Pacers vs. Bulls Playoff Preview, Part 4: Beating the Bulls

The Pacers are in the playoffs for the first time in five years, but — more importantly — this will be the first time for 8p9s covering Indiana in the postseason. We’re going to jump in with both feet. Read all about it in our multi-part Pacers vs Bulls Playoff Preview series in the hours and days to come.

As we continue our Playoff Preview, we will look at the Bulls’ losses.  We’ll start with overall trends and differences, then we’ll break down two specific Chicago losses that are of interest to this series: March 28 at home to Philadelphia and, of course, March 18 at Conseco to Indiana.

The Chicago Bulls only finished the season with only 20 losses, which ain’t a lot.  There has been nothing in my first two analyses (stoplight and Synergy) indicating that Chicago is anything other than an excellent basketball team.  There will be nothing in the rest of this preview series that will indicate anything to the contrary either.

Excellent teams still lose, however.  Sifting through those losses will allow us to separate the flukes (off nights, injuries, etc.) from the genuine weaknesses.

Where They Lose

Location, location, location.  It is not the single most important leading indicator in wins or losses (that honor belongs to opponent), but it is vital.  On average, the home team is about 50% more likely to win than the visitor.  In the United Center, the home team was about 620% (six hundred and twenty percent) more likely to win than the visitor.

Chicago only had five losses on its home court this year, tying the San Antonio Spurs for best home record at 36-5.  The Pacers, meanwhile, have only won 13 of their 41 contests away from home, which is 19th in the Association.  With the first two games — and four games of a potential seven-game series — being played in a town where people put pickles on their hot dogs, this is not likely to be a place to find weak points for the Pacers to exploit. (Coincidentally, Indiana was the last team to hand Chicago a loss on the road, so we’ll be looking at that March 18 Pacer OT victory later in this piece.)

The Bulls other 15 losses came on the road, but their overall .634 winning percentage away from home was good for 4th best in the Association, and even topped Indiana’s .585 (24-17) mark at Conseco.  Regardless, if the Pacers are to have any chance of making this a series, they’ll have to protect their home court.

When They Lose

The focus with Indiana has been the 38 games since Frank Vogel took over as coach.  This is necessary because the way the team plays and approaches the game changed greatly.  In that time, the Pacers have gone 20-18, which is certainly at least pointed in the right direction.

Unfortunately for the Pacers, Chicago did most of their losing before this time period.  The Bulls had 14 of their 20 losses through January 30, along with 33 of their 62 wins.  Simple math says that while the Frank Vogel-led Pacers were clawing back into the playoffs, Chicago rattled off a stunning 29-6 record (.829 winning percentage).  Only one of those six losses came at home (to our Pacers), as the Bulls won 13 of their 14 contests at the United Center.  The five road losses came against a very impressive 16 wins.

The Pacers, a .500 home team under O’Brien, won .684 at Conseco under Vogel.  That still falls short of the .762 road record Chicago posted over the same time frame.  Indy went from atrocious on the road (.273) to merely bad (.368), and face a Bulls team that went from merely devastating (.852) to virtually unbeatable (.929) at home.

Old Uncle Mo Mentum favors the Bulls, as it looks like the best time to beat Chicago may have come and gone.

Who They Lose With

The Bulls, as do most good teams, have a set of core players that transcend their teammates.  These are the guys who differentiate the the team from the rest of the pack.  For Chicago, those players are Derrick Rose (naturally), Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah.  I suppose Noah could be removed and replaced by Luol Deng, but I think Noah’s more important.  Besides, Deng played all 82 games, so his inclusion or exclusion is moot for this discussion.  What’s important here is how Chicago performed when one or more these key players were available or missing.

This table shows Chicago’s record with the above combinations available. Really, if you’re playing the Bulls, you want them to be missing somebody.  At this point, however, they look like they’ll have all hands, and with all hands, they are unbelievably tough.

Over the course of the season, 75% of their losses have come with one of Rose, Boozer, or Noah sitting on the sideline.  Their loss here in March came with Boozer absent.  With all three, they win 83% of the time.  With all three, they’ve won 12 of 14 at home.  With all three, they’ve won 12 of 15 on the road.

They’ll have all three — it appears — so there’s no help to be found here.

Who They Lose To

As I mentioned earlier, the single most important factor when looking at a win or a loss — outside of the specifics of that game — is the opponent.  While home cooking vs. hostile crowds has an impact, I don’t think anything sways the projection of a game as much as who a team is playing.  Put more simply, winning or losing against the Lakers means something completely different than winning or losing against the Cavs.

You already knew this, of course, but we have some numbers to illustrate just how important it is.

A little over a year ago, I wrote a piece on Adjusted Strength of Schedule (SoSHR), and that’s the tool I will use here.  As a starting point, here’s a table showing how Chicago performed against teams of different quality:

The Bulls have played the easiest schedule in the Association this year according to SoSHR (.476), and they got a lot of mileage out of it.  Put simply, the Bulls take care of business.   In games against teams with SoSHR under .500 (either home or road losing record), Chicago has won 35 times in 41 tries.  In fact, the only group that these guys haven’t posted a winning record against are the very top.

The navy Blue line reflects where the Pacers’ home winning percentage lands:.585 for the year.  (Under Vogel, it would move up into Group 2 at .684.)  The yellow reflects the grouping for the Pacers’ road winning percentage: .317 for the year (.368 under Vogel).

Here the Pacers’ win profile.

The black show the games in Chicago, red will be the value of the games played at Conseco.

None of this is encouraging to a team hoping to pull an upset.

How They Lose

Let’s take a look at what I consider to be the meat-n-potatoes metrics: efficiencies, pace, and the Four Factors.

Naturally, the offensive and defensive efficiencies are worse in losses, and the eFG% is the big driver in those, but the items I’ve highlighted in blue are where the Pacers can target.  We’ve talked about Indiana’s improvement on the offensive glass and in getting to the line since Vogel took over.  It seems to me that they will have to hammer on these areas.  It’s their best chance to get a beachhead against the Bulls.

Indy will also need to push the pace.  If they get stuck in half-court battles, trying to score against a set Chicago defense, it will be spectacularly ugly.

It seems to me that this is where we’ll find the leading indicators in the series.  If the Pacers can have success on their offensive glass, get to the line, and keep Chicago off the line, they’ll have a shot.  If they struggle in these areas, they simply won’t be competitive.

March 18th and 28th

As previously mentioned, there are two recent Chicago losses that may be indicative of how Chicago loses games: at Indy on 3/1, and at home vs. Philly on 3/28.  They are sparse examples, but they are the types of losses most likely to occur for the Bulls in the upcoming series.

We need to see what drove the opponents — Pacers and Sixers — to victory or what spurred on the Bulls’ defeats.

These stories fit with the idea of hitting the offensive glass and paying attention to the free throws.  Both the Pacers and the Sixers did great work on their offensive boards, with Indy getting almost 35% of the rebounds on their offensive end.  Though both were beaten at the line, there were explanations.  The Pacers still got a very high FT/FGA, and the Bulls made their run in the 4th quarter on the strength of Derrick Rose’s ability to get into the defense and create fouls.  The Sixers didn’t get to the line a lot, but they also didn’t send the Bulls to the line very much.

The other thing that happened in both of these games was that the opponent jumped on Chicago early.

The Pacers raced out to a 10-point lead at the end of one, and were up 14 at the half.  The Sixers were up 14 after one and 15 at the half.  Indiana cannot start slow (as they do all too often) against the Bulls.

Finally, I want to show some Synergy spider charts to look at certain things.  For the game at Conseco, the Pacers won with a very strong offensive performance.  Therefore, I’ll show Indy’s offense.

In this chart, the blue represents the distribution of plays, while the yellow shows the distribution of points scored. As you can see, the Pacers hit the basics — isolations, PnRs, and post ups — hard, but the Bulls defended them reasonably well.  However, that opened up all of the other areas, where the Pacers were extremely efficient: 1.15 points per play.

Compare that to how the Bulls defense normally looks:

All defenses give up something, and good defenses are often willing to give up jump shots.  That’s what you see above in Chicago’s normal spike to spot ups.  The Pacers ran more of what they wanted, and got more shots out of what they wanted.  They weren’t quite as efficient with those as you would hope, but what it left them was the best of the best possessions/opportunities in the other plays.

In the Sixers game, the Bulls offense was throttled, so here’s a look at their offensive plays vs. points distribution:

And again, let’s compare this to Chicago’s normal offensive distribution:

It appears that the Sixers successfully defended the pick-and-roll (PnR), resulting in lower efficiency from that action, as well from spot ups.  In this game, Derrick Rose scored 31, but had 10 turnovers.  The Sixers let him score, but did not let him create.  Other than an OK game from Boozer (15 points), Chicago got nothing offensively.

There is not a consistent string in these two games, as I had hoped there would be, but that’s OK.  Truth of the matter is that it’s unlikely that the Pacers will find one thing that works against Chicago and be able to hammer them with it over the course of the series.  Vogel’s players will have to find more than one way to beat the Bulls, and these games show offensive blueprints.

How Do You Beat the Bulls?

Speaking from a purely tactical point of view, I say you have to do three things.

  1. Control the backboards
  2. Keep them off the free-throw line
  3. Keep Rose out of the middle of the defense

Simple enough.

But beating teams theoretically is always simple enough.  Executing the plan is a whole other beast.  Digging into this Bulls team makes me think that they really can win the whole thing this year.  They do almost everything well, and in some areas — like defense — they are as good as it gets.  Truth be told, Jared’s Part One of this series really is more reflective of why they might get knocked off by a Boston or L.A. than why the Pacers might pull an upset.

How do the Pacers beat the Bulls?

Well, they’ll have to do the three things above, but really, it’s going to take much more.  To win four games, the Pacers will have to be better — significantly better — than they really are.  Even then, they’ll probably still need Chicago to help them out.  The Bulls are a team perfectly suited to go deep in the playoffs, while the Pacers are still trying to figure out who they are and what they can do.  That’s without getting into anything about the fact that the playoff experience of the Pacers’ key players is practically nonexistent.

As much as I’d like to say otherwise, the Bulls appear to be the Leviathan, and the playoff life of the Pacers is likely to be nasty, brutish, and short.  Still, we’ll keep looking.  If something special is going to happen, it’s going to be because certain Pacers step up.

As we continue the series, we’ll take a look as some of the specific players and key match ups that will possibly make the difference.

Tags: Chicago Bulls Derrick Rose Indiana Pacers Vs. Chicago Bulls 2011 Playoff Preview

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