The fact that the Celtics are down 2-0 to the Bulls isn’t totally surprising. The East is more condensed than usual. They are, statistically, a poor 1 seed. The Bulls have been prone to collapse, but, when all cylinders are firing, they aren’t that bad of a team. By virtue of having a competent center, they are a bad matchup for Boston (yes, I recognize how pitiful that sentence is).
What comes as a shock is how utterly stunning, vicious, complete, and catastrophic of a beatdown it has been after two games.
The Celtics’ offense has stalled completely. The defense, once a hallmark of how they succeeded, is relenting almost 110 points per game. When they do make good defensive stops, it goes for naught since the Bulls get another possession off rebounds almost half the time.
The Bulls look fresher, younger, more energetic. The Bulls do. The team led by a mercurial star who ownership can’t decide if they want to build around and isn’t even playing that well, a 35-year-old guard who was just stuffed by his own basket and a point guard who 2 months ago was an Instagram post away from being blackballed by the entire NBA – he likely would have, if Gar Forman’s utterly confusing trade for Cameron Payne had actually paid even the slightest of dividends.
Robin Lopez looks like Wilt Chamberlain – a man among boys who can dominate the game by sheer force alone. Many thought it might be twin brother Brook in a wig, but Brook wouldn’t have a prayer of a chance of dominating both paints like Robin has thus far.
One of Boston’s strengths was, supposedly, its depth. It didn’t matter that it lacked star power, since it could call on any number of guys to fulfill whatever it needed on any given night. Instead, its Chicago who has gotten key contributions from role players – Bobby Portis in Game 1, Paul Zipser in Game 2.
As a result of Chicago’s ascendance to basketball nirvana, all of the worst qualities of the Celtics are being blasted for all the world to see. Al Horford, despite sporadic moments of sheer brilliance, has not taken his game to another level. The first four minutes were brilliant, as he flew for rebounds and actively made an effort to challenge guards at the rim. After that, he was essentially nonexistent for the rest of the game. On a night where someone needed to step up and help the offense, he had 8 shots.
To be fair, he’s getting no help from his partners up front. Amir Johnson has been nothing short of fantastic at times over the past two years. Sadly, his balky feet and ankles look like they have finally surrendered. He was meant to be the muscle that protected Horford from having to do the brute work down low; instead, he’s resorted to desperately facing Lopez and trying to push him away rather than actually boxing out. It’s not working. He played 9 minutes last night, and that may have been at least 13 minutes too many.
After being banged up in last year’s playoffs, Avery Bradley, Kelly Olynyk, and Jae Crowder were finally healthy coming into this postseason. None of them have been productive. Olynyk looks completely out of place among Chicago’s athletic frontcourt, and his shot isn’t falling. Crowder hasn’t really made any kind of impact whatsoever on either end, which is probably the most shocking individual performance so far. At least Bradley has done an admirable job helping limit Jimmy Butler, but he’s shot 10-28 so far in this series, picking a poor time to have one of his extended droughts.
Marcus Smart has devolved from impactful spitfire to just plain mercurial. The Bulls aren’t even bothering to guard him on the perimeter anymore, and with the offense stalling as it is, he’s obliging them with three pointers that only he thinks are a good idea. Now he’s sniping with Isaiah and bottoming out with things like this:
— SB Nation (@SBNation) April 19, 2017
This is leaving Thomas with one option: do it himself. In Game 1, he was able to split screens and find open shooters on the wings – they just weren’t able to consistently hit those shots. In Game 2, he continued to split screens, but there were no open shooters, as Chicago dropped big men back from screens and rotated with ease to cover. With no other options, Thomas is hitting the panic button and running headfirst into the trees hoping for a foul. This works when you’re James Harden, are almost a foot taller, and are surrounded by armies of three-point shooters who can punish collapsing defenses. IT is none of those things, and thus the results were inconsistent at best.
If someone else is involved in the pick and roll, Chicago just sends everyone on a zero blitz and forces Boston to react. They haven’t so far. Bigs receiving handoffs are having the ball poked away. Guards are simply swinging it from side to side near the halfcourt line, and it’s not producing any semblance of a cohesive offense.
The Bulls are just beating the Celtics up right now. They’re bodying up on rebounds. They’re going hard on steal attempts. They’re making hard guesses on the offense Boston is trying to run, and they’re guessing correctly more often than not. They’re accepting potential fouls and blown coverages as collateral damage, knowing full well disrupting Boston’s offense will make it worth it.
The Celtics are just taking it on the chin right now. Their tried-and-true method that got them 53 wins in the regular season is being blown up. The ball is being stuck in one or two players’ hands. They’re expecting fouls to be called, not realizing physicality amps up in the playoffs. Unless Bennet Salvatore comes to ref one of these games, Isaiah isn’t going to get 20 free throws just by running into traffic over and over again, especially now that they’re going on the road for the next two games.
It’s tough to do analysis on awful games like this where everything seems to be going wrong (“What do the Celtics need to fix? Start with everything”), but that seems to be the big issue right now – they haven’t transitioned to a playoff mindset yet. They’re trying the same offense at the same spots at the same times expecting the same results, and it’s just not happening right now. That leads to frustration (as we saw with Smart and Thomas sniping at each other last night), which is leading to missed assignments on the other end (how many perimeter shots did Lopez and Wade hit last night?), which is leading to panic.
When everything goes wrong like it has so far, it’s time to change everything up. Play Isaiah off the ball to change Chicago’s pick-and-roll assignments. Use Horford in the post more, particularly on non-Lopez defenders. Start picks on different spots on the floor. Try actually boxing people out instead of actually pushing them towards the basket like this:
This is just embarrassing pic.twitter.com/lqzLSlgBYQ
— John Karalis 🇬🇷 (@RedsArmy_John) April 19, 2017
There were two little plays that stood out to me last night. One was a jump-ball that Smart forced on Butler. After the play, Zipser came over and nudged Smart out of the way to help Butler up. Smart immediately looked to the ref for help, didn’t receive any, and paced away frustrated with the sheer injustice of it all. Brad Stevens immediately started barking for similar help, and got nowhere.
The other play was towards the end of the first half, when Horford actually nudged Lopez out of the way for a rebound. It was the first time I can remember that happening in the series. Everyone, including Horford and Lopez, actually seemed momentarily stunned that had happened. No foul was called.
These are the kinds of things Boston needs to start expecting in this series. It’s actually OK to make contact with players on defense without fouling. Chicago has feasted on that with gobs of steals and rebounds, and they haven’t been punished by the refs at all. It’s time to flip the script and match that physicality.
Boston has an ugly road ahead of them. It’s tough to win in the playoffs, and it’s even tougher to win on the road. They can still do it, but they’ll have to make some pretty drastic changes in their approach. Beginning to play playoff basketball would be a good place to start.
Follow Jesse on Twitter: @JesseAlling.
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