The biggest surprise of the 2011 NBA Playoffs might not be in Memphis, where the eighth-seeded Grizzlies knocked off the San Antonio Spurs before taking home-court advantage against the Oklahoma City Thunder. It might not be in Boston, where the defending Eastern champs look completely vulnerable. It might not be in Chicago, where the Bulls have struggled to build upon their 62-win season, and it might not be in Dallas, where the Lakers are desperately trying to defend their championship crown.
No, the biggest surprise might be in the Atlanta/Chicago series. Not that the Hawks have taken home-court advantage. Rather, it's Carlos Boozer's surprisingly good individual defense on Hawk forward Josh Smith. Sure, Boozer still stinks terribly away from the ball, but he's forced Smith right time and time again on Josh's drives, and the lefty Hawks forward has struggled as a result.
And Hawks coach Larry Drew, to nobody's surprise, has had about enough of it. He's pretty sick of Smith's decision-making offensively, and he'd like a word:
"I want him flying all over the place," Drew said. "I don't want him sitting out there just shooting jump shots and trying to make plays off the dribble."
It's off the dribble where Smith has shockingly gone wrong. Boozer is awful when other players are driving at him, he hides to the side of the paint and refuses to help on penetration, much less take a charge, much to the chagrin of his teammates and Bulls fans the world over. But he has, for whatever reason, done well in forcing Smith to drive to his off hand. Toss in a couple of terrible long jumpers from Smith, and you can see why Smith is shooting 7-25 (28 percent) in the second round.
He's under 40 percent for the playoffs. Via Sebastian Pruiti, check out Smith's shot chart from this postseason:
Yikes. Luckily for Smith, he might see less of Boozer in Friday's Game 3. Boozer will play, but he's been termed "questionable" by the Bulls staff, and former Bulls forward Horace Grant is right on board with that:
though they didn't always show up in gaudy rebounding numbers, on moving his feet defensively. Boozer has no such interest in that. Never has.
"It will be a long time before I could be a head coach, because I don't care how much money you get paid," Grant said. "If you're not producing more or if I feel you're hurting the team, especially in the playoffs, I'd bench you.
"Where does it say that because you make so much money, you have to play if you're not producing?"
Boozer, through it all, is going to come out firing in Game 3. And he should, because the Bulls need him, and Chicago's guards need to look for him.
In discussing Grant's comments on Friday, Boozer had this to say:
"I don't agree with that," Boozer said. "I think if I'm out there and I can help my team, I will.
"My teammates want me to play if I can play. My coaches want me to play if I can play. And I can play, so I know I'm doing the right thing."
He's not wrong. But neither is Grant. And yet they're both a little off. This goes beyond, "if you can't score, get 42 rebounds."
The Bulls have to find a way to get Boozer going offensively. Most of his clear-outs in the low post are off of broken plays, they rarely look to him (though this improved in Game 2) off of screen-and-roll action, and he's too often been an afterthought asked to finish plays at the rim in a Bulls offense that needs help.
And while Taj Gibson is a brilliant defender who is better at spacing the floor these days than Boozer, he can't play 48 minutes. Even if Boozer steps back a bit, he's still going to see court time for Chicago, and the Bulls need to take advantage of his gifts while he's out there.
After that, then maybe he can go out with Smith following Game 3. For some tea, and sympathy.
- Carlos Boozer