Keys to the Game: Bulls at Celtics - Round 1, Game 5 (04.26.17)

Alright, let’s agree that the first four games don’t count. We can just forget about ‘em and start fresh … make this a best 2-out-of-3, what do you say?

Like it or not, that’s what’s happening.

Since the Boston Celtics won Games 3 and 4 in Chicago, they’ve recaptured home-court advantage and the Bulls and the Beantowners find themselves in a best-2-out-of-3 series with the survivor … ahem … the winner moving on to face either Washington or Atlanta in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

Apparently all the talk about who should be the MVP this season, be it OKC’s Russell Westbrook or Houston’s James Harden, is simply noise as it became clear to everyone in Chicago over the weekend that Rajon Rondo is truly the most valuable player on the planet.

After dominating the No. 1 seeded Celtics on their home floor during the first two games of the series where Rondo masterfully established a quick pace and sliced and diced Boston’s defense in doling 20 assists while turning the ball over just four times, Chicago seemingly has crashed head-first into a brick wall after the veteran floor general was put into a hard cast after suffering a fractured right thumb sometime during Game 2. Primary backups Jerian Grant and Michael Carter-Williams have had a tough time getting their mojo to flow, in that once they were asked to step in for Rondo, combined the duo has shot an ugly 6-for-28 (21.4%) from the field and turned the ball over nine times while dishing just five dimes. Thus, it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise that Chicago head coach Fred Hoiberg has called upon little used Isaiah Canaan to try to chip in and help in any way possible.

Canaan, who didn’t play by coach’s decision a team-high 29 times and was placed on the inactive list for another nine games this season, ended up logging 34 minutes and recorded 13 points in Game 4. His incessant hounding of Boston’s leading man, Isaiah Thomas, and his ability to hit shots from behind the arc has earned Canaan the starting nod tonight in Game 5.

“I really thought he (Canaan) did a good job picking up the ball and pressuring the pickup point a full 94 feet,” says Hoiberg. “I thought his initial ball pressure was good. Isaiah (Canaan) we feel is a good fit right now for what he brings, especially on the defensive end and he’s also a guy who can knock down shots.”

It wasn’t a secret that Boston’s heaviest hitter coming into the series was and still is, Isaiah Thomas. During the regular season, fiery 5’9” guard averaged a whopping 28.9 points a night and proved time and again to be clutch down the stretch, as he was league’s second-best fourth quarter scorer, notching 9.8 points per game during the last 12 minutes, just a tick below Westbrook’s ridiculous 10.0 mark.

Lest anyone need reminding, Thomas’ capacity to take over at any moment became abundantly clear during Game 4 after the Bulls rallied from being down 20 points to take a 65-63 lead by the middle of the third quarter. After a Boston timeout, Thomas immediately sparked a game-changing 12-0 run, scoring 10 points on his own and assisting on the other bucket to turn the tide of the game, and quite possibly wrestle control of the series.

Heading into tonight’s contest, Thomas is averaging 25.5 points this series, with big man Al Horford a distance second at 14.8 per game. More meaningfully, Thomas has shot 38 free throws (making 29) while no other man donning green-and-white has attempted more than six.

Clearly an important key for Chicago will be to get the ball out of Thomas’ hands as much as possible, forcing someone else to step up and lead the way. Defensively, the Bulls need to keep someone in front of Thomas at all times, especially when the two-time All-Star attempts to attack the rim or pull-up for a trey.

Too often during this series Thomas has been able to turn a corner after one of Boston’s wings or bigs sets a screen for him, allowing him to explode and blaze a trail to the cup. Thomas is simply too quick to have a defender run alongside. Rather, that defender must stay directly in front and deny his attempts to blow through the paint. That’s where Canaan comes into play this evening. Physically, Isaiah Canaan is quick and strong. Hopefully he’s able to body-up on Thomas and make life somewhat uncomfortable for him — at least for a few hours — because if Thomas is allowed to run free that will unquestionably fire up the home crowd and inspire his teammates all the more.

Boston has trouble scoring when Thomas isn’t on the floor or the ball isn’t in his hands. Thus defensively, Chicago’s top priority has to be to force someone other than Thomas to beat them. Chances are if the Bulls can effectively stifle Thomas’ ability to get to the rim and/or free himself from a defender, Boston will be in trouble.

Offensively, Chicago has played its best when they immediately establish a quick pace. Thus in order to get into any kind of groove tonight it’s essential the Bulls hit the hardwood focused, engaged and ready to run from the moment the team bus arrives at TD Garden.

It all boils down to this — in order to succeed, the ball has to be freely shared and quickly move from player-to-player and from side-to-side. When it comes to the Bulls, the evidence is clear in that Chicago 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 during the regular season, and just 97 points on 42.2% shooting from the field and 31.0% from distance, with 20.5 assists and 43.1 rebounds in the 41 games they lost.

When it comes to the NBA playoffs, expectations can change on a dime. Right now both the Bulls and Celtics have their backs up against the wall, with the loser tonight pushed to the edge of a steep cliff staring into the abyss of elimination. The best thing Chicago can do is to stay poised and focused.

The Bulls can’t allow Boston to get off to an explosive start and run out to a big lead. On the contrary, Chicago is the team that needs to establish a fast and free flowing pace from the jump while also continuing to assert its dominance in the paint and on backboards.

The Bulls were able to bully their way to an impressive 2-0 series lead by aggressively attacking the basket and outhustling and outmuscling Boston in every way imaginable. However, after dropping two straight back home at the United Center over the weekend, they have allowed the Celtics to reclaim home court advantage. Collectively the Bulls need to pull themselves together and take everything one at a time. Every possession, every rebound, every pass, every fastbreak and every defensive stop needs to matter. Simply put, doubt cannot be allowed to enter the minds of the Bulls. It’s time for Chicago to get after it, stay after it and never look back.


—   Anthony Hyde