Derrick Rose grabbed all the headlines after Chicago’s Game 3 victory and deservedly so. His ridiculous, off-the-glass game-winning 3-pointer capped off a stellar 30-point, seven-rebound, seven-assist performance for the former MVP. Rose certainly carried a heavy load late in the game, scoring 14 points in the fourth quarter and providing stout defense on Kyrie Irving. But the real reason the Bulls won on Friday occurred much earlier than that.
Finally, Tom Thibodeau mixed up his rotations for the better.
Thibodeau is an outstanding coach, there’s no denying that, but his Achilles heel has always been his rotations. Thibs has been insistent on playing Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah together even though the pairing has proved that they can’t play together. The pair played a whopping 1,258 minutes together during the regular season and outscored opponents by just 2.8 points per 100 possessions when they shared the floor. That’s the fourth worst two-man pairing on the Bulls with at least 1,000 minutes on the court together this season, per NBA.com.
Really there’s no reason Gasol and Noah should ever play together, let alone start. And Noah probably shouldn’t be playing at all considering he can’t make a layup or free throw (he’s shooting 39.3 percent from the floor and 3-of-16 on free throws this postseason). Although Gasol’s hamstring injury kind of forced his hand, Thibodeau finally rode the pairing of Nikola Mirotic and Taj Gibson, something it shouldn’t have needed three games to do.
Mirotic instantly inserted energy into a stagnant Bulls attack when he entered the game in the second quarter. After playing just nine minutes in the two contests before Game 3, Mirotic went on to score 12 points (11 in the second quarter alone) and grab eight rebounds in 22 impactful minutes. Mirotic’s plus-minus of +19 was insane considering Chicago won by just three points and the game was back-and-forth for 48 minutes.
Mirotic helping the Bulls while he’s on the court isn’t exactly rocket science. He led the Bulls with a net rating of 6.1 during the regular season, according to NBA.com. That net rating has been even more ridiculous for Mirotic during this series.
This chart, courtesy of Real GM and Kelly Scaletta, shows how badly Thibs needs to play Mirotic against the Cavs. Though a small sample size, the Bulls are outscoring the Cavs by 24.7 points per 100 possessions with Mirotic on the floor in this series vs. being outscored by 9.9 points per 100 possessions with him on the bench. The Bulls have even rebounded better with Mirotic on the floor, proving that playing small-ball doesn’t necessarily kill rebounding opportunities. Cleveland might be in trouble if Mirotic continues to play in this series.
The Cavaliers’ best answer for Mirotic is a jumbo front court of Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov, but David Blatt likes playing LeBron James at power forward late in games. He also likes giving James Jones some burn as a small-ball four, but that’s a nightmare defensively against Mirotic. Expect Blatt to try to counteract Mirotic in some way, but he might not have an answer for him if Thibs continues to let the rookie play.
Seeing Gibson play crunch time minutes was also a welcome sight. Irving was terrorized by Gibson at the rim throughout the game, flinging up layups that had no hope of going in. This is rare to see from Irving, who torched the Bulls with circus-shot layups in the first two games. Irving was held to 0-for-7 shooting in the paint in Game 3 with Gibson waiting for him at the rim.
Gibson’s rim protection abilities are nothing new as his opponent’s field goal percentage at the rim of 45.3 percent during the regular season led the team and ranked seventh in the league (min. 5 FGA defended at the rim per game). Despite being listed at just 6-foot-9, Gibson wrecked havoc as a small-ball center on Friday. His nine points and nine rebounds don’t sound like much, but Gibson was as important in this Bulls win than anyone down the stretch. Gibson has the grit to keep Thompson off the offensive glass while defending the paint with the best of them. He’s among the best big men in the league at switching onto smaller players and thriving.
Thibs will probably regress to his old ways, but there’s no reason why one of Gibson or Mirotic shouldn’t be on the floor at all times the rest of this series. Mirotic stretches out the defense and provides the Bulls’ offense with some room to play with. Gibson neutralizes some of the Cavs’ rebounding prowess while manning down the paint. This front court pairing would be the ideal closing lineup unless LeBron is at power forward, where Jimmy Butler can play at the 4.
Gasol and Noah playing just 22 minutes apiece in Game 3 was a good sign for Bulls fans who know how treacherous that pairing has been this season. With Gasol needing an MRI to check the severity of his hamstring injury, perhaps Thibs won’t have the chance to play that front court again in this series. Now that the front court appears to be settled, Thibs needs to fix his rotations in the backcourt.
I don’t know what would prevent Thibodeau from playing Kirk Hinrich if his almost-league-worst 6.82 PER during the regular season hasn’t stopped him yet. Hinrich pretty much isn’t good at anything at this point in his career. He’s a middling shooter, horrible scorer, nothing of a playmaker and is a mere average defender. Hinrich shouldn’t be playing 20 minutes in a meaningful NBA game. Those 20 minutes in Game 3 led to zero points, zero field goal attempts and two bad closeouts late that led to J.R. Smith three-pointers.
Thibs needs to give Tony Snell a chance in this series. Snell could not only take Hinrich’s minutes, but he could also guard LeBron in spurts just to give Butler a rest (I know, I know, this is Thibs were talking about). I’d also like to see E’Twaun Moore get a chance to run the second unit because Aaron Brooks has been a net-negative on both ends this postseason. He’s shooting 32.7 percent from the floor in the playoffs after going 1-for-7 last night in addition to being lit up by Matthew Dellavadova. Yes, that Matthew Dellavadova. Brooks has lost the right to play in this series if he can’t hit a shot because he sure as hell can’t provide anything of value on defense.
Thibs went a long way in improving his rotations in Game 3. Moving forward he should continue to do the same.