Keys to the Game: Bulls at Celtics - Round 1, Game 3 (04.21.17)

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

So far the Chicago Bulls haven’t looked like your typical No. 8 seed, especially one that took 82 games to qualify for the playoffs. The truth of the matter is they’ve simply outplayed the top-seeded Boston Celtics in just about every phase throughout the first two games of this series.

After a quick start by Boston in Game 2, one in which the Celtics grabbed the first four rebounds of the night and scored the game’s first seven points, Chicago responded with a 20-4 run, seizing control by dominating the offensive glass, as all five starters snagged at least one offensive rebound before six minutes had ticked off the clock.

When it was all said and done, Jimmy Butler had recorded 22 points, eight assists and eight rebounds while veteran lead guard Rajon Rondo chipped in 11 points, 14 assists and nine rebounds, finishing just one carom shy of a triple-double, to lead Chicago to a 111-97 pounding of the top seeded home team.

Rondo suffered a fractured thumb in Tuesday’s game and will be out indefinitely. Jerian Grant will start in his place Friday night.

While some basketball pundits might be surprised by just how well the Bulls have played of late, Butler isn’t.

“I’m not surprised at all because everybody’s so locked in right now,” said Butler after Tuesday’s contest. “If we continue to go out there and play hard, guard, make everything tough (for Boston), we’ll be fine.”

In order for the Bulls to continue to steamroll over the Beantown Bombers Chicago will need to do what they’ve done over and over thus far, and that means priority No. 1 is to quickly wrestle control of the paint and backboards at both ends of the floor. It also would be wise for the Bulls to pay plenty of attention to Gang Green’s snipers hovering around the three-point arc.

A major strength of Boston’s game is their three-point shooting, as the Cs averaged 33.4 long ball attempts (third most in the NBA), connecting on 12 per game (tied with Golden State for third most, as well) during the regular season. So far they haven’t strayed from that strategy in this series as they’ve combined to go 24-of-71 (33.8%) from downtown in Games 1 and 2.

Besides the obvious of staying continuously close by and running their assigned man off the curve, another effective tactic to limit Boston’s numerous scud missile attacks is for the Bulls to aggressively crash the defensive boards just as hard as they have on the offensive end, battling tooth-and-nail to lasso as many 50/50 balls (long rebounds and tipped passes) as possible. Oftentimes it’s the 50/50 ball that winds up in the hands of a dead-eye shooter hovering over the arc.

As strong as the Bulls have played on the offensive glass (they’ve grabbed 32 offensive rebounds and posted 37 second-chance points over the first two games), Boston hasn’t been all that shabby in that area either, as they’ve been able to gather a respectable 23 offensive boards and notch 27 second-chance points over the first two games.

Another important key for Chicago is to continue zeroing in defensively on Boston’s star playmaker Isaiah Thomas.

Although the 5’9” two-time All-Star is averaging a very impressive 26.5 points in the series, he hasn’t been able to find much help from his running mates as he’s only been able to dish eight assists while turning the ball over 11 times. In fact, after Thomas the next highest scorers for Boston are Avery Bradley and Al Horford, both of whom come in averaging just 13.0 points, followed by Jae Crowder (12.5) and Marcus Smart (11.0). As a team, the Celtics are averaging 99.5 points, 26.5 assists and 37 rebounds, while the Bulls are putting up 108.5 points, 25 assists and 48.5 rebounds overall.

Thomas is without a doubt Boston’s best player and the only one on the roster who can change the outcome of a game all by himself. Thus defensively, Chicago has to keep a defender in front of him at all times, especially when Thomas looks to attack the rim. So far Thomas seems to be the only one in green and white willing to enter the paint, as he’s attempted 25 free throws over the first two games, and no other Celtic has shot more than four.

Offensively this season and so far this series, Chicago has demonstrated that it is at its best when they attack and establish a fast pace. Thus in order to get into any kind of groove this evening it’s essential they hit the hardwood focused, engaged and ready to run from the opening tip.

In order for any team to succeed, the ball has to move quickly and be shared. When it comes to Chicago, the evidence is clear in that the Bulls during the year 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 the 41 games they won, and 97 points on 42.2% shooting from the field and 31.0% from distance, to go along with 20.5 assists and 43.1 rebounds over the 41 games they lost.    

For the Bulls to continue rolling along and possibly grab a commanding 3-0 series lead in front of their hometown fans, Chicago needs to continue to crash the boards at both ends of the floor and keep playing unselfishly by keeping the ball on the move and generously sharing it with everyone that takes the floor in a Bulls uniform. In order to accomplish these goals, the Bulls will continue to count heavily on their playoff savvy veterans (Butler, Rondo, Wade and Lopez) while also looking to get help off the bench from important role players such as Bobby Portis, Cristiano Felicio, and Paul Zipser, as well as starting power forward Nikola Mirotic.

Both Portis and Zipser have delivered big in this series, with Portis putting up 19 points and nine rebounds in Game 1, and Zipser notching 16 points on six-of-eight shooting, including a pair of threes in Game 2. Mirotic is another vital actor for the Bulls, as when his outside shot is falling, defenses are forced to abandon the paint opening lanes up for Butler, Wade and Rondo to navigate to the rim.

Chances are the Bulls will be in for a dogfight tonight, as Boston is a talented, deep and very proud team. It wasn’t a fluke that they won 53 games and posted the best record in the Eastern Conference. In fact the Celtics’ 21-18 road record tied Toronto’s for the best in the East. No other conference team had a winning mark away from home — not even the defending NBA Champion Cleveland Cavaliers (20-21) — so loud, raucous filled to the rafters stadiums located far away from Bunker Hill don’t seem to intimidate these Beantown leprechauns.

Expectations can change on a dime during the NBA playoffs. Who would have thought this year’s Chicago Bulls, a team that needed to win on the very last day of the season just to reach .500 and make the playoffs would, on the road, jump out to a 2-0 series lead over a No. 1 seed?

Not many, that’s for sure.

In any event, since the middle of March both the Bulls (9-4) and Celtics (11-4) have played some pretty good basketball. But what Chicago has that Boston doesn’t is loads of playoff experience and savvy. Although Boston’s current core has made the playoffs for three straight seasons, they haven’t been able to survive the first round, whereas Chicago’s power trio of Butler, Wade and Rondo combined have played in 295 playoff games and won four NBA Championships between them. It also doesn’t hurt that for the most part this season, when the lights shined the brightest, Chicago consistently played at a high level.

The Celtics have their backs up against the wall at the moment and it’s very unlikely they will go down easily, if at all. The best thing the Bulls can do is to just stay consistent. Keep the pace fast and free while remaining dominate in the paint and on backboards at both ends of the floor. Simply put, the Bulls need to take everything one at a time. Every possession, every rebound, every pass, every fastbreak and every defensive stop matters. Just get after it, stay after it and don’t look back, and everything should be alright.

—   Anthony Hyde