Last night’s loss was disheartening, both for the obvious emotional reasons tied to it and the general nature of how the game played out. Fans are correct to expect a better output from a reasonably well-rested 1-seed, regardless of the supposed quality of said 1-seed.
Disheartening losses tend to blur perspective, especially in the playoffs when emotions are already at peak levels. Celtics fans did not disappoint in this regard – they rehashed old trade deadline arguments, questioned the Al Horford signing, and even tried to revive #FireDanny as a thing.
It’s all understandable, to a degree, but it’s more complicated than that. All the following statements are true:
a) The Bulls had a lot go right for them last night.
b) The Celtics had a lot go wrong for them last night.
c) The Bulls won’t miss that many open shots again.
d) The Celtics won’t miss that many open shots again.
e) IT cannot realistically be expected to do much more, for multiple reasons.
f) Bobby Portis cannot realistically expected to do that again.
g) The Celtics probably should have lost by more.
h) The Celtics are still likely favorites to win this series.
Those are quite a few statements that either contradict or cancel each other out. It was an incredibly weird game. It is what it is. Adjustments will need to be made, as would be true if Boston pulled out the victory, as would be true between any two games in any series in the playoffs.
But, a complete overhaul? That remains dubious. One loss, no matter how disheartening, does not require entire philosophies to be rewritten overnight. A few made shots here, a successful box out there, and a lot of stress goes away. So, what are the main concerns going forward that actually need addressing?
Isaiah isn’t an issue. The fact that he played last night is remarkable by itself. The fact that he still managed to carry the team is legendary. Chicago elected to blitz pick-and-rolls involving IT with two defenders, and he was (mostly) able to beat those double teams and find open shooters. Bradley feasted on this early, but no one else was consistently able to take advantage of their great looks. The solution to this: keep shooting, good things should happen.
Al Horford is going to catch a decent amount of grief today, most of it from casual fans and talk radio. Some of it is a little justified – he mostly disappeared in the fourth quarter, and he is part of the frontcourt that allowed a -17 rebounding margin to happen. But he still almost managed a triple-double, and the first quarter actually featured some phenomenal efforts from him on the glass. Horford was solid, and pinning this loss primarily on him is unfair. But, we’ll come back to him a bit later.
The rebounding doesn’t even strike me as a huge long-term concern. Look, what Chicago did last night was brutal to watch. They beat the Celtics up, plain and simple. Boston played exceptional on-ball defense and forced a number of bad shots, but even great defenses can’t be expected to perform that well for the number of possessions the Bulls were able to generate. They were never a good rebounding team, but that was pitiful.
Still, this doesn’t require some grand fix or a change in how Boston is defending. Jae Crowder is probably the most physical player on the team, and he spent the majority of the evening in foul trouble. The other Boston bigs basically got punked, and I can’t imagine a Brad Stevens-coached team getting punked more than once in a series. The rebounding margin will be cut, at minimum by half due to simple laws of averages, and even that will make a huge difference going forward.
There’s really one issue from last night that would concern me going forward. It’s a familiar one, and it essentially boils down to this:
Boston’s Game 1 net rating w/ Isaiah Thomas on the floor: +12.8
Boston’s Game 1 net rating w/out Isaiah Thomas on the floor: -65.1
— Michael Pina (@MichaelVPina) April 17, 2017
According to my hours of analysis and research, this is really bad. Boston still doesn’t have a second creator beyond Isaiah. The regular season featured spotty moments of brilliance from the likes of Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier. But Smart was erratic last night, and Rozier didn’t even make it onto the floor (spurring some major 20/20 moments of Portisgrets from a lot of fans). The ball often stalled around the perimeter, leading to some very bad isolation play from Celtics who have no business trying to execute isolation play. Bad bench units can sometimes get away with this by gumming up the works on defense, but Boston doesn’t really have the personnel to do that besides Smart.
Stevens did try to address this going into the game. He staggered rotations to make sure Horford was on the floor for the majority of the time Thomas wasn’t. Horford is the other positive creator on this team, and we saw a lot more of him being posted up from the right wing. This led to positive results more often than not, but iffy perimeter play made it harder than it should be to even get him the ball in that position.
It’s fair to ask more of the bench as a whole. Olynyk needs to hit open shots. Smart needs to calm down and not attempt hero ball, and he can’t let Jimmy Butler beat him off the dribble – that’s supposedly his best skillset. Jaylen Brown was fine for a rookie in his first playoff game. Stevens shouldn’t have to use the shotgun method just to find a competent 8th guy. But this has been an issue that has festered for much of the second half of the year, and the bench may be what it is.
This is where we come back to Horford: he needs to drag that second unit with him if Boston is going to have a successful playoff run. It’s not in his nature; you could see that in him passing up an open 16-footer to give Olynyk an awkward turnaround in the second quarter. He’s not a scorer, he’s a playmaker. He was making a concerted effort to try and get everyone else going. That has been the hallmark of the Celtics this year – Isaiah scores 30, and a bunch of other guys score 10-15. As cliché as it may be, the playoffs change things.
Look, Horford doesn’t need to average 25 a game in order for Boston to win. Fans who state, “If Horford was more of a scorer they would be better on offense” smacks of “If my aunt had nuts she’d be my uncle.” But, he does need to be more assertive. The high points of Boston play last night were when Al was driving the lane like LeBron in the third quarter, throwing down putbacks in the second, skying for rebounds in the first. Passive Horford is, well, practically ethereal.
Every possession from the second unit should involve Horford either in a post-up or a handoff on the perimeter. He is quick enough to take the likes of Robin Lopez off the dribble, and his court vision is good enough to find most open cutters and perimeter shooters, as we saw with Crowder on successive possessions last night. The Bulls were perfectly content watching the Celtics aimlessly wafting the ball around the perimeter for minutes at a time – forcing Chicago to react to an All-Star big demanding the ball every time down will open up movement for others and help those second units, at minimum, fight to a standstill.
Smaller tweaks overall will help in the long run. Isaiah will need a couple more wrinkles to get consistently open. Open shooters need to actually hit their shots when IT gets them the ball. Someone should probably bring up boxing out as a thing. These are all ancillary issues that come with going through a playoff series.
But the Celtics bench remains an albatross that doesn’t have a ready answer other than “Player X needs to stop being bad.” Isaiah sat for two stretches last night. The Bulls went on a 10-0 run the first time, and Butler started his ascent the second time. That remains the biggest question going forward, and Horford might need to be the answer, whether it’s in his nature or not.
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