Saturday, February 19, 2011
The big man is never wrong
By Kevin Arnovitz
If you can bounce an alley-oop pass off the floor 30 feet, fly two feet above the rim to collect that pass, or pull up in transition for a 3-pointer when you have a teammate streaking to the basket, then the Rookie-Sophomore game is tailor-made for your talents. But if your game is about cutting off the baseline, setting screens, stifling penetration and swatting away shots, then you've come to the wrong party.
As a member of the Sophomores on Friday night, Bulls forward Taj Gibson looked overdressed for the occasion. There were no defensive rotations to account for, and few screens to set in a game where the correct play on a 3-on-0 break is to fire up a 25-footer. Gibson played reasonably well, hitting four of his seven shots from the field, but few will remember he even showed up for the game -- not when John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins are choreographing stuff like this.
But if you ask the question, "Which of these 18 guys will be making the biggest impact on Memorial Day weekend?" Gibson -- along with the Spurs' DeJuan Blair and Gary Neal -- is the correct answer. When you're a key member of the NBA's top-ranked defense, that's a near certainty.
The Bulls continue to rack up wins and refuse to allow Boston and Miami to turn the Eastern Conference into us-and-everyone-else affair. When Tom Thibodeau took over the coaching reins for Vinny Del Negro, he installed the Celtics' stifling strong-side pressure defensive scheme to Chicago. The prevailing question going into the season was whether such a system is transferable. After all, the Celtics had Rajon Rondo at the point with Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins anchoring the back line and pick-and-roll coverages. Chicago had Derrick Rose, a very strong defensive player in Joakim Noah, then a bunch of question marks, including a second-year player like Gibson.
I asked Gibson whether he ever watched film of Garnett directing the Celtics' defense. Affirmative.
"When I watch [Garnett], I think about Thibs,” Gibson said. “He wants us vocal. When you look at KG, he always make the play calls from the back: ‘We're in "soft" or we're in high pick-and-roll show defense,’ It's always about the bigs making the play calls."
So much of what Thibodeau runs is predicated on big men directing the defense, because they're the ones who have to make tough decisions. A guard has to run through a screen -- and that's no picnic when the guy setting that screen is 6-foot-10, 285 pounds. But big men have infinitely more choices to consider.
"[Thibodeau] says, 'The big man is never wrong,'" Gibson said. "We negotiate with the guards to go over screens, go under, sag back. And he lets us play free ball with it. We just go out there and make play calls."
Garnett is vocal on the court, sometimes pathologically so. But a lot of that verbiage translates into defensive results. When you hear analysts or coaches say a team needs to communicate better, that's essentially what they're talking about. Professional basketball players move far too quickly offensively for there to be any discernible hesitation about what this guy or that guy is going to do in response. If, as Gibson says, the big man defending the screener is going to "show," that means the other big man needs to pick up the roller.
"That's the whole thing with Coach Thibs' defense -- he wants everyone to get better with talking and get real vocal," Gibson said.
When you watch the Celtics -- and now the Bulls -- play defense in the half court, you see the sort of fluidity that communication facilitates. Players understand what the defense wants to accomplish on a given night and what their respective roles are in that scheme. We've seen that if Thibodeau has one overriding strength, it's his ability to communicate those mandates to his player.
Gibson didn't provide any highlights on Friday night alongside his more dynamic teammates on the Sophomore squad. You get the feeling he's primed for the next nationally televised event, the one that truly matters -- next Thursday night against Miami.