Joel Embiid was the clear story in Friday’s 112-105 Bulls loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. Embiid dropped 50 points while facing two and three defenders for most of the night. So that’s where we’re going to start our focus on today.
Billy Donovan gave credit to Embiid for hitting a bunch of tough shots, but he also called out his team’s defense for what he judged to be a number of breakdowns in their game plan. KC Johnson had the writeup at NBC Sports Chicago:
"Listen, [Embiid] played a great game. But I thought we had a lot of mistakes," Donovan said. "We left our feet for shot fakes. We fouled him. We took a really poor stance in post defense. Wendell (Carter Jr.) picked up two fouls (early), probably fouls he maybe could have avoided. I thought when we did play him correctly, I thought our help was late on the back side when he went baseline. That happened too much."
I’m always curious who exactly is to blame in these situations. Coaches will often note that some of the players made mistakes but generalize enough that we can’t pinpoint who they were in order to protect their guys.
Wendell Carter fell on the sword, as he often does. But he and Donovan also cited late help from teammates.
The initial reaction when you hear that someone on the Bulls played bad help defense is likely to blame Zach LaVine. But LaVine executed the scheme well. Here is an example of what the Bulls were trying to do, bringing low help from the opposite side and forcing Embiid baseline.
LaVine mostly nailed this rotation every time I saw him as the responsible help defender. Here’s another great example of a multiple-effort play from LaVine, executing the help scheme perfectly and also closing out quickly to a dangerous shooter in Seth Curry.
If not the typical scapegoat of LaVine, then who was the problem?
I looked back at the film, and Carter was the biggest culprit. As he himself noted, he let Embiid go middle, breaking the scheme and taking him away from the help a number of times. Thad Young and Patrick Williams were also late on some of those help rotations, and Young got burned on a shot fake that had Donovan frustrated postgame. But for the most part, it was just Embiid being amazing. Here are the clipped plays of the Bulls’ Embiid mistakes, if you care to check for yourself.
Jerami Grant had a similar otherworldly performance in the Bulls’ last game against the Detroit Pistons, mostly against LaVine in the second half. But LaVine played him well in the third quarter, as pointed out in a YouTube deep dive by friend of the newsletter Cosimo Sarti. In the fourth quarter, Grant did torch LaVine, but much of that was making tough shots look easy.
The moral of the story is that a lot of times, great players are going to score no matter what. There are going to be some mistakes when you are guarding a top five MVP candidate, which Embiid has been, or a guy can catch fire like Grant did. Both were more a case of witnessing greatness than poor Bulls defense.
The Sixers are the no. 1 team in the East, and the Bulls had to play a near-perfect game with a big performance from LaVine to win this one. Unfortunately, Matisse Thybulle played very good defense on him, forcing him into a 9-of-28 shooting performance.
LaVine still got his 30 points thanks to a perfect 10-of-10 from the line, but Thybulle is the real deal when it comes to lockdown perimeter defense. Cold shooting all around also doomed the Bulls. You’re probably not beating the Sixers when you only shoot 22 percent from 3.
While LaVine struggled offensively, he continued to play pretty solid defense. He’s oftentimes been forced to play entire first quarters, yet he still managed to maintain his defensive intensity towards the end of that long 12-minute stretch with a handful of very good plays.
LaVine still admittedly isn’t a good defender. He had some slow close outs that led to open 3’s for the Sixers, and his reaction time isn’t great. But he’s learned how to make up for these weaknesses by getting in help position early. He had a string of plus defensive plays in the third quarter too, getting his hands on the ball three times. His pattern recognition is getting better, and that is helping both his passing and defense. The terrible defender label simply isn’t accurate any more.
The Bulls do have some damaging defenders on their team, much more so than LaVine. Like Donovan, I have been reluctant to call them out because it’s not much fun to tear these guys down. Ultimately, this is an entertainment product that we’re talking about here. But if you’re going to point fingers at poor defensive performances and on/off numbers, you probably want to take a look at the super young players on the team. You can play around with the data here (shoutout to The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor for sleuthing this) or here. Those numbers should definitely not be taken as gospel, but they do provide a baseline and tell you what might be good to look at. Start watching those guys closely during games, and it’s pretty easy to pick out who is good and who has really been hurting the team.
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