Keys to the Game: Bulls at Celtics - Round 1, Game 2 (04.18.17)

It might have taken the Chicago Bulls an entire season’s worth of games to qualify as a No. 8 seed for the NBA playoffs, but it sure didn’t take them long to land the first punch against the top seeded Boston Celtics in front of packed home crowd at TD Garden Easter Sunday.

On a highly-charged, emotional night the Celtics came up small in Game 1 of the opening round against the underdog Bulls, 106-102.

A day after learning of the tragic death of his little sister Chyna, Isaiah Thomas fought back tears and courageously stared down despair to lead the Cs with 33 points, five rebounds and six assists while teammate Al Horford recorded 19 points, seven boards and eight assists.

Collectively, the Bulls attacked the rim and dominated the backboard all night long, out-rebounding Boston 53-36, including seizing a whopping 20 offensive boards that Chicago converted into 23 second-chance points and a grand total of 44 scored in the paint overall.

Once again Jimmy Butler’s stellar play led the way for the Bulls as the sixth-year swingman recorded 30 points (15 in the fourth quarter) and nine rebounds, while starting center Robin Lopez posted a double-double with 14 points and 11 boards (eight offensive rebounds) across 34 minutes. Second-year power forward Bobby Portis also stepped to center stage in his playoff debut, shooting 8-of-10 from the field, including 3-of-4 from beyond the arc in contributing 19 points, nine boards, three assists and two blocks in 29 minutes of work off of the bench.

While the regular season oftentimes resembled an arduous slog through a colossal mud puddle, the playoffs offer a fresh start and the opportunity to bury the past. Every team that makes the postseason comes into it at 0-0, and in Game 1 Chicago hit the hardwood undaunted to the fact that they received their dance ticket on the final day of the season and that their reward was to go up against the best the East had to offer.

“We didn’t come here just to win one game,” Butler declared after Game 1, “We came here to win, period.”

In order for the Bulls to leave Beantown up 2-0 later tonight, Chicago will need to repeat most of its Sunday performance, meaning priority No. 1 will be to wrestle control of both the paint and backboards at both ends of the floor. It also wouldn’t be a bad idea if they paid a little more attention to Celtics at the arc.

A major strength of Boston’s game is their three-point shooting. On the season the Cs launched an average of 33.4 attempts (third most in the NBA) and 12 makes per game (tied with Golden State for third most, as well), and they didn’t stray from that blueprint during Game 1 as they tossed 38 three-pointers and hit on 14.

As for how well the Bulls generally defend the long ball, they were able to do a fairly good job during the season, allowing just 25.9 per game, good for ninth-best in the league. So besides the obvious of consistently sticking close to their assigned man and relentlessly running him off the arc, an effective way for Chicago to try to limit Boston’s 3s is to turn up the pressure with regards to defensive rebounding, fighting a little harder to snare more 50/50 balls (long rebounds and tipped passes), as those tend to wind up in the hands of open snipers hovering around the bend.

As well as the Bulls played on the offensive glass the other day (20 offensive rebounds and 23 second-chance points), Boston was still able to collect a very respectable 12 offensive boards of their own, which helped the Cs fire-up the aforementioned 38 scuds from behind the arc. So it definitely would behoove Chicago to work a little harder on the defensive glass tonight in order to keep Boston’s attack to a more of a “one-and-done” occurrence than allow them extra bites at the apple.

Another important key for the Bulls is to keep the ball out of Thomas’ hands as much as possible, forcing someone else in green and white to step to the front of the line.

Thomas is without a doubt the straw that stirs the drink for Boston. Defensively, Chicago has to keep someone in front of him at all times, especially so whenever the two-time All-Star looks to attack the rim or pulls up for a 3. If Thomas has a good game that will unquestionably ignite the home crowd and inspire his teammates.

Look for Bulls Head Coach Fred Hoiberg to rotate Rajon Rondo, Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler onto Thomas throughout the night in an effort to throw him off his game — especially Butler for much of the fourth quarter. If Chicago can frustrate and distract Thomas, the Celtics will have a hard time executing offensively.

All year long Boston has had trouble scoring when Thomas isn’t on the floor, and in Sunday’s game, Chicago outscored the Cs 27-11 during the 10 minutes he sat down to catch his breath. Which just proves the point all the more — if you keep the ball away from Thomas, Boston will have problems putting points on the board.

Offensively, the Bulls have proven to be at their best when they regularly push the ball up the floor and attack the rim. Conversely, whenever they employ a slow, deliberate pace, their offense generally grinds to a halt as shooting percentages plummet, assist totals shrink and turnovers climb. Thus in order to get into any kind of groove it’s essential the Bulls hit the hardwood tonight focused, engaged and ready to run.

The truth of the matter is, in order for any team to succeed, the ball needs to move quickly and be shared. The evidence is clear, especially when it comes to Chicago, as when the Bulls established a fast pace this season they averaged 108.8 points on 46.5% shooting from the field and 37.2% from distance, to go along with 24.5 assists and 49.3 rebounds.

In breaking it down even further, Chicago’s record was 25-7 this season in games they recorded the most assists, 22-12 when they outscored the opposition in fast break points, 34-14 when they posted 100+ points and 33-19 when they pulled down the most rebounds.

In order to jump out to an impressive 2-0 series the lead tonight, the Bulls are going to need execute and receive contributions from everyone who takes the floor.

It’s a given Chicago is going to count heavily upon playoff savvy veterans

Butler, Rondo, Wade and Lopez each and every game, but the Bulls are also going to need help off the bench from players such as Bobby Portis, Cristiano Felicio, Jerian Grant and Paul Zipser, as well as starting power forward Nikola Mirotic.

Portis unmistakably answered the call in Game 1. He didn’t look nervous or afraid in putting up 19 points, knocking down a number of big shots at crucial times. He’s proven a number of times this season that he belongs in this league and the experience he’s gaining in this series should only boost his confidence going forward.

Mirotic is another important player, for Chicago’s offense to flow smoothly, he needs to draw defenders away from the paint by making shots along the arc. But if his shot isn’t falling, there are certainly other ways Mirotic can aid the cause such as working hard on the glass and helping to keep the ball moving from player-to-player and side-to-side in search of an open man. He can also continue to hustle back on defense and force Boston to adjust on the fly as his 6’10” frame can wreak havoc near the iron.

In the famous film, Wall Street, one of the movie’s primary characters, an unscrupulous corporate raider named Gordon Gekko played by the Oscar winning actor Michael Douglas, famously utters, “Greed, for the lack of a better word, is good.” Well, the No. 8 seeded Chicago Bulls have a great opportunity to be a little greedy at the moment by winning again tonight.

—   Anthony Hyde