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Bulls Wed Feb 27 2013

The Bulls' February Blizzard of Bad

Bulls_200.pngThe Bulls have shown a lot of range this month; they've lost games all sorts of ways. They've been blown out by teams loaded with superstars like the Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder. They've fallen in perplexing loses to teams playing without their franchise players like they did against the San Antonio Spurs and the Cleveland Cavaliers in last night's game.

On the road or at home, with rest or without it, this team looks beat literally and figuratively. Cue the obligatory excuse of "there's no excuse for the team losing games" that the players and coach constantly offer. The squad sits four games in back of the red hot Indiana Pacers for the Central Division lead, and only three games ahead of the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference and the resurgent Milwaukee Bucks. Perhaps Bulls fans' collective panic attack will give the team a reason to start attacking each game with sustained intensity.

Luol Deng had a game he's needed to have much more often than infrequently.

Efficient scoring while spotting up, disrupting defense, and ambushing the rim on both sides and not just waiting on the wings. Deng didn't make "the leap" that everyone has expected him to make for the last five seasons in terms of leading a team in scoring, but he did make another All Star team this month for being steady and invaluable to his team. In the match-up with the Cavs yesterday, Deng didn't defer to the hot hands. Boozer was scoring, but it didn't stop Deng from getting his too. He had 26 points with three offensive boards and five assists, while creating space the whole night between him and his lowly defenders. This was the Deng everyone wanted to see this season minus Derrick Rose, one who stepped up and basically demanded the ball.

Using Basketball-Reference's player splits charts, it's pretty straightforward that when Deng is off, so are the Bulls' chances at winning. Excluding his Tuesday stats, in the 22 games the Bulls lost that Deng played in, his field goal percentage is 36% with an abysmal 22% from deep compared to 47% overall and 39% in the three-point department in games the team has won. Those differences are pretty significant considering Deng's fire-at-will teammates Marco Belinelli and Nate Robinson's don't shoot as badly in games the team suffers defeat in. Rip Hamilton actually shoots better in teams losses. So the point being, Deng has to play better on offense for this team to have a chance.

Kirk Hinrich gets everyone involved when running the point, Nate Robinson only gets the rebounders involved.

As synonymous as the words "shot" and Robinson are to each other, this isn't a shot at Robinson. Robinson tends to get bailed out by Boozer and Joakim Noah with two-handed passes fired from behind the back of his head with only six seconds or less left to shoot. Hinrich only played two games all February, but in those games he was poised and ran the offense effectively. In no way am I pinning the blame for the team's struggles on the practical point guard, I'm just pointing towards the idea of when this team has a distributor, things become a lot easier. Just look at what Basketball Reference's on/off court data shows of the teams two main point guards. The team's overall offensive rating per 100 possessions when Hinrich is on the court is plus three, juxtaposed to Robinson's negative 0.3. In comparing their on/off statistic, which includes Hinrich's awful month and a half play to start the year, it's clear that the team is better off with the boring ball handler than the fun one in almost every category.

A fourth quarter benched Boozer is a thing of the past, for now.

The image of an indifferent faced Boozer with a white towel around his neck is a sight you won't see until Taj Gibson returns from injury. Since Tom Thibodeau prefers small ball lineups or overextending his three-man frontcourt rotation, Boozer will play a tick under 40 minutes a game more often than not. Though he played well against the young and softer power forwards that the Cavs had to offer (27 points on 13-for-20 shooting), Boozer is going to have to earnestly try hard on the defensive end to match an ounce of Gibson's prowess. It's a tall order, but Boozer is as focused as he's ever been in a Bulls uniform or perhaps his whole career.

After a maddening February, the Bulls must control their chaos to compete in the upcoming March Madness playoff push. There's no extra gear they have to shift into, they just have to accelerate on offense, and find the defensive horsepower that kept them overachieving for most of this season.

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