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Breaking Down the Bulls’ Defense in the Clutch

David Blair/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

It’s been very difficult to describe the early-season success of the Chicago Bulls.

Fred Hoiberg’s squad currently has the third-best winning percentage in the NBA, but the 14th-best net rating. This indicates Chicago is quite lucky to be 11-5, and the eye test confirms that. There have been a couple impressive performances by the Bulls, but the team has mostly looked like one trying to find its footing rather than one of the best teams in the league.

Like most teams with small net ratings and good records, Chicago has been excellent in close games. The team is 8-1 in games decided by six points or less, despite having the second-worst offense in the league in clutch situations (five minutes or less left in a game that’s within five points), per NBA.com.

Chicago has managed to dominate close games by clamping down on defense late. The defense has been good for entire games, as the team has a defensive rating of 96.8, but that decreases to an even stingier 81.9 in the clutch.

Both totals are good for fourth in the league, but the clutch rating is much better compared to the league median. The league median for defensive rating is 100.8, meaning Chicago is four points per 100 possessions better than that. For clutch defense, the median is 104.75, making the Bulls a very impressive 19.45 points per 100 possessions better than middle-of-the-road defenses in clutch situations.

While clutch defense versus regular defense can sometimes be attributed to randomness, there are some tangible factors that go into it. For starters, offenses tend to get much more isolation-based in clutch situations.

Only seven teams in the entire NBA have better assist rates in the clutch than overall. This is mostly because most teams simply go to their best players late and let that player create a shot on his own or with a pick-and-roll.

Tom Thibodeau may be gone, but his defensive principles mostly remain. And that makes it incredibly hard to beat the Bulls’ defense without moving the ball. If the Bulls players don’t have to scramble at all on a possession, they’re among the best help defenders in the league.

Take last year’s Bulls squad. The team finished just 11th in defensive rating for the season at 101.5, marking a huge drop-off for a normally stalwart defense.

But even last year’s team was excellent in the clutch, finishing third in the league with a clutch defensive rating of 96.1. The Bulls led the league in clutch defense in 2013-14 with a rating of 87.7.

Clearly, a pattern has started to emerge for this team, and that hasn’t stopped with a coaching change. When teams get more isolation-based in the clutch, Chicago’s defense doesn’t get beat very often.

Jimmy Butler’s defense hasn’t been quite as consistent since he’s been asked to shoulder a huge offensive burden, but he still is one of the best one-possession defenders in the game:

Butler blocked one of the best players in the league here. He knew he had help in the lane if Paul George tried to go all the way to the basket, so he stayed attached to George’s hip. Not content to just force a tough shot, Butler sealed the game by elevating and getting a piece of the shot.

The trust in the help on a potential drive is key. Butler knew he could stay right in George’s face because a drive to the rim would be met with resistance. Joakim Noah’s help may not have come into play, but watch the clip again and notice how he alertly got over to Ian Mahinmi’s left shoulder quickly instead of just allowing Mahinmi to body him out of the play. If George went to the lane, Noah was in position to help while still not allowing a passing lane to his man.

Noah and Gibson being able to switch on perimeter players is key as well. Since teams are more likely to dwindle down the shot clock late in games, having bigs who can switch on guards and bother them for a few seconds is a huge asset.

Fred Hoiberg has also done a good job of playing offense-defense late in games. Pau Gasol has had a couple of blocks in big moments, but Chicago’s best defensive pairing is Gibson and Noah, and Hoiberg has subbed more freely late in games recently than he did to start the year.

All of these reasons have helped make sense of why Chicago’s clutch defensive start isn’t just a fluke. And they’re all amplified the later the game gets. In an extremely small sample size, the Bulls’ defense in the last 30 seconds of games has easily been the best in the game, as the team has a defensive rating of 51.0.

That’s not to say it’s been all skill for the Bulls lately. There have been some lucky possessions late, such as Damian Lillard missing a clutch free throw. And the team will definitely need to solve its late-game offensive woes to continue to win. But don’t expect Chicago’s clutch defense to come crashing down. Based on the team’s recent history, it’ll continue to thrive on defense late in games.

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