If the Chicago Bulls fall short of the Finals, Carlos Boozer and Tom Thibodeau will be obvious scapegoats. Thibodeau and the Bulls have thus far been unable overcome either Erik Spoelstra’s adjustments or LeBron James’s heroic performances. Carlos Boozer, the expensive free agent brought in to turn Chicago’s 27th ranked offense into a Jazz-esque machine of efficiency, has not delivered consistently in the playoffs.
In Game 4, Thibodea gave Boozer ample time to redeem himself and help save his team’s season. Boozer responded with a moderately efficient 20 points and 11 rebounds (though none offensive) in 49 minutes—the most of any Bull in Game 4 and 10 more than Boozer has played in any game in the playoffs.
Clearly Thibodeau believed that Boozer’s impressive 27 point 17 rebound outburst in Game 3 warranted more playing time, and with his team struggling to find reliable offense, more firepower was necessary. Boozer played well, not great, on offense. But playing him so many minutes comes at a heavy cost elsewhere.
The collateral damage to all of Boozer’s minutes starts with Taj Gibson, who played just 10 minutes and, aside from a few defensive possessions, was absent from many of the game’s most important moments. In many ways, Gibson represents what won Chicago 62 games. He rebounds voraciously, he defends with tenacity, has a unique combination of size, quickness and length and always plays extraordinarily hard.
Whereas Thibodeau is comfortable allowing Gibson to switch onto Wade or LeBron and defend without help, he prefers to stash Boozer on Miami’s non-Bosh big, either Udonis Haslem or Joel Anthony. The thinking goes that Bosh is too long and quick for Boozer to handle without help, and when that help comes quick ball movement can find Wade or James, at pace and in space–scary stuff.
However The consequence of hiding Boozer on Haslem, or even Anthony, is that Boozer then becomes the Bulls most important help defender. In crunch time of a game that felt like a 53 minute crunch time, Boozer repeatedly failed to step up or make the correct rotation, yielding a number of open shots (this series’ most precious commodity) to the Heat.
As you can see in the video, Boozer made just about every mistake in the book: failing to step up on a Mike Miller drive, twice failing to hedge on LeBron James which allowed James to get to top speed attacking the rim, and over-helping on the inbounds play that resulted in a wide open Bosh jumper.
The video chronicles four possessions and three Heat 2-point buckets that can be at the very least indirectly attributed to a Boozer breakdown. In that same time span (last five minutes of regulation and the five minutes of overtime), Boozer also scored six points.
While none of Boozer’s buckets were scored in an isolation setting, it’s fair to wonder if Taj Gibson would have been able to make all the same plays. Then again, Gibson certainly shows up where Boozer didn’t on the defensive end, especially on the LeBron James pick and rolls. How many points is that worth?
Players make plays, but coaches decide who gets to play. In the regular season, the Chicago Bulls won more games than any other team by being the best “team” from top to bottom. Each member contributed and the depth, intensity and defensive focus from the entire roster was too much for most teams to handle. Gibson and players like him were a huge part of all that success.
After playing 23 minutes in Game 1, Thibodeau hasn’t played Gibson that many minutes combined in Games 3 and 4—despite the injury to Omer Asik. Gibson isn’t a scorer, and doesn’t do much to space the floor. But he does help get stops, deflections, blocks and steals —all of which lead to easier scoring opportunities in the open court.
Boozer has responded to Thibodeau’s trust and the big minutes with strong offensive performances, but it’s easy to question whether the erosion of the Bulls’ core defensive identity is worth Boozer’s buckets.