It may just be a scheduling quirk of seeing more zone-friendly teams like the Pacers and Heat as of late, but the Bulls have been playing against more zone defenses recently and struggling to score against them. Friend of the newsletter Will Gottlieb had the numbers and analysis in his Sunday morning Twitter thread:
The Heat capitalized on this weakness, throwing a zone at the Bulls at the start of the 2nd and 4th quarters. It was particularly effective at that middle portion of the 4th quarter, at which point the Bulls went from being up six points to down seven in about a five-minute stretch. That swung the game, and the Bulls didn’t have enough time to make up the deficit.
So what do the Bulls do to combat these zones? They may have found something midway through the game with Alex Caruso, who was outstanding in the loss.
One of the best ways to beat a zone is to get the ball in the middle of the floor. This collapses the defense and allows the guy in the middle to ping the ball out for open 3’s.
The Bulls started experimenting with using Caruso as a passer to beat the backside of the Heat’s defense early in the game as the Heat started throwing double-teams at Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan.
Caruso is a much better playmaker than the big men that the Bulls typically use as screeners, and having him make the decisions as a roll man is a strategy that I’ve been advocating for a while.
As the Heat dialed up their zone pressure, the Bulls started putting Caruso in that soft spot of the Heat’s zone, right in the middle of the floor. That strategy was generating great shots at first. Caruso created two wide open corner 3 looks for Coby White that he couldn’t convert and a lob dunk that Derrick Jones Jr slammed down.
After that Caruso success, the Bulls went away from it and started to see their lead slip away. They instead fell into isolation play and stagnation, which is the exact opposite of what they needed to do to beat a zone.
DeRozan missed a midrange attempt that wasn’t a terrible look, Lonzo Ball launched a 3 over a completely set defense, and White took a wild layup that failed to draw iron. Those plays kicked off a roughly four-minute stretch where the only offense they could muster was another DeRozan isolation midrange jumper.
The other big problem outside of the stagnation during that stretch was Nikola Vucevic’s play. To say that he has been struggling would be a huge understatement.
Vucevic has been a very steady passer, shooter, and low post man throughout the past few years of his career. That has all mysteriously disappeared this season. He made a costly turnover late in the game on an easy read to Ball in the corner, who is the team’s best 3-point shooter and had about 15 feet of space between himself and the closest defender. Rather than hitting Ball, Vucevic stared down Kyle Lowry and threw it right into his hands.
Vucevic’s outside shot has also abandoned him. He’s shooting just 26.3 percent from 3 a year after hitting on 40 percent of them. He was set up for a wide open corner 3-pointer late in the game and hit the side of the backboard.
White, a career 35 percent shooter, has somehow been even worse. He has connected on just 22.2 percent of his 3’s this season.
The Bulls generated great shots out of the zone for both of those guys, and they were bricking wide open looks that they’ve hit in years past. They won’t continue to be this bad. If they can experience some sort of regression to the mean and the team can continue to look for Caruso in the middle of the zone, then that will go a long way in solving the zone problems.
The biggest thing is that the shooting has to be better. It’s a trivial answer, but it’s also true. Teams shoot a lot more 3-pointers against zones because they tend to generate more open looks against that scheme. The Bulls have gotten those open looks. Maybe they need to change the personnel that is taking them, or maybe they need to wait out what might just be bad luck.