In the first game of what promises to be an excellent series, the Washington Wizards triumphed on the road 102-93 over the Chicago Bulls. After waiting a day to digest the results, here are a few thoughts on the game and what it meant for the rest of the series.
In our preview of this first round series, we went through the Wizards starting lineup and talked about their importance to the team. I fully admit I did not expect Nene to come through with a dominating 24-point and eight-rebound performance, but I did mention the possibility of him going through hot stretches:
Though oft-injured, power forward Nene may be more important to the Wizards than any player not named John Wall…Over a long series, I wouldn’t be surprised if he has a couple of stretches where he scores eight points in a row, but he’s not a major cog in the offense…Nevertheless, this man is probably the X-factor for the team and his performance should go a long way towards determining Washington’s success.
While I hit the nail on the head calling Nene the X-factor, I had no idea he would be so effective against the Bulls. There have certainly been times this year when Nene took over the offense for the Wizards, but not for an entire game like he did Sunday. Interestingly, Nene was able to control the game by emulating the man who guarded him much of the game: Joakim Noah.
The Wizards, who always use a pick-and-roll and post-up based offense, changed up their strategy at times for Game One. Using Nene as a Noah-esque facilitator, the Wiz were able to open up the lane and allow cutters to score easy buckets. Washington started several offensive sets down the stretch by entering the ball to Nene in the high post and creating a whirlwind of motion around him:
Nene dishing from the high post.
Here, Andre Miller is the beneficiary of some nifty off-ball motion. Bradley Beal, who brought the ball up, moves over and pretends to set a screen on DJ Augustin, perhaps in an attempt to free Miller for run around the arc and a dribble handoff. In the split second when Augustin is anticipating the screen, the Professor breaks from his run and darts to the basket. Due to some decent spacing by the Wiz, Miller is able to finish over Gibson at the rim.
Between passing from the high post like this and solid midrange shooting, Nene had a massive impact on a Wizards offense we hadn’t seen previously this year. Of note, Nene hasn’t played this many minutes in a long time, so it’ll be interesting to see if he wears down over the course of a series. How Chicago plans to stop the Brazilian Jesus may go a long way to determining their fate in this series.
I was planning on talking about how the Wizards’ defense blitzed Joakim Noah, but Michael Sykes already did an excellent job covering that in an article of his own. Instead, I went through the box score and found a couple interesting storylines.
Strictly based on the Four Factors, this game came down to efficient shooting and free throws. The Wizards were helped out in the latter category by late-game fouling, but their first half offense also relied quite a bit on free throws. The refs whistled constantly for ticky-tack fouls and were unwilling to call charges the entire game. This didn’t hurt or help one team much more than the other: the Wizards were getting to the basket more often than the Bulls (at least in the first half) and were rewarded accordingly.
The Bulls shot worse than the Wizards, which one would certainly expect given their respective shooting abilities coming into the game. The Wizards are an above-average team in eFG % and the Bulls quite possibly have the least-efficient shooting in the league. It was interesting to see the make-up of the shots however, as the Wizards’ eFG % proficiency comes mostly from great three-point shooting. They barely shot any threes in this game, a testament to the Bulls’ defensive game-plan. Clearly, the Wizards were able to find other ways to score.
One last note: If the Wizards are able to match the Bulls’ offensive rebounding rates throughout the entire series, that’s a huge edge Washington wasn’t expecting.
Wizards: Here’s something you will probably hear a lot over the next 24 hours: “John Wall and Bradley Beal shot 7-for-25 from the field and the Wizards still won.” Unfortunately for my Wiz, that’s not a great argument for their future success. While you can probably expect Wall and Beal to shoot more efficiently from the field in the coming games, it’d be hard to ask more of them from the free throw line.
This season, Brad and John are averaging 2.6 and 4.8 free throws per game, respectively. In three games against the Bulls this regular season, Beal took zero free throws and Wall averaged 5.7 per game. In Game One, the Wizards’ dynamic duo was 15/17 from the line. That is well above both their season average for getting to the line and their shooting percentages from the line. Even taking into account the added physicality of a playoff game, that’s too great a disparity to ignore.
Beal and Wall will probably shoot better the rest of the series, but I would be very surprised if they got to the line as much as they did in the first game. [Bob: On the other end, you can also look at Nene's shooting percentage on those midrange shots. I read somewhere that he was over 10% better than his average on Sunday, so if fans want to make a regression argument, they should also consider that it happens the other way.]
Bulls: On the other side of the ball, there were a few out-of-character bad performances as well. The most important one came from DJ Augustin, who shot 3-for-15 from the field. Unfortunately for Bulls fans expecting regression to the mean, this case is similar to that of the Wizards’ backcourt. Augustin may have shot poorly, but he got to the line ten times and made all of those free throws to finish with 16 points. Augustin averaged 14 this year, and you’d expect that to go up a little bit with additional playoff minutes, but 16 is not all that low of a point total. I’d expect Augustin to get to the line less and shoot better in the future, but probably achieve similar results.
Lastly, we come to the newly crowned Defensive Player of the Year, Joakim Noah. Noah’s defense was good on Sunday, but his offense was uncharacteristically quiet. Much of that occurred because of the Wizards determination to stop him with pressure and double teams, as the article I linked earlier stated. Noah shot efficiently (66 percent from field) and dished out four assists, but that came with three turnovers and just two shots from the line. If I’m a Bulls fan, I’m not too worried about Joakim. Thibs will find a way to make him effective on O. If I had to guess, I’d expect him to be attacking the offensive boards even more after pick-and-rolls.
Game One of this 4-5 matchup was a treat and one can only hope the series remains this entertaining. Given how uncharacteristic the Wizards’ offense and defense were in this game, I have a hard time taking anything concrete from it. If this is the offense the Wizards are planning on running for the rest of the series, I think that favors the Bulls. At some point, I bet they get back to their three-point bombing ways. That should be easier now that the Bulls defense will have to respect Nene/Gortat in the high post and help off the corners. Things to look for on Tuesday:
- Threes may open up for the Wizards if the Bulls try to clamp down on Nene. I doubt Nene gets to 20 points again, but I’ve been wrong before.
- Expect both teams’ guards to play better. I’d be really surprised if Wall specifically doesn’t improve. He had opportunities in this game, but just couldn’t convert on the outside shot.
- There will almost certainly be fewer free throws than Sunday. The officials were really whistle-happy.
- Jimmy Butler and Kirk Hinrich will have smaller roles in the Bulls offense. Twenty-eight combined shots between those two is almost certainly too many for Thibodeau’s tastes.
- It should be another tight affair. I’m really excited. You should be too.