Chicago Bulls embrace increased physicality across the NBA in the final tuneup before the play-in tournament

In the weeks between the All-Star break and the conclusion of the regular season, a noticeable change occurred across the NBA — a sudden decrease in whistles.

Before the break, the median of personal fouls per game was 19.2 (Los Angeles Clippers) and 19.3 (Utah Jazz). After the break, that median has dropped to 17.4. It’s a noticeable trend — and one that Chicago Bulls players feel will prepare them for the postseason.

“I noticed it after All-Star break,” guard Coby White said. “I think we all did. The refs are letting us play more, physicality is at a higher rate without fouls. Clearly the physicality has been up — which is good because that’s how the playoffs are.”

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver acknowledged the officiating trend during an interview with reporters after the annual Board of Governors meeting, noting the shift came from a perceived overemphasis on offense that left teams struggling to defend appropriately.

According to Silver, fouls have dropped by nearly two calls per game since mid-February. The trend has matched an overall dip in scoring, with the median average in points scored dropping by nearly three points per game.

“There was a sense earlier in the season that there was too much of an advantage for the offensive players,” Silver said. “We were transparent with our teams about that. Everyone can see what’s happening on the floor and make their own judgments about the calls being made. So, yes, there was a bit of an adjustment made along the way.”

White felt there was a different tone to the officiating of physicality throughout the season — not for himself but for teammate DeMar DeRozan.

DeRozan, 34, is well-known around the league for his ability to send defenders airborne with a shot fake and draw fouls off his midrange jumper. But White felt those fouls were less automatic compared with in past seasons.

“Deebo used to always get the calls,” White said. “Because the way he shoots in the midrange, he jumps straight up and down so dudes always land under him just trying to contest so hard. So this year, I didn’t feel like he got nearly as many calls in general as he did last year.”

Despite any change in how he was being called this season, DeRozan remains one of the most efficient players at drawing fouls. He ranks fifth in the league in trips to the free-throw line, averaging 7.7 attempts per game.

And despite a leaguewide decline in fouls, DeRozan is drawing more whistles after the All-Star break, averaging nine trips to the line in 25 games since the league tightened up officiating.

“I’m just reading the game, I have a feel for the game,” DeRozan said. “Whether I’m using shot fakes or understanding when guys are going to reach, I try to play the right way and — not necessarily manipulate it to where I’m just flailing everywhere — but just try to use other guys’ physicality to my advantage. It’s about being smart, knowing when you can attack guys that are undisciplined on the defensive end. Little things like that go a long way for me.”

While DeRozan has had to remain crafty to maintain his presence at the free-throw line, the shift has provided a boost for defensive players such as Ayo Dosunmu and Alex Caruso. With fewer ticky-tack calls, defenders have a broader freedom to contest opponents both at the point of attack and at the rim.

With their playoff hopes riding on the play-in tournament for a second consecutive year, the Bulls have embraced the increased physicality as a way to prepare themselves for the postseason. They have been doubly challenged with a closing lineup of opponents such as the Orlando Magic and New York Knicks, whose physicality is a central key to their success — something White hopes the Bulls can replicate.

“Some of these games we’ve had, the way it was officiated was more like those play-in games and those playoff games,” White said. “It’s good for us to get that prep. We need that. You don’t want to get to the play-in or the playoffs and all the sudden everything is different.”