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« Gapers Block Fantasy Baseball League Setting the Scene: 2011 White Sox »

Bulls Thu Mar 24 2011

Bulls Bench Could Be the Difference vs. Celtics

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Boozer and Noah have had a lot of fun watching the Bulls reserves / Tribune photo: Nuccio DiNuzzo

With an even dozen games left in the NBA regular season, the Bulls lead the Eastern Conference by one game after Boston's last-minute loss to Memphis on Wednesday. With one more meeting between the two contenders (two weeks from now in Chicago), there's precious little breathing room in the race for the No. 1 playoff seed.

Stars like Derrick Rose, Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo get all the attention, but both teams also have good depth. With the mentally and physically exhausting playoff routine approaching, it's a good time to see who they'll be relying on to give their starters much needed rest in the middle of a tough seven-game series.

Currently, HoopStats.com has the Chicago bench listed near the top of the NBA, second only to Dallas in efficiency difference at +9.0. That's the number of positive plays the team makes when their bench is on the floor (like a more complicated plus/minus rating in hockey). Boston is at a -2, good for 21st in the league.

Hoopstats has plenty of other stats to compare, such as points off the bench (Chicago and Boston both plummet down the rankings there, at 22nd and 24th, respectively) and shooting percentage.

(Disclaimer: You can take only so much from the Celtics' season stats at this point, given their near-total bench makeover in recent weeks, with the addition/return of Jeff Green, Nenad Krstic, Delonte West, Troy Murphy and Carlos Arroyo.)

When everyone's healthy, the Bulls have one of the deepest supporting casts in the league, with Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer, Taj Gibson, C.J. Watson, Omer Asik, Kurt Thomas and fifth Beatle Keith Bogans all playing between 12 and 24 minutes per game.

Clearly, these players have shown an ability to play well against starters from around the league with the success Chicago has had when Noah and Boozer have been hurt. But even with a healthy team (give or take Boozer's tender ankle), these guys will still be relied on for big contributions.

A great example of that success has been this week's blowout wins against the Sacramento Kings and Atlanta Hawks. Monday night saw three bench players score in the double digits against the Kings, while Tuesday night saw Korver and Gibson post relatively high plus/minus ratings of +12 and +16, respectively.

Atlanta is a key game because while the individual stats aren't as gaudy (no bench player scored in double digits), the fact is that Atlanta is a much, much better team than Sacramento. With the Bulls putting up 72 points in the first half alone, almost the entire second half was the Chicago bench getting minutes against Atlanta's starting five -- the same players who have the Hawks in position for the East No. 5 seed.

Comparatively, in the Celtics' loss last night, every one of their bench players was in the minus for contributions. Obviously, this was just one game, and like the starters, bench players will be prone to streaks and slumps. But Boston's big trade of Kendrick Perkins (and Nate Robinson) to Oklahoma City was largely a two-for-one move to add Green and Krstic to the second unit. (That is, assuming Shaq is healthy enough to retake the starting center job.)

The Celtics have no doubt the Big Three + Rondo can hang with any starting five in the league, but what if someone gets hurt? It's what stopped their train last year when Perkins went down, and this year they're trying to make sure they won't be exposed again, especially as their veteran trio is yet another year older.

Should these two championship hopefuls meet in the postseason, I think Chicago has a clear edge. Maybe it's just a matter of coaching philosophy, but Tom Thibodeau seems to expect, not just demand, that his second team (and I use that term with full respect) play as well as his starters. They're not simply in there to kill time and minimize the damage while the starters rest, and the minutes they're playing lately will only give them more confidence in their play. Substitutes in basketball can often affect the game as much with their attitude as skill, and it's a great weapon to have players that enter the game with the belief in themselves that the Bulls' reserves have.

 
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