Wednesday, April 27, 2011


I’m going to use this Memo to offer a rebuttal to today’s blog from 670 The Score’s Dan Bernstein on the subject of Joakim Noah’s “inspired” first quarter against the Pacers last night.

Dan is my guy, for my money the most intellectual sports media voice in this town, and someone who has the capacity to be a voice on an even bigger stage.

But Dan, the main theme of your thoughts today, questioning why Noah can't play that inspired all the time... I love you, but you’re better than that, and you're going to have to get a bit of a bitch-slapping.

And Bernsie, just so you don’t think we have no common ground today: I’m right there with you on Yelena Noah. Not only is she absolutely hot, but it’s a considerable brain-twister to comprehend that she can be both hot AND look just like Joakim Noah. It’s counterintuitive to the nth degree.

Anyway, back to the question of why Noah can’t just “do his damn job” and play that inspired every night... we’re going to wind our way towards the answer to that by way of some of your other topics past and present.

You said repeatedly over these past days that you expected Roberto Luongo and the Canucks to fold under pressure. You tweeted it constantly during the Hawks game last night. You called the Canucks “the Canubs”.

But you have relentlessly told anyone who would listen since last baseball season that there is no such thing as a player who performs better or worse under pressure. One article that twisted some numbers and employed some tortured logic made what was, to me, a far from convincing case that anyone who is talented and skilled and mentally tough enough to make it to the professional level in his sport is no more or less likely to perform under increased pressure than others at that level. While clutch-ness exists, and choking exists, there is no such thing as a player who is characteristically clutch or a characteristic choker, says your guru on this.

Of course, this all brings to mind Kevin Costner in “JFK”, in a characteristically bad New Orleans accent, explaining the Warren Commission’s “Magic Bullet Theory”: you can twist numbers to say that an elephant can hang off a cliff with his tail tied to a daisy, but use your eyes. You know it’s not so.

By the logic you have used as the foundation of your position on this ever since you read that article, there should have been no reason to expect that Roberto Luongo would be more or less likely to choke in a playoff game against the Blackhawks.

Yet for some reason you expected it. Why?

There is an actual science to the psychology of human performance. Emotions affect performance. And professional teams in all sports employ psychologists to help athletes manage their emotions to optimize performance.

Some people react positively to pressure, some react negatively, and some don’t react at all. This isn’t a myth, and it extends from amateurs to professionals in any endeavor. The expectations you had of Roberto Luongo reflect that you do in fact know this to be true. But in a (characteristic) act of OVER-thinking, you read one article and managed to talk yourself out of it.

Just as pressure impacts upon different people's brains in different ways, the same goes for the effect of inspiration. Anyone’s honest best effort will be better and stronger and look very different on a day when his actual emotional state is positively aroused by context or environment than it will on a normal day that he shows up for work.

Earlier this season, Dan, you remarked after an especially great performance from Derrick Rose that Tom Thibodeau had tried to inspire him before the game in an effort to see if he could “unleash the killer” in Rose. Rose went out and just killed. Question answered.

Well... why can’t the killer be out every night? If Rose can take the matchup with the Pacers as a personal challenge because of what happened earlier in the season, to have them on his "hit list", and respond to that motivation by dropping 40 on them in consecutive games... why can’t he play like that every single night? He was the #1 pick, the leader of the team, a two-time All-Star, and the prohibitive favorite for MVP. That’s “his damn job”, isn’t it?

Why did Michael Jordan concoct perceived slights all the time? It’s because he knew he had to unleash his own “killer”. He understood his own mind and body well enough to know that he needed that extra motivation to stimulate that part of his brain that would elevate him from a gifted and hard working player to a maniac. Why couldn’t Michael drop 55 on the Knicks every time he walked into Madison Square Garden?

Luol Deng, for his career, averages 16.1 points on 47.1% shooting in the regular season, with 6.4 rebounds per game. Yet in 26 career playoff games - in which he plays exclusively against winning teams, never playing against poor competition - his numbers go up to 18.1 points on 47.5% shooting, and 6.6 rebounds.

Deng reacts positively to the increased stakes and intensity of playoff basketball. But why can’t he do the same for 82 games? It’s because you can’t possibly contrive the illusion of the same playoff context on a nightly basis when your brain actually knows it's a January game against the Clippers. Only so much of the right chemicals and be produced in the body. It’s not physically possible to redline that and pump the emotional well every single night. Part of what makes people like Michael Jordan the greatest of the great is because they are able to do that with greater frequency than other professional athletes.

In evaluating Joakim Noah’s game yesterday, you’re confusing his degree of conscientious effort with his brain’s chemical ability to translate that into effort into actual physical performance under a different set of emotional conditions.

You can give your honest best effort every night. But your honest best effort will not be the same every night.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

I don't want to be "that guy".

I don't want to be the guy who is predicting doom around every corner like so many neurotic fans. If there is anything we've learned from the history of NBA playoff basketball, it's that you can't over-project the trends of one series to the next. There were probably many who didn't think the Bulls would win the Championship in 1992 after the Knicks extended them to 7 in Round 2. Similarly, many probably didn't think they had that 6th title in them when the Pacers extended them to 7 in 1998.

And we are talking about a team that just lost for the first time this month when their comeback fell just short at Conseco Fieldhouse. They're 26-4 in their last 30 games.

So on the one hand, you can cry, 'They don't look like a Championship team!"

On other hand, you can say, "But they win pretty much every night."

I think what many observers - Bulls fans and national analysts alike - are suffering from is a fear of heights. Once you allow yourself to believe this is a team capable of winning the title - which the league's top record obviously demands you ponder - then you start looking at the team differently. When you're a team on the rise, any win is just another win for the record, better than a loss. When you start viewing a team through the lens of a Championship contender, you reflexively start looking for style points.

On January 29, the Bulls beat Indiana 110-89 in a game that had all the earmarks of one team trying to get their coach fired, an objective that was achieved by the Pacers shortly thereafter. The game wasn't even as close as the score indicated. Indiana stood around on defense, Danny Granger jacked up ridiculous shot after ridiculous shot... they looked more like a team angling for a Jim O'Brien pink slip and the #1 pick than they did a team that was interested in making the playoffs and putting up a fight.

Since Frank Vogel took over, the Pacers have been a completely different team, especially on the defensive end. They have shown a comfort level with turning this into an old-school, late '80s/early '90s classic NBA playoff meat grinder of a series reminiscent of the infamous 1990 "No Layups" tilt between the Bulls and 76'ers - a series that was such a street fight that it allowed Bulls bruiser Ed Nealy to once be named Player of the Game.

And we've certainly seen the old Pistons template employed on Derrick Rose. After his explosion in the first two games, the Pacers have chosen to put Rose on the floor every time he dares come into the lane, just as the Bad Boys used to do with a young Michael Jordan. The theory here is that you'll trade easy baskets for free throws, and by the 4th quarter you will have exacted such a physical toll on him that there will be no life in his jumper and he'll think twice about attacking the rim.

In Game 3, it worked but it didn't. Rose ferociously attacked the rim for the game winning basket. But they did pummel him into a poor field goal shooting night. It's hard to judge the effectiveness of the strategy in Game 4 after Rose rolled his ankle in the first half and shot 3 for 16 after that.

I hate to beat a dead horse here, but the real problem for the Bulls, besides overall lackluster shooting, has been Carlos Boozer's softness on offense and lack of hustle on defense.

Boozer turned in 15 points and 13 rebounds on Saturday... yet still had a bad game. He shot a poor 6-for-15 from the field, once again allowing himself to be turned into a jump shooter. He didn't strain the Pacers defense at all, rarely attacking the rim. Whether this is because he still doesn't have lift since his ankle injury or because he has gone soft as many big men do later in their careers, he's just not a force in the low post like he was earlier in the season.

And his lapses in defensive and loose ball situations are just inexcusable. When his man, Tyler Hansbrough, missed a baseline jumper and the ball actually hit the ground before Hansbrough got to it... well, I want to say Hansbrough beat Boozer to the ball, but Boozer didn't give the appearance of actually participating in the race. He just watched.

Another glaring example was in transition, a 2-on-2 situation, with Boozer actually back and in position, yet Danny Granger dribbled from halfcourt all the way to the rim for an easy layup, and Boozer did little more than escort him there. He made no attempt to protect the rim. You don't have to get dragged into the muck and goon it up like the Pacers - you play their game, it's a strategic win for them. But you don't just concede two points without demanding a toll be paid and planting in Granger's head that the next time he comes in there, he may again get a close-up look at the hardwood.

The number of shots Boozer did not contest, the number of loose balls he did not pursue, the number of opportunities for physical play that he passed on... basically, anything that doesn't show up on a stat sheet has not interested Boozer. But in this kind of playoff series, it's all the stuff that doesn't get tallied on the stat sheet that wins you games. In a game that comes down to one possession, failure to roll up your sleeves and do those things is what kills you.

If Boozer gives you 20 & 10, he's a net positive on the court. At 15 points with low-percentage jump shooting, his lack of defense or hustle makes him a net negative. I'd rather have Taj Gibson out there, take his 11 points and 9 rebounds, but know he's going to track down loose balls and contest every shot. That's much more effective until Boozer gets his ankle right and/or gets his head right.

So as we look ahead to Game 5, there's no reason to expect the Bulls don't finish this off at the United Center. But look for evidence that Rose's ankle is bothering him, and look for some change in the status quo vis'a'vis Boozer.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Thrilling win, but...

I want to return to the subject of Carlos Boozer, because this is a bit of a problem here.

The guy just doesn't try on defense. It's not poor technique. It's not a physical limitation. He just doesn't give the effort.

He needs to head to the bench, where he can be the scoring anchor for the Bench Mob and presumably face an opposing power forward who doesn't have the skill level to impose his will on Boozer the way Psycho T has been able to. And the other team's bench won't be able to quite so routinely exploit Boozer's indifference when it comes to rotation and protecting the rim.

This is a test not of Tom Thibodeau's technical skills but of his leadership. You can teach technique. And Boozer is a smart guy who could grasp anything he's taught.

This is about motivating action from your highest paid player. A message needs to be sent: play the right way or you'll play less.

I can add no more superlatives to what has been said about yet another incredible, Jordanesque display from Derrick Rose. It has all been said. He is the NBA's top "closer" right now and has run away with the MVP award. That's all over but the shouting.

But in the wake of that news, we also saw two Bulls who have a history in their young careers of elevating their play in the playoffs - Joakim Noah and Luol Deng - dig in at crunch time and do the dirty work.

Noah and Deng each turned in double-doubles. Noah grabbed a stellar EIGHT offensive rebounds in the game. Deng delivered his with an efficient 18 points, as well as flashing a rare (and thus believably authentic) display of emotion in accosting Hansbrough after his hard foul on Rose, and waving his arms to fire up the crowd.

Deng and Noah each ratcheted up his defense to another level, with Deng clamping down and making sure Danny Granger was done in the 4th quarter, while Noah did what Boozer would not: guard the rim with ferocity.

A quick question for whatever remaining Carmelophiles are out there - those who would have parted with Deng and Noah for Anthony:

Do the Bulls win Game 1 with Carmelo instead of Deng and Noah? After all, the game-ending 16-1 run... that wasn't just Rose scoring and distributing. That was the Bulls getting stops. Do those stops get made if your two best defenders aren't here but a defensive liability like 'Melo is?

And would you have wanted any confusion on who has the ball in his hands at the end of a game? This tension, this uncertainty, has cost Miami some games this year, not knowing if their closer is LeBron or Wade.

In many ways, this unnecessarily-difficult Game 1 win over the East's #8 seed was a (partial) triumph for the architects of this team. Kyle Korver hit THE shot he was brought here to knock down: the open three pointer when every Pacer including Rik Smits and Haywoode Workman collapsed on Derrick. And if Tom Thibodeau is the brain, then Joakim Noah and Luol Deng are the beating heart of the Bulls' defense, and in crunch time they stepped up and played big-boy, NBA playoff D. They were, I dare say, grown-ass men.

But Thibodeau needs to find a way to transform his big free agent catch, Carlos Boozer, into a net positive on the floor at playoff time. His defensive issues are so acute that if he doesn't give you close to 20 & 10, he's a liability out there.

What a leader values, the organization values. Any members of the organization who don't share the same values get thrown out of the boat. The time has come for Boozer to be shown - in the form of a reduction of his role until he gets the message (gets the memo?) - how things get done.

Cue up the Alan Parsons Project - it's time to introduce a 6'10" forward from USC...