Losing always hurts. Doing so in an uninspired and lethargic fashion to a division rival, hurts even more.
In yet another performance which saw Chicago's offense falter, the Bulls have now fallen to the bottom of the league's scoring ranks, dropping all the way to 28th in offensive rating, only holding out the insipid Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers for the unenviable "worst offense in the league" title.
If the Bulls are to be treated as serious threat to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference, the offensive cohesion, rhythm and chemistry will need to greatly improve. The next five games will be crucial in establishing the Bulls' offensive identity, and if the team had any plans of finding their best offensive selves and redeeming their low-energy loss to Indiana, facing the San Antonio Spurs and their league best defense isn't exactly the ideal antidote coach Fred Hoiberg would have hoped for in order to kick start the wallowing offense.
As eternally expected, the Spurs machine continues to roll on. If it weren't for the defending champions beginning the season in historic fashion, much of the focus would be on the re-imaging of the Spurs as a defensive juggernaut that is defying the modern trends of offensive basketball, and instead, revisiting more traditional basketball philosophies.
Adopting a frontcourt strategy that craves to club opponents in the paint with their size and length, Chicago should find themselves matching up well against the size of Spurs personnel.
Like Chicago, the Spurs have become a team that relies heavily on mid-range shots. Bringing in shot makers such as LaMarcus Aldridge and David West will naturally do that to you. Comparably, the Spurs, too, rarely attack the lanes in an attempt to draw free throw attempts whilst using the three point shot as secondary weapon, despite shooting a terrific percentage.
As Fred Hoiberg searches for more motion and instinctive responses to his iso-heavy offense, interestingly, San Antonio have also begun relying more on one-on-one scoring. Whilst they still move and swing the ball better than most, they have begun breaking away from their beautiful offense, and have let the talents of Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge riff as on-ball, isolation creators.
In many ways, Hoiberg and the Bulls want to emulate the genius that is the San Antonio Spurs. Problem is, the Spurs have mastered everything, while Chicago has yet to prove they're capable of producing a 48 minute performance.
No questions exist about the sustainability of the Spurs defense as they do with Chicago. No hierarchical issues exist within the harmonious Spurs offense, with the open man always being the best option. The majority of their players are performing as well as they were last season, if not better.
Right now, those same things can't be said with any vigor in relation to the Bulls.
Cascading these holistic evaluations into game day match-ups, after battling Paul George in Indiana and now potentially playing through a foot injury, one has to feel for Jimmy Butler as he prepares to be checked by the game's best defensive player. Kawhi Leonard has been crushing opponents, big, small and anything in between. His defensive prowess and length could easily shut out a hobbled Butler, and if this were to occur, the Bulls would lose their best and most efficient offensive weapon. Somehow, Chicago will need Butler to burst through Leonard's strangle hold, and do more than he has already done this season, further proving the unrelenting reliance the team has on its star wing.
Pau Gasol, who has looked every bit of his age this season, is set to face-off against the ageless Tim Duncan. Fresh off pulling down 18 rebounds against the Hawks and currently leading the league in defensive real plus-minus, at age 39, amazingly, Duncan continues to anchor a league leading defense.
Playing a more face up style with less of a presence on the block, Gasol has struggled to integrate himself into Fred Hoiberg's offensive vision. Pau has recently noted that the Bulls need to see more touches and points in the paint, and whilst their is an element of selfishness and wanting to return to his role under Thibodeau, Gasol makes a valid point. Chicago aren't getting baskets at the hoop, and when they do attempt these shots, they're not making them. There is merit to Pau's request, but should Chicago try to establish a low post game against Duncan and the Spurs, the results will be less than favorable.
Rounding out the key match-ups, is who guards Derrick Rose. Naturally, the logical answer would be Tony Parker, but given Chicago's lack of offense and on-ball penetration from its starting small forward position, Gregg Popovich will have the option to rest Parker on these wings. Should Popovich really want to hound the Bulls and continue Rose's decline to one of the least valuable players in the game, releasing either Kawhi Leonard or Danny Green to guard the Bulls' point guard could prove to be a serious option he could employ.
For the sake of Chicago's dignity, let's hope the legendary coach is in an charitable mood and chooses to guard Rose with a conventional format.
No defensive weaknesses exist for the Spurs in their starting lineup. Even Tony Parker, who has the propensity to be exposed by bigger and more physical guards, has been performing very well on defense. Chicago's main avenue of scoring will be tested by the collective dominance of the Spurs individual defenders. Rose, Butler and Gasol can all be matched with the Spurs best defenders should Popovich choose to do so, meaning the Bulls will need huge games from the enigmatic Nikola Mirotic and the bench unit. In principle, the task for the Bulls' inconsistent supporting pieces seems obvious enough. Relying on them, however, seems to be a game-to-game proposition.
Picking which version of the Bulls that will turn up at the United Center to face the San Antonio, is a difficult task. Over the last 96 regular season games, we've become accustomed to the Bulls to playing up - or down - to their competition, but one must fear how this game will unfold given the state of Chicago's offense against a clinically brilliant defense.
Should the team come out engaged to the levels they were against the champion Warriors, they can compete with the Spurs at their own game. If it's more of the same attitude and application that led to the loss in Indiana, expect a blowout, followed by a predictable panic amongst the fan base to truly set in.
Good Luck Charm
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