How The Hell Did The Bulls Win Game 1?

How'd the Bulls win last night? The short answer—Nate Robinson's heroics and the Bulls' defensive scheme—is at least partly the wrong answer. As to the former, we'll outsource to Mike Prada at SBNation, who explains that Chicago's crunch-time success had everything to do with its refusal to play hero ball in favor of smartly executed offensive sets. And the defense? That's a little more complicated.


Chicago managed to hold the Heat—who according to Synergy Sports scored 1.01 points per play this season, best in the league—to just .88 points per play last night. That's not exactly a surprise coming from one of the league's best defenses; what is surprising is that the Bulls won the game despite giving up the kinds of shots their defense is designed expressly to prevent.

The video above is a supercut of the Heat's 24 three-point attempts last night. You'll notice that the majority of them are misses—the Heat shot 7-for-24 from three, good for 29 percent—but you'll also notice that many of them are open shots that the Heat just clanked. As you'll see in the video, the Bulls' closeouts did get more intense as the game wore on, but the fact that the Heat were able to line up so many decent shots from beyond the arc is unexpected, because Tom Thibodeau's defense is devised around limiting open three-pointers. Zach Lowe has the ur-text on the Bulls' defense:

"We don't want to overcommit and open ourselves up to a kick-out pass for a corner 3," Thibodeau says. And holy cow, are they successful. Chicago is on pace to allow the fewest corner-3 attempts per game for the third straight season, and it isn't even close. Only two teams have allowed a lower shooting percentage on corner 3s this season, and none outdid Chicago in this regard in either 2010-11 or 2011-12. The degree to which the Bulls execute Thibodeau's wishes is scary.

The Bulls allowed the fewest number of corner threes (3.8 per game) and three-point attempts in general (15.9 per game) this season. And yet there were the Heat, hoisting up 24 shots from distance. What's more, the Heat were able to get up a good number of their favorite shot (and the Bulls' anathema): the corner three. During the regular season, the Heat were the most dangerous team shooting from the corners, leading the league with 8.8 attempts and 3.8 makes per game. Last night, they took eight shots from the corners and hit three.

Where things went awry for the Heat was along the wing. They shot 37.6 percent on wing threes during the regular season, but hit only 25 percent of them last night.

But did the Heat get all of those outside shots by design or by failure? Watching each of the Heat's open three-point attempts on Synergy, I counted only three that came in transition situations and one that came as the result of a totally blown assignment. The rest were the result of how the Bulls chose to handle the Heat's small-ball lineup. When Taj Gibson, Carlos Boozer, and Joakim Noah found themselves matched up against shooters like Mike Miller and Shane Battier, they chose to help crash the paint on the Heat's drives to the basket rather than stick to their man at the three-point line. But these are the sacrifices that must be made by the Bulls, who are missing their two best perimeter defenders in Kirk Hinrich and Luol Deng.

Although it was odd to see the Bulls allowing so many of the shots that they spent all season trying desperately to prevent, that doesn't necessarily prove that the Bulls played bad defense last night. According to Synergy Sports, the Heat averaged .92 points per play on post-ups this year (best in the league), and the Bulls gave up .80 points per play in the post (seventh in the league). Last night, though, Chicago held Miami to just .33 points per play on post-ups. And as you can see from Miami's shot chart, the Bulls did a good job of locking down the paint, holding the Heat far below their league-leading 66.4 field goal percentage on shots inside of five feet:

Illustration for article titled How The Hell Did The Bulls Win Game 1?

That the Bulls won with their defense wasn't an anomaly; it was the D itself—loose on the perimeter, extra-tight on the inside—that was an anomaly.

Stats via Synergy Sports and