The Boston Celtics look like they could be in big trouble in this first round playoff series even with Boston’s lopsided 104-87 victory over the Bulls Friday.
That’s because it appears the Bulls may have the home court disadvantage. This was the third consecutive game in this topsy-turvey series in which the home team lost. And we all know that old NBA bromide that a series doesn’t truly begin until the home team loses three games. Huh?
“Tonight they threw the first punch at us and it took us a whole quarter before we responded,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “They did the same thing after half time. They were the aggressors and put us on our heels. Hopefully, we will come out with a different mindset on Sunday (Game 4 at 5:30 p.m.).”
It was a brutally poor game for the Bulls, a sluggish return to the individual play, lack of ball movement and uncertainty that too often appeared all regular season on the way to the 41-41 record. Much of that changed with the return of Rajon Rondo to the starting lineup last month and an enthusiastic, upbeat response that carried through the two Bulls wins in Boston to open the series. That’s when the Celtics were sluggish, lacked ball movement and appeared uncertain.
And then Rondo showed up Friday night in a light burgundy short sleeved suit—really, who doesn’t want one—mostly because of the cast on his right hand from a fractured thumb sustained late in Tuesday’s game. He is expected to miss the rest of this series. Then Rondo and his teammates acted similarly, each watching the action on the floor.
Only Rondo, however, was on the bench wearing at least half a suit.
“We’re not going to put this all on us missing Rondo,” said Dwyane Wade, who led the Bulls with 18 points. “Because if that’s the case we might as well not show up at all because it looks like we are going to be missing him for awhile. We have to come out as a team and figure out how to be better defensively; I’d say all of us. And offensively we understand what we have to do together without having Rondo and hopefully we go to practice tomorrow and can be better at it.”
The Bulls still lead the series 2-1, but the Celtics with their reengineered small ball lineup—as if they weren’t small enough already—pressured and pressed the Bulls from the jump, stealing the initiative, as well as the ball.
The Bulls committed 18 turnovers that gave the Celtics 23 points. Boston, replacing Amir Johnson in the starting lineup with Gerald Green and breaking out Jonas Jerebko and Terry Rozier, shot 17 of 37 on threes. The Bulls again dominated on the boards 52-37, but it seemed clear the Celtics no longer cared about that.
The strategy, and it was pretty successful and smart, was to say they didn’t have the size or heft to compete on the boards with the Bulls, anyway. So do what they do best, which is pressure using their excellent perimeter defenders to wall off Jimmy Butler, who had his poorest playoff game in three years, shooting seven of 21 for 14 points with zero assists and zero free throws.
“I shot a lot of jump shots,” acknowledged Butler. “When you do that you don’t get to the free throw line. I like my shots; I’m OK with that. I have been to the free throw line a lot this year. It has helped, but you have to take what the defense gives. There weren’t a lot of free throws in the game on our side. I feel like I’ve had slow starts each and every one of these games, to tell you the truth. Missing shots, great defense. But I’m going to keep taking the same shots; I think they are going to fall.”
Jerian Grant started for Rondo and was overwhelmed.
He committed four turnovers in 15 minutes, three in the first quarter as the Celtics pressured and trapped him immediately and every time he tried to bring up the ball. Hoiberg quickly went to Michael Carter-Williams, who was one of five with three turnovers, the duo with seven turnovers and three assists combined in 38 minutes. They shot three of 10. Wade and Butler then had to take turns handling the offense. But neither is particularly adept at penetrating and passing.
“We are going to miss Rondo, no doubt about it,” said Hoiberg. “But at the same time we do have confidence in our other guys. That was an experience getting the first (playoff) start for Jerian. We will go back and watch the film to make the decision on what we are going to do. Jerian has filled in at that spot anytime we have had an injury. He has done a solid job for us. We will have to see how we can flow into our offense better.”
Asked if the team might go with Wade or Butler handling the ball and perhaps an extra shooter, Hoiberg was coy and non committal. “We will see. We will go back and watch and get together in a film session, and get back in the gym to make that decision,” he said. But Hoiberg later in his post game comments said, “We have confidence in our guards who played. They’ve given us good minutes this year. We need to try to put things in that are simple to try to create some confidence in those players.”
Though Rondo, Wade and Butler all pointed to defensive deficiencies as the prime reason for the defeat, the Bulls offense went flat. There was little penetration without Rondo, suddenly so valuable, and thus much more difficult shots. The Bulls were six of 21 on threes. Plus, with Boston going with its quicker and smaller players, the Bulls, nonetheless, failed to go into Robin Lopez much. He was five of seven shooting overall for 12 points and six rebounds.
Indicative was starting the game with multiple jump shots as the perimeter players tried to take advantage of matchups. Both Butler and Wade shot several post up fadeaway jumpers. Lopez did have a follow score early on a Wade miss. But the Bulls threw it to him for a shot just one other time in the quarter as Boston raced to a 33-15 lead after one quarter with 11-0 and 13-0 runs in the quarter. Boston was seven of 11 on threes in the first quarter, lessening the home enthusiasm immediately.
“Robin has been doing a lot of his work on the offensive glass,” noted Hoiberg. “Rajon getting the ball downhill and dumping to Robin helped in the first two games. We need to do a better job of getting the ball downhill and getting into the paint to put pressure on the defense.”
Employing their smaller, quicker players, the Celtics returned to their advantage they had in their two wins over the Bulls this season. They gave up the boards to assault the perimeter, disrupting the Bulls offense, forcing quick and off balance shots and then moving the ball to seek out their own threes.
"They came out and punched us in the face"
But while Bulls players were critical of themselves for not chasing out to run Boston off the three-point line, it wasn’t easy to do the way the Celtics, using lineups of four ballhandlers, made multiple passes. Boston had 34 assists to 14 for the Bulls. Boston’s assist total was the most against the Bulls in a playoff game since 1989 and the 17 threes were the most the Bulls ever have given up in the playoffs.
The Bulls, however, failed to take advantage of their advantage; if they go small and you are big, you have to keep the game slower and pound them inside, using Lopez more. Without Rondo, it’s difficult for the Bulls to match the Celtics speed. But when Boston goes small like they did and stays that way, can you afford to still try to push the ball against them? And especially without Rondo?
Plus, the Bulls get so many of their offensive rebounds with penetration by forcing the defense to shift and help. Then Lopez & Co. have lanes to the basket to follow.
“It is a totally different team (without Rondo),” said Jae Crowder, who had 16 points as Al Horford led Boston with 18. “We tried to make them as stagnant as possible without the primary ballhandler, which is Rondo, passing the ball and creating for others.”
Though you still get your kicks with Rondo.
After Crowder made a jumper for that 33-15 first quarter lead, he turned to say something to the Bulls bench. Rondo had been talking to the Celtics in previous games. Crowder ran by the bench off the court and as he went by Rondo picked up his leg. It seemed cursory.
“When you tear an ACL, your legs get stiff on you every once in a while," Rondo explained. "I stretched my leg out. I do that throughout the game. I guess he was so deep into our bench, it looked maybe whatever may have happened."
Though it was the Bulls who were tripped up.
So what now?
The Bulls strength has been their size and rebounding. Boston is saying, in effect, we can’t beat you there, so we’ll beat you this way. With Rondo, it’s not so simple. But without Rondo to produce that pace and find shooters, it’s different because Grant isn’t a true point guard. And Carter-Williams doesn’t shoot well, so defenses lay off. Would the Bulls go with a slow, walk it up game to better protect the ball and try to take advantage of their size inside? It’s not what has led to their success? Do they have to change with Rondo out? But they still have Butler and Wade, and isn’t it awfully late to make that sort of change?
“They made some adjustments; that’s what you are supposed to do in the playoffs and now it’s our job to come back and make the defensive adjustments we have to make,” said Wade. “Some new things they did, different angles they put guys at and then offensively see opportunities where we can get better. Going into Game 4, it’s going to be hard to get 30 assists, especially without Rondo. So we just have to be able to take our shots. We’ll do better; it’s about defense. That’s what won us those two games in Boston. The offense is the shiny part, but we do what we do defensively we’ll be fine.”
The Bulls didn’t do much on either side of the ball, and, to be fair, this was Grant’s first extensive playoff experience. And the Bulls did get back into the game. Led by an aggressive Wade in the second quarter with the second unit, the Bulls hit Boston with an 11-0 run. Then late in the second quarter, it was Nikola Mirotic on a drive who hit Lopez for a duck-in score. Mirotic then made a three to bring the Bulls within 44-41 at halftime. Two Grant free throws to open the second half had the Bulls within 44-43. Quack, quack.
Then Isaiah Thomas with 16 points made back to back threes with defensive confusion in transition and the Bulls went back to shooting—and missing—jumpers. Boston exploded with a 15-4 run that went to 20-7 with Thomas and Horford connecting on multiple screen/roll plays. Carter-Williams and Grant contributed three more turnovers without an assist and Boston led 76-63 after three quarters. They steadily pulled away to open the fourth quarter with the Bulls trailing by double digits the last 18 minutes.
“Having (Rondo is like) another coach on the floor,” said Wade. “You’ve got a guy who has been in so many playoff series, been in the Finals, won championships. You can’t replace that. Our young guys will come in next game and do better, but we can’t replace what Rondo brings. His experience is unmatched from that standpoint, but just like every injury, every blow, it hurts the team in the moment, but we have to move past it. We have to figure out a way with our young point guards and the other guys on this roster to just be better next game.
"We’re in a good position. One thing Rondo helped us do before he went out is help us get two games on the road. Now we have two of the next three on our home floor and we have to come in and take care of business."
And could Butler have another game like that? Without a free throw or an assist? Boston defenders crowded and doubled him, sure. Of course, trying to beat them with post jumpers because you are a bit taller isn’t a great idea.
“I felt like we got caught up with wanting to do a lot out there,” said Butler, who started one of 12. “But as we tell Michael and Jerian, ‘Just play basketball. You have nerves, you don’t want to make mistakes. But just lose yourself in the game, have fun and play hard.’ I think whenever you do that good things happen. We have to lock in on the the defensive end, guard and do what we are supposed to do and when we do that we are a really good team.”
But can they overcome the road team advantage in this series?