When the Sixers were sitting at 20-9, talk about winning a round in the playoffs was legitimate. When they were atop the Atlantic Division with an eye on home-court advantage and a lesser foe in the first round, it seemed like almost a certainty. Since then, the sky has fallen, any faith in the team has dissolved and we were pinning our hopes on a bit of luck for the honor of playing the team with the best record in the league in the first round instead of the Miami Heat. The Sixers are nothing if not frustrating, but here we are. The games count now. The question: Can the Sixers beat the Bulls?
A couple things before we get into matchups and the like. First, I don't want to talk about anything that happens after this playoff series until this playoff series is over. The Sixers can't tank for a lottery pick at this point. They can't amnesty Brand, trade Iguodala, cut Jodie Meeks or draft Austin Rivers. This series is the only thing that matters and if you're rooting against this team in the playoffs in the hopes that a poor performance will send some kind of a message to ownership, I can't help you. You're hopeless. This should really be the one time of the year where we're all on the same side. Second, let's just assume Derrick Rose is at full strength and will be for the entirety of the series.
OK, now that I've got that out of the way, let's talk hoops. Generally speaking, if the Sixers are going to have any chance in this matchup, they're going to need to find a way to make the game about the perimeter players. That probably seems crazy, considering Derrick Rose and Luol Deng are probably Chicago's best players, but I think it's a fact. Jrue Holiday and Andre Iguodala will have their hands full with those guys, and Jrue in particular is going to need plenty of help to slow Rose down, but on the perimeter they at least have some talent. On the perimeter, they shouldn't be physically pushed around. On the perimeter, they have guys capable of making things hard for the Bulls. If this series becomes about the bigs, the Sixers probably won't stand a chance.
To be more accurate, Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, Omer Asik and Taj Gibson can physically overpower the Sixers front line, and if Chicago attacks them down low, there's really nothing they can do to stop it. Luckily, the Bulls bigs are strong, and tenacious, but there isn't a low-post threat among them. If they're going to kill you, it's going to be on the pick-and-roll (Noah), the pick-and-pop (Boozer) or the offensive glass (Asik and Gibson). There's a silver lining to the tremendous physical advantage the Bulls enjoy up front, they're dependent on outside factors to exert it. It's never a simple entry pass for these guys to score, it's something you can attack with a scheme (the pick-and-pop), or with hustle (the offensive rebounding). It's possible, but certainly a monumental challenge given the Sixers' roster makeup. Somehow, though, they've found a way to win the battle up front against the Bulls, and that's why they've played them tough over the past two seasons. If they lapse on the defensive glass, or give Boozer wide-open looks from the foul line (45% on long twos this season), it's going to be a slow death even if the perimeter guys do a great job on Rose and Deng.
Of course, if the Sixers can find a way to limit the damage Rose and Deng do, plus keep the bigs under control, they still have to worry about Chicago's three-point shooters. Kyle Korver (43.5%) and C.J. Watson (40.5%) are deadly from deep, and it's easy to forget about them. Meeks, Lou and Turner need to be focused on denying these guys open looks, especially in transition. Letting these guys shake free for a clean look late in the shot clock is a great way to spoil a strong defensive possession. You can't get caught helping off these guys. You need to be clear in your assignments, quick in your rotations and find the shooters in transition.
As for Rose, well, the Sixers did two things with success the two times they played the Bulls with Rose in the lineup. In the first game, Jrue completely took away Rose's right hand. He overplayed it to the extreme, and the Sixers planted a big at the right elbow to meet Rose if he decided to drive left. (Rich broke the defense down in this great post
.) The scheme worked, and the Sixers won the game. In their second meeting, Rose really had a great game. He scored going left, he hit a series of long jumpers, including two impossible shots at the buzzer to end quarters, and the Sixers really had no answer for him until they decided to sell out. Late in the game, they brought Thad in and decided to trap Rose the instant he brought the ball past midcourt. They blitzed him and smothered him and used their speed on the perimeter to jump the passing lanes. It worked, but it was too little, too late.
No one defensive scheme is going to shut Rose down over a seven-game series. The key is going to be mixing it up. Make Rose have to figure out what the defense is trying to do. Don't let him relax, once he's seemingly figured it out, switch it up again. Most of all, make him into a jump shooter as much as possible, until he proves he's hot. He shot 31% from three this season, make him prove he's hot before you worry about taking that shot away from him. Mix it up, don't over-react. He's going to score, just don't make it easy and whatever you do, don't get caught up in a five-on-one battle to slow Rose down, because that's when the bigs start getting dunks and the shooters start getting corner threes.
I've spent a lot of time here talking about how the Sixers defense can slow the Bulls down, mainly because I think if they're going to win some games, it's going to be spurred by their defense. Also, I'm not sure there's a simple way for the Sixers to solve the Bulls' defense, at least nothing they can count on. I look at the matchups and I think Jrue can work on Rose, but unless he suddenly figures out how to get to the line, we probably aren't talking about an attack that's efficient enough to carry the team for more than a few stretches in a game. I guess the big advantage would be Brand being guarded by Boozer. He should be able to get whatever he wants with Boozer on him. If they can force the matchup, Thad being guarded by Boozer would also be something I'd look to exploit, but I think Thad will have Taj Gibson on him more often. I'm afraid if Lou gets hot he's going to see a steady diet of double teams, a defensive scheme he's never really figured out. Those doubles could represent an opportunity, but he needs to get the ball out of his hands quickly. The one shot I'm pretty sure the Sixers will be able to get whenever they want is an 18-20 footer for their fives. Maybe they can steal a game on unsustainable hot shooting from the outside by Hawes, Allen, Vucevic or Brand?
Speaking of the bigs. After watching this team play over the last week, I think it's pretty clear that Lavoy Allen needs to be starting in the middle for game one. Spencer Hawes' soft interior play is like a plague. When he bothers to fight for a rebound, post position or to contest a shot, his weakness is exposed for the world to see. When he catches on the inside, he does everything he can to avoid going up strong. Simply put, playoff basketball in the NBA is played at another level. It's harder to get a foul called, everything about interior play is tougher. Hawes can't hack it in the regular season, Vucevic seems lost. Allen and Brand are the only guys on the roster up to the challenge of banging down low with the Bulls and they need to be on the floor for the opening tip.
When the Sixers lost to the Pistons and slid into the #8 spot they didn't win anything. The Bulls are a great team. Yes, I think the Sixers match up with them better than they do with the Heat, but being in this position was a failure, and the odds are overwhelmingly in favor of this being a brief run in the post season. How they got here is water under the bridge. The question for the team right now is can they give 48 minutes of effort every night. The question for Doug Collins is whether he can get his team prepared for the battle, if he can come up with the schemes to take away Chicago's advantages, and if he can be the one who solves the puzzle at halftime.
The Sixers come into game one at 1pm on Saturday with ample rest for all their key guys. The back-to-back-to-backs are a thing of the past. It's no longer a game of dominoes, it's back to chess and Doug Collins needs to pull a rabbit out of his hat.
Here's my question for you guys, who's going to step up in this series? Who's going to open some eyes? Who's going to be the Sixers' superstar for a game or two?
I think I'm going to be on a podcast with a Bulls blogger this afternoon, so I'll pass the link on when I have it.