Maligned for much of the year and adjudged the worst coach in the league by an ESPN panel last month, the regular season didn’t go to plan for coach Fred Hoiberg.
The playoffs have been an entirely new ball game, and the narrative surrounding the second year coach is beginning to shift.
After guiding his eighth-placed Bulls to a 2-0 series advantage against the heavily favored Boston Celtics, praise is finding its way to Hoiberg. And with good reason.
Hoiberg arguably had his best coaching performance of his professional career in the Bulls’ 111-97 win on Tuesday.
There were very few mistakes made by the coach. The rotations and substitution patterns were on point. The offense was simple yet effective. Defensive schemes for each opposition player were evident and, more importantly, perfectly implemented by the players. Everything Hoiberg tried largely worked. He deserves credit for that, particularly as most would have given Boston a significant coaching advantage over Chicago — I said as much on the series preview podcast.
Funny what two playoff games can do.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens hasn’t suddenly been stripped of his coaching abilities. All the skills and strategies that make him a great leader of men still exist. What has changed, though, is Hoiberg, who overnight has seemingly reduced the sizeable gap between coaching staffs.
Key match ups advantageously favoring Chicago have helped make life easier. Having the best player in the series hasn’t hurt, either. These benefits have enabled Hoiberg to close the gap on Stevens. But that’s not entirely fair. The Bulls coach has also made noticeable improvements in his tactical decision making, which has been on show through the first two games of the playoffs.
To highlight Hoiberg’s improvements, here are several subtle decisions made in game 2 that influenced the outcome.
Forcing Marcus Smart to be a shooter
Tailoring a defense specific to opposition players’ weaknesses is one thing. Convincing your players to execute such a game plan is the real skill. Selling and converting all players on a desired plan is the real art of coaching. Hoiberg has routinely struggled with this, particularly with his veterans. But now, for whatever reason, he has struck a timely chord with his players, and they’re responding.
Taking a tactic often used against the Bulls and their poor perimeter shooting backcourt, Hoiberg has decided to give up the three-point shot to Marcus Smart, a below-average shooter who thinks too highly of his shooting stroke.
Smart, a 28.4 percent three-pointer shooter, made 3-of-7 of his threes in game 1. It was an outlier performance against a season-long sample of poor shooting. A regression to the mean was bound to occur, and it did.
The Bulls didn’t fear Smart’s previous performance. No one wavered from the game plan. Chicago allowed the third-year guard to continue shoot open threes, and they benefited.
Smart put up four three-pointers in game 2, making only one. His defender would float between half-hearted closeouts and packing the lanes against more dynamic offensive options.
Here, Wade hovers off Smart, focused more on the Celtics’ premier offensive, Isaiah Thomas. In this instance, Wade isn’t even involved in the initial pick-and-roll defense, yet he still roams off Smart to curtail any possibility of a Thomas drive. By doing so, he also tempts Thomas into passing to the open man. He makes the pass and the shot goes up. The Bulls get what they wanted: a three-point attempt from an inefficient shooter.
Even on Smart’s lone made three, Wade is still prepared to give up the shot. It looks like bad defense on Wade’s behalf — and typically it would be — but the Bulls are prepared to live with a made three by Smart if it allows Wade to play free safety to double the post or a driving ball-handler.
Playing the percentages against Smart’s shooting was, well, very smart. The Bulls were rewarded for their accurate scouting. Expect this to continue as the series progresses.
Keeping Butler in at the start of the fourth quarter
No lead is safe with the Chicago Bulls. An 11-point lead over the Celtics heading into the fourth quarter should be an enviable position. Normally it would be, but the Bulls have thrown away too many games this season for that to be true.
Sensing the importance of the moment, Hoiberg chose to keep Jimmy Butler on the floor at the beginning of the fourth. In many games this season Butler would rest for a brief few minutes at the start of the quarter before reentering. By mixing up his rotational rhythms and ensuring an all-bench unit didn’t share the floor, Hoiberg protected the lead the Bulls had created.
By keeping Butler on the floor, the fourth quarter lead never fell below nine points. Had Butler been given his usual breather to start the final period, being replaced by Wade or Jerian Grant, the Bulls reverses likely would have surrendered a strong position. They never got a chance to blow it because the coach didn’t allow it to happen.
It may seem like a trivial adjustment, but momentum and a double-digit lead were maintained because of a smart, proactive move.
Using the 1-3 Pick-And-Roll
Exploiting basic and obvious matchup advantages isn’t necessarily something we should praise coaches on. For a young and developing coach like Hoiberg, however, signs of tactical growth in key moments is encouraging.
Isaiah Thomas was always going to be a defensive weakness for the Celtics. The trouble for the Bulls is they have no point guard option who can hurt Thomas on offense. Getting creative and forcing the undersized Celtics guard to be mismatched on more capable offensive players is the only way to exploit Thomas’ defensive limitations, and the Bulls did that in the closing minutes of game 2.
With Thomas guarding the Bulls’ least effective scoring threat at the three-point line, Rondo and Butler initiate a pick-and-roll in hope of forcing the Celtics to switch on defense. They did, and the smaller Thomas had to guard Butler.
Killing precious seconds off the clock, Butler isolated Thomas at the top of the offense. Several hard dribbles is all it took for the Celtics to double the Bulls star guard. Butler was good enough to recognize the action and found the open man in the corner for a high percentage look from three.
All it took to get a clean look was a simple high screen that caused a defensive switch. Given the context of the game, an innocuous play call was also highly intelligent. You can’t ask for anything more from Hoiberg in this scenario.