miami's best players know what they're onto. They know now the Bulls don't have enough offense to discourage them. "Derrick Rose," LeBron said, "is a great player. He's going to find creases. It's working -- but it's a long series."
The Bulls hardly ever had bad back-to-back games in the regular season. They were 16-4 following a loss, 3-0 following a playoff loss. But as Pippen noted back then, and again last night after watching the game at courtside, "Great offense beats great defense." Especially when the team with the great offense is playing at home in the playoffs and is assisted by great defense itself.
Rose, even after the game, was searching for an answer as to what to do against the double-teams. "They're doubling me every pick-and-roll," he observed, "so [I'm trying] to just get the ball out of my hands and try to let my teammates create for others. That's what I'm going to continue to try to do: sometimes beat the double-team and sometimes try to pass and make it easy."
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The problem there is that the best passer other than Rose is 6-11 Joakim Noah, as evidenced by his six assists. The second thing is the Bulls ought to seriously think about bagging the pick-and-roll -- this is original thought from my buddy Jon Barry, who played 50 years in the NBA -- because with the big Bulls player setting the pick comes a big defender (Bosh often) who can just stay there and help double-team Rose. As Udonis Haslem admitted afterward, "Every time we get an opportunity we try to trap him a little bit, show him bodies."
So, the Bulls have one player who can beat the Heat -- Rose -- and they're helping Miami defend him by luring bodies in his direction. Hell, it's amazing Miami hasn't won these games by a greater margin.
The Bulls, because they've been so successful this year on defense and because it's been something they can control, will continue staring at the 50.7 percent Miami shot in Game 3 and focusing on how to reduce that number. Yes, it was Miami's first 50 percent shooting night in the playoffs. But Miami shot as efficiently as it did, in part, because the Bulls seemed discouraged by their inability to score at the other end. Their fourth quarter of Game 2 in Chicago was their lowest scoring quarter (10 points) in the franchise's playoff history.
Rose took just two shots in the fourth quarter Sunday. That's not a defensive issue. Since the Bulls won't be able to go out and add a shooter between now and Tuesday night's Game 4, they'd better start whipping the ball around to probe Miami's defense and they'd better start pushing the pace. As is, the Bulls outscored Miami 16-10 in fast-break points, but the Bulls need to have north of 25 fast-break points to win, especially here in Miami. They've got to make Rose a sitting-duck target for the Miami defense and keep him on the move so that only one Heat player can guard him, which isn't possible.
Whether the Bulls played Miami or Boston in the conference finals, this night was coming. The players are too smart and too talented, the coaches too analytical to let one man beat them, even if he is the league's MVP. Hell, a big reason Rose was voted the MVP was because he had so little scoring help around him. But here, with two days off between Games 1 and 2, then three more days off between Games 2 and 3, Miami had plenty of time to figure out specifically what to do to expose the Bulls' offense for being only modestly talented.
Now, it's up to a very creative Bulls coaching staff to figure out how, best they can, to free up Rose. The strength of the team, beyond defense and rebounding, has been the refusal to give in to perceived weakness or vulnerability. Being down 2-1 is a challenge, but it isn't insurmountable. But figuring out how to fix something best addressed by an acquisition that isn't coming between now and then might take pulling a rabbit out of a hat.Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Wilbon joined ESPN.com after three decades with The Washington Post, where he earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists.