Bulls 114 - Clippers 101 - It's All About the Rotations

After the trade for Chris Paul was announced, the hype machine went into overdrive. Suddenly, the Clippers were the talk of the league. They were finally "relevant." Journalists, analysts and fans let their imaginations go wild with thoughts of highlight reel passes from one of the games’ most electrifying point guards to its most explosive power forward. Add a former NBA Finals MVP and former All-Star coming off of a championship team (to be fair, he didn’t actually play in the championship games) to the mix and expectations were sent into orbit. It was going to be "Lob City" with the Clippers alley-ooping and dunking their way into the playoffs, many even predicting all the way to the Western Conference Finals. The Clippers became darlings of the league practically overnight and tickets sold out because everybody loves a winner…only the Clippers hadn’t even won anything yet. After losing to the Bulls 114 to 101 (boxscore), they still haven't won much.

Our visitors from the Windy City rolled through tonight and gave everyone a cold reminder of what we knew deep down inside, but didn’t want to admit: the Clippers aren’t ready yet. The media built them up and we bought in (many of us knowing better). The front office did a great job in acquiring quality players, but with a shortened training camp and very little time to practice, it wasn’t likely for the Clippers to come out of the gates screaming like a well oiled machine no matter how much talent they had.

Despite losing to the Spurs two days ago, visions of "Lob City" reappeared when the Clippers came out of the gates running in their home opener. Blake Griffin set the tone with an emphatic dunk on the first sequence and then followed it up with a series of post moves and a turnaround jumper. Mo (who started in place of Chauncey due to a strained groin) streaked down the court kicked it off and tucked into the corner where he knocked down a three pointer. All pistons were firing on offense, but a series of turnovers (including two three second violations and a traveling violation) kept the Bulls in the game and they eventually crept into a one point lead by the end of the first quarter. From that point on cracks in the Clipper armor started to chip.

As with the San Antonio game, the Clipper defense looked completely out of sync. Players were missing their rotations consistently and it was as if there was always a Bulls player open at all times of the game. The Bulls finished shooting 50% from the field and 41% from deep. In the fourth quarter they knocked down five of six three pointers to put the game away. After allowing the Spurs to shoot lights out, it appears to be a worrisome trend, however it isn’t something to sound the alarm over. With the minimal practice time, it’s expected and something that can be fixed with proper coaching and will get better as the players get used to playing with each other.

Speaking of rotations, Vinny Del Negro’s rotations were suspect at best. Players need their rest and it is hard to understand why Chris Paul and Blake Griffin played north of 40 minutes in the game. Griffin looked gassed by the end of the third and by choosing not to take Paul out in the middle of the third; the coach lost his opportunity and ended up having to play Paul the entire second half. Needless to say the lineup including Foye, Gomes and Cook in the third was atrocious and lead to an instant Bull’s run which nearly put the game out of reach.

Credit the Bulls for playing steady, shooting well, creating solid ball movement and playing stout defense (highest rated defense last year). Coach Thibodeau utilized solid substitution patterns, mixing in the bench with starters that complimented each other and at times employing defensive minded second unit when necessary. As Mike Smith and Ralph Lawler were saying, this team is built for the playoffs.

The Bulls came into the Staples Center off of a win over the Sacramento Kings. Derrick Rose was previously criticized for being too passive and trying too hard to be a facilitator in the prior Goldenstate game, but awoke and remembered who he was against the Kings and kept it up against Clippers. His tool set on full display; slashing through the defense, drop and stutter stepping his way to the basket and finishing with an array of layups and floaters. This doesn’t mean that he stopped facilitating; he just remembered what he was best at and used it to his advantage, attacking the paint, drawing in defenses and kicking it out to the open man.

Disregarding the inflated expectations, the Clippers actually played fairly well given the circumstances. They were without a significant contributor in Billups. The starters all scored in double figures and despite poor bench production, they actually shot better than the Bulls and finished with a field goal percentage above 51% and a three point percentage of nearly 47%. Keeping it in perspective, the Bulls are a contender who are fundamentally the same team as last year and thus needed little practice to get re-acclimated with one another. The Clippers never gave up and battled head to head until the Bulls pulled away at the finish. Last year, this would have been considered a moral victory. However, let’s be clear, there are no more "moral victories" for this team. Moral victories went away when the team traded away Eric Gordon, the Minnesota pick, Kaman and Aminu and went into "win now" mode.

Observations:

  • Blake Griffin significantly increased his energy level this game. After two games with disappointing efforts, he came out playing hard on both ends of the court and looked like the Blake Griffin we were used to watching. Rebounding is typically regarded as a reflection of effort, in the previous two games he grabbed seven and nine rebounds, respectively. In tonight’s game he took down 13, right along his 2010-2011 average of 12.1. Even with all that energy, he seems to be settling for jumpshots. If he's going to take them, he needs to square up and shoot immediately. Too often he sets a pick, then steps out for the pop (instead of the roll) and then hesitates to shoot when he gets the ball.
  • Mo Williams, despite starting today, looks like he will make an excellent sixth man if he embraces it. His uptempo style is ideal for a change of pace type guard looking to provide instant offense.
  • DeAndre’s contract is looking good. When he was in the game, he protected the paint and his presence altered a significant amount of shots. On offense he is a strong finisher and takes pressure off of Griffin. It looks like he has a stronger connection with Chris Paul than Griffin does at this point, often being the benefactor of a Paul lob.
  • However, as much as DeAndre shines when he is in the game, it becomes even more apparent how much the team needs a backup big man when DJ is out of the game (he sat out significant minutes this game due to foul trouble). Cook doesn't have the size to bang down low and often resorts to fouling (forcing us to view Noah's free throw shooting form more often than we would like). The Clippers needed a big man "like yesterday."
  • Butler is looking like a solid signing, offering a steadying presence and producing exactly what is expected of him.
  • Vinny Del Negro needs to grasp the concept of when to take a time out. He doesn’t take timeouts when other teams are going on runs and likes to take them when the Clippers are putting together runs, effectively sucking the wind out of it.
  • To get the bulls perspective: Blog a Bull
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