There is simply no way of hiding it. Through the first two games of its first round matchup with the Chicago Bulls, the East’s top-seed Boston Celtics have looked overmatched in nearly every facet. Brad Stevens, who coached this Celtics team to 53 wins in the regular season has been out-executed by Bulls’ lead-man Fred Hoiberg, who experienced several pitfalls this season, such as guiding a team without a hint of depth on its roster to just 41 wins.
It’s hard to fault them for that, but it’s now equally hard to acquit them from their 2-0 deficit to the under-manned Bulls. Stats like this one — that the Celtics are only the second top team to drop their first two games to a No. 8 ranked squad — don’t care whether Boston should be here or not. That the Celtics may be on the verge of becoming only the fourth No. 1 seed to lose in the first round since 2000 will live on beyond the actual realities of where Boston should be.
The truth of the matter is that Chicago is exposing Boston’s flaws everywhere on the floor with an inspired effort this postseason that no has seen all season.
The Celtics haven’t lost this series yet, of course; they’re only down two games. But they’ve rocked back on their heels and have both hands protecting their head, with all the momentum pedaling away from them. Now they have to go play two games in Chicago, with pressure mounting to win both.
In order to re-establish the edge on the defensive glass, Stevens must experiment with his lineup
Defensive rebounding has been the Celtics’ Achilles Heel all season, and it’s killing them at the most inopportune time against a Bulls team that thrives on gaining extra possessions. So far, Chicago has out-rebounded Boston 32 to 21 on the offensive glass and 97 to 74 overall. There have been times, though, where the Celtics survived despite losing the offensive rebounding battle significantly – Boston was 17-12 in the regular season this year where they gave up 13+ offensive rebounds.
Through two games of this series, the main culprit to Boston’s defensive rebounding woes has stemmed from the weak-side. Schematically, there are some offensive rebounds that are simply difficult to prevent. For example, Stevens’ desire to ice PnR’s gives the rolling big man an advantage because if the ball handler puts up a contested shot against the retreating big, the roll man has a size advantage on the defensive small trying to box him out. This has backfired early and often however, as it’s opened up the ability for Robin Lopez to rebound over Boston’s smaller guards.
In order to adjust, Stevens might have to allow his guards to hedge the screens instead, which would keep the Celtics’ forwards glued to the painted area. This way, it would negate Lopez, Mirotic, or any other rolling Bulls’ big to clean up a missed shot.
Instead of running hero-ball, Boston needs to stick with what’s worked
All season, the Celtics worked around a roster that lacked premiere offensive talent. While they were propelled through the inhumane efforts of Isaiah Thomas, for the most part, Boston navigated past it all by utilizing swift ball movement and prolific spacing of the floor.
If they want to get back in this series, more so win it, they’ll have to involve more players on offense. In Game 1, the trio of Thomas, Bradley, and Horford combined for 66 points, however in Game 2, it manufactured just 44 points. Case in point, the C’s will need contributions from their #4, #5, and #6 options to be a real threat moving forward.
It’s easier said than done, but whenever Thomas and Horford draw a double team, they have to be able to find the open man and that guy (preferably Marcus Smart, Jae Crowder, or Kelly Olynyk) has to either put subsequent pressure on the defense or rotate the ball to someone who can. Boston’s offense is damn near impossible when its entire roster – from their starters to the role players – works as one by utilizing space in the half-court.
So far this postseason, there’s been more negatives than positives in this category. Let’s start with what’s gone wrong via film over the first two games.
In the first example, Marcus Smart penetrates the teeth of the Bulls’ defense on just one ball-reversal. Due to slow passing and stagnant spacing in general, this leaves Chicago’s weak-side defense ready to defend once Smart drives. The end result is a wild toss at the rim.
Much of the same occurs again, this time Boston doesn’t make it hard for Chicago to guard them in the half-court. As prolific as Thomas has been this year in creating his own shot, he’s in a no-win situation on this drive where he rams directly into the chest of Jimmy Butler.
It’s worth mention that during the regular season, Boston went from a torrid 113.6 offensive rating when Thomas is playing to 99.0 when he’s off-the-court, per Tim Cato of SB Nation. That’s almost a 15-point difference.
Of course, I’m not saying that Boston should refuse to run its offense without Thomas, that would be absurd. However, I am saying that Boston needs more production from role players such as Avery Bradley, Jaylen Brown and *cough* Jae Crowder, who have all combined to score 58 points and shoot less than 40 percent from the field in the first two games of the series.
Instead of playing “hero ball” like my sub-title mentions, the Celtics need to work as one cohesive unit offensively, which means using every cog in their arsenal. There’s been evidence of that in the first two games, briefly, but the best example of Boston making productive use of space and passing up a good shot for a great one is in this clip.
Here, Avery Bradley splits the Bulls’ double-team by dumping the ball down to Al Horford, who then kicks it out to an wide-open Kelly Olynyk along the wing for a drained 3-ball.
Another facet (or lost art) of Horford’s game is through the pick-and-pop. Stevens has used this extensively in the Celtics’ half-court attack in the regular season, with several other bigs like Olynyk and Amir Johnson, but this has been big Al’s bread and butter for years.
In the grand scheme of things, Horford, and to a lesser extent, Olynyk, is going to have to be more of a playmaker, too. Whether that’s in the post playing off of pick-and-pops and DHO’s. For the Celtics to have any chance in stealing a game or two at the United Center, they need to be able to draw Robin Lopez and Nikola Mirotic out of the paint and make them defend while moving. If they can simply sit back and lay in wait, the chances of the Celtics coming back in this one will be as good as gone.