When playing the Bulls, reigning league MVP Derrick Rose is at the forefront of any defensive strategy. This is very much the case even as Rose battles through groin and ankle injuries. Rose has missed 15 of the final 21 games on the year, although he played in two consecutive games at the end of the season before Chicago locked up home court advantage.
The areas to focus on when game planning against the Bulls attack are pretty clear: 1) Slow down Rose in transition, 2) Slow down Rose off the pick and roll, 3) keep the Bulls off the offensive glass (largely aided by Rose's forays into the lane).
Then you have to figure out a way to attack a defense that has been in the top 2 in the league back-to-back years.
Sound simple? There's a reason the Sixers are huge underdogs in this series even with question marks surrounding how close Rose is to 100%. Bovada (formerly Bodog) curently has the Sixers at 9/1 odds to win the series, 70/1 to pull off the sweep.
Over the last few days, as it became likely the Sixers were going to face the Bulls, I sat down and watched every field goal attempt, assist, and turnover by Derrick Rose this season in an attempt to try to figure out what works, and what doesn't.
Defending Rose in transition
Obviously, the key (and really only way) to stop Rose in transition is to prevent live ball turnovers. Luckily, that's been the Sixers biggest strength this year as they tied the NBA record with a 10.9% turnover percentage (and set the NBA record with the less-useful turnovers per game metric).
It's also helpful that the Bulls are fairly pedestrian at forcing turnovers, ranking 20th in the league in opponents turnover percentage. This has largely led to predictable results in the three games the teams have played this year, with the Sixers only giving the ball up 9 times per game, only 7.5 times per game in the 2 games Rose played in.
The downside is the Sixers have averaged 11.6 turnovers per game over their last 25 games after averaging only 10.2 turnovers per game during the first 41. That being said, 11.6 turnovers per game would still be best in the league -- and with over 1.7 turnovers per game to spare before the second-best Clippers catch up. In short, the Sixers went from being historic at taking care of the ball to just really darned good.
Step two is the guards getting back on defense. Particularly with the Sixers propensity to shoot long two's (second most attempted in the league), the guards stationed in the corner have to do a good job sprinting back on defense to prevent Rose from getting out ahead on the break. The Sixers generally do a good job in this, and they're going to have to continue doing so.
Defending Rose in the pick and roll
Where Rose does a very large portion of his damage is in pick and roll sets, where he is one of the best in the league, both in terms of how much of his offense he generates from there and his effectiveness in doing so.
The Sixers were actually one of the better teams in terms of defending the pick and roll this year, a huge jump from where they were last year where they struggled.
A few observations, both from watching clip after clip of Rose playing this year and in watching the Sixers throughout the year.
First, the starting lineup presents problems. Neither Elton Brand nor Lavoy Allen do a good enough job moving their feet to really hard trap Rose in the pick and roll, and switching is definitely out. Both Allen and Brand are going to need to give Rose copious amounts of room and play their angles right, giving Jrue Holiday a chance to go under the screen and recovery. Especially when they're guarding Joakim Noah or Taj Gibson, the bigs have to clog up the lane and give Jrue a chance to recover. While Rose has gotten better hitting jump shots coming off the screen, that's still the best possible outcome in this scenario.
The other major concern with the starting lineup, and something you will almost definitely see the Bulls try to exploit, will be the 1-3 pick and roll with Rose and Luol Deng. Outside of Andre Iguodala, the Sixers have nobody who can defend Deng in the post in their starting lineup. If the Bulls are able to force Iguodala to switch onto Rose, Deng is going to have a huge mismatch in the post. While it's tempting to switch Iguodala onto Rose -- Iguodala is probably the best defensive option as-is with his excellent pick and roll defense combined with his length, which allows him to play back off Rose more to take away angles while being able to recover and contest jump, plus you remove the delay in Jrue recovering back on the pick and roll -- doing so frequently is going to create a huge mismatch.
If there was ever a time where you should see lots of Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young, this might be the matchup. In fact, this would be my starting lineup. Putting Iguodala or Turner on Rose and the other on Deng could virtually take away the 1-3 pick and roll with their length and versatility if it starts to hurt the Sixers.
The other interesting angle is using Thaddeus Young as the big defender on pick and rolls. If Rose gets into situations where he's running pick and rolls from either side of center, the book on him has been to hard trap him with athletic bigs, especially with the lack of secondary ball handlers the Bulls have, making an even more concerted effort to force Rose to use his weaker (albeit improving) left hand. Thaddeus Young is the only big on the Sixers roster who fits that description, and with him, Iguodala, Turner, and Holiday, the Sixers have a lot of versatile length to throw at Rose and force others to make a play. Brand, Vucevic, Hawes, and Lavoy don't have the foot speed to trap and recover, but Thaddeus has been a force doing that all year.
Obviously, that would be hard to do for an extended period of time, but something the Sixers have to throw in there as a change of pace. Any defensive strategy is going to get burned by Rose periodically, but different looks have to be thrown at him.
Rose has improved his left hand tremendously since coming into the league, but he's still more likely to favor settling for a pull up jump shot than getting all the way to the glass when going to his left. Coming off pick and rolls especially, defenders have to be aware of that and try to force him into the tougher long jump shot.
The best offensive rebounding team in the league, keeping the Bulls off the offensive glass is obviously going to be a major factor in determining the Sixers chances to compete.
This is one area where this Sixers team hasn't gotten enough credit, probably in large part due to their serious deficiencies on the offensive glass (25th in the league). But they've been one of the best defensive rebounding teams in the league all season, ending as the 4th best in the league with a 75.25% defensive rebounding percentage.
In the two games that Derrick Rose played against the Sixers this year, the Sixers front line more than held their own. The Sixers gave up only 8 offensive rebounds in 42 missed field goals in their 98-82 thumping of the Bulls back in February, and gave up only 9 offensive rebounds in 43 missed field goals to the Bulls in their 96-91 loss to the Bulls back in March.
Two lineup considerations could have impacts in this area. First, Evan Turner and his borderline-absurd-from-a-guard 22.8% defensive rebounding percentage is going to be important in this regard. Second, how much the Sixers are going to have to play Thaddeus Young -- someone who I think is critical to the teams defensive success in this matchup -- could negatively impact this area.
The splits on the season show the Sixers were not appreciably worse on the defensive glass with Young on the court than off it, but his individual defensive rebounding percentage of 12.0% -- horrible for someone who played almost exclusively at power forward -- has been a major point of contention for Thad since he entered the league.
Holiday on Rose
Despite the fan bases general negative attitude towards Jrue Holiday this season, much of it deserved as he had a disappointing season, Holiday is still a good defender, and has had success against Rose.
But....Rose scored 35 points on 23 shots against the Sixers earlier this year! True. But I went back and re-watched every scoring play he had in that game, and only 13 of his points came when Holiday was guarding him. The rest came as Andre Igudoala, Evan Turner, and even Thaddeus Young off of switches guarded him. Rose was beating everybody Doug Collins threw at him that night, as MVP's sometimes do.
On the year, with Jrue Holiday on the court Rose is averaging 23.8 points per 36 minutes on 44% from the field, with 6.8 assists per 36 minutes (53 minutes of court time), as he accounted for 34% of the Bulls scoring and 42% of the Bulls assists with Holiday on the court. When Jrue Holiday was on the bench? 32.4 points per 36 minutes, 7.2 assists per 36 minutes, and 62% from the field (20 minutes), accounting for 56% of their scoring and 50% of their assists.
Rose is attempting 4.7 field goal attempts in the restricted area per 36 minutes with Holiday on the court, 9 per 36 minutes when he's off the court. With Holiday on the court, Rose has been forced into 11 long two pointers, making only 2.
Last year painted a similar picture. With Jrue on the court, Rose averaged 26.7 points per 36 minutes, 7.2 assists per 36 minutes, and shot 46% from the field. With Jrue sitting on the bench, Rose averaged 29.1 points per 36 minutes, 15.4 assists per 36 minutes, and shot 50% from the floor. Interestingly, the Bulls were -2.5 points per 36 minutes with Jrue on the court and +53.1 per 36 minutes with Jrue on the bench.
If they hope to have any success in the series, Jrue Holiday is absolutely one of the keys defensively.