You’re going to hear a lot today about how the Celtics won this game by re-establishing their defense and forcing the Bulls to play a slower, half court game. (And, of course, by having the heart of a champion). There is some truth in that; the Bulls committed 22 turnovers–seven by Derrick Rose–and shot 38 percent.
There is also truth in this: In the first half, the Celtics scored 59 points on 48 possessions, which translates to about 123 points per 100 possessions–a huge, huge number.
In the last 9:10 of the first half, when the Celtics outscored Chicago 25-10 to blow the game open, the Celtics needed just 18 possessions to put up those 25 points–a monster rate of 139 points per 100 possessions. The Bulls turned the ball over only twice over that span, so these weren’t gift baskets.
So, yes, the Celtics played their best defense of the series so far, but they also showed the kind of offensive team they can be when they aren’t tossing the ball to the other team every three minutes. The Celtics played like a top-five offensive team, and the Bulls played like a bottom-half-of-the-league defensive team, and that’s what these two teams were for 82 games this season. You forget that about the Celtics with all the focus on Tom Thibodeau and KG. This can be a great offensive team. They led the league in three-point shooting, and hit 12-of-21 tonight. They finished fifth in offensive efficiency despite the second-worst turnover rate in the league. When they get through a first half with just four turnovers, as they did tonight, you can usually pencil in a double-digit lead.
And guess who led the way? There was a lot of talk over the last couple of days (including from me) about Paul Pierce being tired, Pierce being hurt and Pierce being overrated. Pierce is probably tired, and he might be hurt, but he is assuredly not overrated. He hit his first six shots tonight and scored 18 first half points on 7-of-9 shooting. I’ve never played in the NBA, so I don’t know if Doug Collins was right when he said that a star putting on a first quarter performance like Pierce did tonight lifts the collective confidence of a shaken team. I’ve been trained to be skeptical when I hear how a player “refuses” to lose or “wills” his team to win. Sometimes the shots just fall, I say to myself, and sometimes they don’t.
But Paul Pierce took smart shots early. He worked the middle of the floor instead of forcing the ball into spots where help defenders were waiting, and he had the lift back on his jump shot. He spurred the team to a 10-point lead after six minutes and took the crowd out of the game immediately.
Paul Pierce has been doing this for 11 years. It shouldn’t have been a surprise. And Rondo? 20 points, 11 boards, 6 assists, 5 steals, three turnovers. Magnificent, again.
You can break the first half into two discrete phases. Over the first 14:50, the Bulls committed 12 turnovers as the Celtics built a lead that ranged from seven to 10 points. In Phase Two (the last 9:10), the Bulls coughed it up just twice but watched the Celtics pull away behind an efficient offensive burst–one that included four three-pointers.
About those 22 turnovers: During the game, a friend–a Bulls fan–emailed me to ask whether the Bulls offensive problems were more the result of their own sloppiness or the Celtics defense.
I didn’t have an easy answer. The Celtics didn’t do anything special on defense tonight, and at times looked a bit more disorganized than usual. They went to outright switches more than is typical for them. Derrick Rose made a jumper over Glen Davis early, Rajon Rondo spent a possession covering Tyrus Thomas (who was invisible tonight, by the way) and the Celtics were generally scrambling to keep up with the Bulls basic screen/roll offense.
But they scrambled effectively, and they clogged the lane whenever the Bulls penetrated. They owned the lane tonight. Glen Davis blocked a Joakim Noah shot at the rim tonight. That is lane ownership, baby, and boy did it feel good to see Noah rejected by a shorter, fatter man.
There were no easy shots and few clear interior passing lanes for the Bulls, who finished with just 14 assists. The lane was all beefy green men and arms swiping at the ball–that’s how Glen Davis ends up with six (!) steals.
The Bulls certainly didn’t help themselves. No team’s defense is good enough to truly force 22 turnovers against an NBA team. Twice on fast breaks Derrick Rose tossed ill-timed passes from the middle of the court to the left corner; one pass went out of bounds because no Bull was there to catch it. Rajon Rondo zoomed into the passing lane to intercept the second.
It will be very interesting to see how the Bulls respond to this game. They looked tentative and unsure of themselves. Five days after the franchise’s biggest win in years, they find themselves coming off a blowout and needing to win a home game to keep this is a competitive series. Sunday is going to be interesting.
• Quite a contrast of games for Stephon Marbury and Eddie House, as, for the second straight year, Doc seems to be souring on Eddie in the post-season. Steph played 24 minutes, and Eddie played 12–but the last 8:30 (for each player) were garbage minutes after the Bulls waived a seven-foot white flag in the form of Aaron Gray. (In fact: I propose we make that Aaron Gray’s new nickname: The White Flag).
• This may have been Steph’s best game as a Celtic. He started it with an aggressive take to the basket, made his only three, got to the line four times and dished five dimes–including a team-high three in the first half.
• Tony Allen has also fallen out of the rotation. I still think he can contribute in a meaningful way. Am I alone in this?
• Pierce’s two early fouls forced Doc to do something he hates: play a line-up without both Pierce and Allen when the game is still in the balance. That never happened during last season’s playoffs–literally never–but it’s already happened in two of the first three games against Chicago. The bench mob (plus Rondo) played the Bulls even (7-7) over a four-minute span bridging the first and second quarters.
• That line-up featured the three shortest Celtic regulars–House, Marbury and Rondo. Marbury spent two possessions guarding John Salmons. Salmons didn’t shoot on either one.
• Congrats to Brian Scalabrine, who made his only shot (a three, naturally) in six minutes of play. Welcome back, Scal. With the ridiculous bulky head band, Scal looks even more like the weekend warrior who takes your pick-up game too seriously. Hilarious.
Onto Game 4…