In the Eastern Conference, every win matters. Three games separate the No. 4-11 seeds, and the Chicago Bulls are one of the teams caught in the thick of things — they currently sit at 15-18 and have fluctuated between the No. 6 and No. 10 seed over the past week or so.
Some version of a more defined hierarchy is bound to take shape over the next couple of months, especially with the trade deadline forcing some borderline teams to pick a direction. However, with the play-in tournament part of the equation – which gives the No. 9 and No. 10 seeds an opportunity to crack the postseason – this competitive contest in the middle of the East likely isn’t going anywhere. With that in mind, the Bulls have very little room for error if they hope for a playoff appearance this season. In fact, the margin for error might be so small that the Bulls have already screwed up.
No team in the NBA has played more close games than the Bulls this season. Chicago and Bostons are tied with 21 clutch performances so far (which are known as games that are within five points with under five minutes to go), and the Bulls hold a pretty underwhelming record of 9-12 in those contests.
Playing in this many close matchups can definitely be considered a positive, especially for a Bulls team that won just 22 games last season. What it tells us is that head coach Billy Donovan is putting his team in a position to win on a pretty regular basis. Cool. That’s what we want. But, unfortunately, it also tells us that the Bulls aren’t particularly good at taking advantage of these opportunities.
The Bulls even average the 4th-most points in the clutch (11.0), and they also shoot a solid 46.4 percent from the field, which ranks 8th in the NBA. A big problem, though, is that they have committed the 4th-most turnovers in the clutch, and they have also committed the 4th-most personal fouls.
Of course, a greater sample size of games will give the Bulls more room for error, but those are still two areas we can consider worse than they should be. The team’s defensive rating in this situation is also 25th in the NBA, which is six spots worse than their overall mark on the season right now. They allow their opponents to average 10.8 points in the clutch (26th in the NBA), and shoot the 2nd-highest amount of free-throw attempts on average. In other words, this team struggles to take control when push comes to shove.
I think it’s easy to chalk this issue up to inexperience, but it’s not like the Bulls are a horrible 4th quarter team. The Bulls’ effective field goal percentage dips a bit from 55.9 overall (7th in the NBA) to 53.4 in the 4th quarter (11th), but it’s nothing drastic. Likewise, they averaged 27.5 points in the quarter, which is the 11th-best mark.
Where they do take a big step in the wrong direction, however, is in their long-range shooting and passing – two things that have been key to the team’s success on the offensive end all season. The Bulls 10th-ranked success rate behind the arc (37.7) dips to 22nd (34.1) in the 4th quarter, and their 9th-ranked assists ratio drops to 24th in the final frame, per NBA.com. Does that signal the Bulls turn to hero ball and pull-up buckets at the end of games? Maybe. After all, only 39.2 percent of the Bulls field goals made throughout the game are unassisted (19th), but that number increases to 46.5 in the 4th quarter (5th).
The Bulls are an improved basketball team – there is no denying that. They have learned how to put themselves in a position to succeed on almost a nightly basis. Although, what has heavily separated them from being toward the top of this Eastern Conference cluster is their inability to finish games. Until they learn exactly why that is (their job, not mine), it is going to be really hard for them to make any legitimate noise over the next couple of months.