Barkley defends calling Bulls best defensive team he’s seen

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David Haugh
Tuesday, May 17, 2011
— When Charles Barkley declared on TNT after Game 1 that the Bulls were the best defensive team he had seen, my internal debate began.

Should I worry more about Barkley’s eyesight or his memory?

In terms of legendary defenses in Chicago sports lore, the ’90s Bulls arguably rank behind the ’85 Bears and ahead of the ’59 White Sox infield. And Barkley, the most compelling analyst on TV, still might have the teeth marks from the “Doberman” defense inflicted by lead dogs Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen as proof.

“If you look at those Bulls teams, it was really just Michael and Scottie,” Barkley said Monday in an interview with the Tribune. “Nobody

on those other Bulls teams were great defenders ... well, Horace Grant, and maybe Dennis (Rodman). Nobody looked at John Paxson as a great defender. I mean that with no disrespect. But this Bulls team, as a team defensive presence, they’re the best I’ve seen in the NBA.”

That comes from a Hall of Famer who averaged 27.3 points per game for the Suns in the 1993 NBA Finals against the Bulls’ vaunted defense of Jordan, Pippen and Grant. The reason for such high praise of coach Tom Thibodeau’s scheme dawned on Barkley as he broke down how the Bulls defended isolation plays of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.

It was more than just Luol Deng bothering James with good body position or Ronnie Brewer staying within arm’s length of Wade. It was the way five Bulls defenders choreographed their reactions to work as one.

“Every time they went to the basket, they had to go through three guys,” Barkley said. “Their defensive guys are on a string. They’re beautiful to watch. Getting the ball to LeBron or Dwyane one-on-one isn’t going to work. They work their behinds off.”

Nobody on the Bulls works harder than Joakim Noah, Barkley’s favorite. In a matchup of marquee names, Barkley called Noah the most important player in the series. He couldn’t decide which thrilled him more Sunday: Noah hustling for eight offensive rebounds or using his 6-foot-11 frame to stop Wade on the perimeter.

“He’s the only guy in the league who can guard anybody on the court,” Barkley said. “When I said the Mavs would beat the Lakers it was because L.A. had nobody to guard Dirk Nowitzki. I wouldn’t have said that about Noah. Noah guarded Dwyane Wade one-on-one (Sunday) night and blocked his shot. It was awesome.”

For Noah and the Bulls to continue to control the game defensively, they need to slow down the Heat in transition as they did the final three quarters. The Heat scored eight fast-break points in the first quarter but, after the Bulls adjusted, managed just one more fast-break basket in the final 36 minutes.

“You could see they made a concentrated effort not to let the Heat get in the open court where they’re at their best,” Barkley said.

That reduced the impact of James and Wade, who combined for 33 harmless points. In 31 Eastern Conference final games when both were healthy, Jordan and Pippen combined for fewer points only once—in a Game 2 loss to the Cavs in 1992, when Jordan had 20 and Pippen 11.

So I asked Barkley if he could imagine Michael and Scottie being so inconsequential in a game that mattered so much.

“People are overreacting to that,” Barkley said. “Give the Bulls credit. Sometimes the other guy wins. They made adjustments. (Now) they just have to stay grounded. They don’t have to do anything different. They’re not flashy. They just have to play their game.”

That means following the modest lead of Derrick Rose, who Barkley finally met in person two weeks ago when he stayed at the same hotel as the Bulls.

“I thought it looked like Derrick Rose but it caught me off-guard because I was saying to myself, ‘Can’t be ... wow, I thought he was bigger,’ ” Barkley said. “He’s 6-2. That makes it even more impressive what he does.”

Last updated: 5:12 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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