HANG TIME NEW JERSEY BUREAU — With their 95-64 dismantling of the Charlotte Bobcats on Friday, the Chicago Bulls finally took over the No. 1 spot in defensive efficiency, allowing just 93.8 points per 100 possessions for the season.
The Philadelphia 76ers had been holding on to the top defensive ranking for most of the year and are still just a hair behind the Bulls, but it seemed to be just a matter of time before Chicago took back what was rightfully theirs.
The Bulls were the No. 1 defensive team in the league last season, and could be the first team to lead the league in defensive efficiency two seasons in a row since the San Antonio Spurs did in 2003-04, 2004-05 and 2005-06.
The Bulls are great defensively because…
1. They play hard, bringing energy to every defensive possession.
2. They play smart, knowing how to best defend their opponent.
3. They play together, on a string, knowing where to be depending on where their teammates are.
The following play is a great example of all three, even though the opponent scores a basket.
Deron Williams runs off two screens on a flare to the right wing. On the second screen, C.J. Watson gets taken out of the play, so Joakim Noah hedges off his man to help. Williams gets the ball to Jordan Farmar, who runs a high screen-and-roll with Kris Humphries. Noah hedges again until Ronnie Brewer can recover. As Noah hedges, Luol Deng helps from the weak side on Humphries’ roll. Not knowing where Humphries is, Noah retreats to the basket, before closing out on Humphries at the free throw line.
When Noah retreated to the basket, it was the right play, because defending the basket is more important than defending the foul line. But it did cause Deng to hesitate in getting back to his man. And that half a second of hesitation allowed Keith Bogans to crash the glass and get the put-back. The Nets scored, but we saw just how well the Bulls’ defense rotates on a string.
Rebounding is one thing the Bulls aren’t doing as well as they did last season, when they ranked third by grabbing 76.2 percent of available defensive boards. This year they rank 17th in defensive rebounding percentage, grabbing just 73.8 percent.
But they’re still the No. 1 defensive team in the league, because they hold their opponents to a low shooting percentage, and they keep them off the free throw line.
Bulls’ defense, last two seasons
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
OppeFG% = Opponent effective field goal percentage = Opp. (FGM + (0.5*3PM)) / FGA
DREB% = Percentage of available defensive rebounds obtained
OppTO% = Opponent turnovers per 100 possessions
OppFTA Rate = Opponent FTA/FGA
Defending the rim without fouling is not easy, but the Bulls do it as well as anybody. Their opponents attempt just 31.1 percent of their shots from within five feet of the basket, the fifth-lowest rate in the league. And in that range, their opponents shoot just 54.6 percent, the league’s lowest percentage.
Carmelo Anthony is one of the best players in the league at getting to the line, attempting 39 free throws for every 100 shots he takes from the field. But in a recent game against the Bulls, he had 26 shots from the field and just six free throws. Here are a few examples of how the Bulls stopped Anthony in the paint without fouling.
The Bulls rank first in the league in defending 2-point shots. They only rank 10th in opponent 3-point percentage, but that’s OK, because only 15.8 percent of their opponents’ shots are 3-pointers. That’s by far the lowest rate in the league.
To prevent threes, the Bulls aggressively close out on perimeter shooters, especially if they’re in the corner. Corner 3-pointers are the second-most efficient shots in the game (after those taken within five feet of the basket), which is why the Spurs use them as a weapon in their offense. It’s also why the Bulls do their best to prevent their opponent from shooting them.
Through Friday, no team has played more games than the Bulls. And no team has allowed fewer corner 3-point attempts. In 29 games, they’ve allowed just 76 shot attempts from the corner. And in their last five games, Bulls opponents are just 1-for-13 on corner 3-pointers.
Here are a couple of examples of how the Bulls get their opponent out of the corner…
Play 1: After swinging the ball around the perimeter, the Knicks run a high pick-and-roll with Landry Fields and Amar’e Stoudemire. Fields hands the ball off to Iman Shumpert and then flares to the left corner. After hedging onto Shumpert, Kyle Korver closes out hard to prevent Fields from getting a shot off. Fields passes to Stoudemire, who misses a contested, mid-range shot.
Contested, mid-range shots are exactly the shots you want your opponent taking. And 35.4 percent of shots that the Bulls allow are from mid-range. That’s the second-highest rate in the league, behind only Orlando at 35.6 percent.
Play 2: The Celtics run a (slow-developing) play to get Ray Allen a three from the right corner. After setting a ball-screen, Allen runs off two screens and across the baseline, as Mickael Pietrus vacates the right side. Korver trails Allen, but still closes hard enough to prevent the three. And Deng, after leaving his man Pietrus, is there as well. Allen has to put the ball on the floor, but he finds Pietrus in the opposite corner for an open three.
The Celtics got an open corner three on that play, but it’s easy to see where the Bulls’ priorities were. A corner 3-pointer from Ray Allen, who is shooting 58 percent on them this season, is as dangerous a shot as there is in the league.
Still, the Celtics got an open three by quickly swinging the ball to the weak side. And that’s where you’ll get some opportunities against the Bulls, who like to load up on the strong side of the floor and take away the opponent’s No. 1 option.
Here’s an example of how the Nets got a wide-open corner three for Bogans. Williams curls through the middle and takes a handoff from Humphries, who screens Derrick Rose. Noah hedges and Williams quickly gets the ball to Humphries at the foul line. Brewer has no choice but to help from the weak side, and Humphries finds Bogans in the corner for the open three.
The key there was the screen and quick ball movement to get the Bulls’ defenders moving. If you can draw a double-team like that and then quickly get the ball to the other side of the floor, you will find an open shot.
But the Bulls make those opportunities hard to come by. They play hard, they play smart, and they play together. And they force you to take the least efficient shots on the floor.
John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. Send him an e-mail or follow him on twitter.