Keys to the Game: Bulls vs. Celtics - Round 1, Game 6 (04.28.17)

The clock is ticking down … It’s do or die time … There’s no tomorrow … You gotta leave it all out on the floor … Our backs are up against a wall …

Welcome to Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals between the Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics taking place deep in the heartland of sports clichés!

While Boston clearly has momentum on its side after posting three straight double-digit victories and can advance to the next round with another win tonight, the cold-hearted truth is … It ain’t over ‘til it’s over!

Ah, I bet you thought I’d run out of corniness? Well, it is what it is — I got a million of ‘em!

For the Bulls, the road to redemption rolls down West Madison Street and ends at the doorstep of the United Center this evening. Once again, they will be forced to take the floor without veteran floor general, Rajon Rondo, who is still attempting to recover from a broken right thumb suffered late in Game 2 last week in Boston. When Rondo was behind the wheel and driving the Bulls’ bus during the opening two games of this series, Chicago’s offense was running smooth as silk, averaging 108.5 points, 25 assists and knocking down shots at a 46.9 percent clip. However, since he’s been sidelined Chicago’s attack has derailed, as the Bulls are notching just 93 points, 19 assists and shooting a rather pedestrian 43.6 percent from the field.

Although Rondo will walk through “that door” tonight, it’s safe to say he won’t be wearing red and white shorts when he does, so the Bulls are obviously going to need to do something different to survive another day. While Isaiah Canaan will start at the point for second straight game, look for the Bulls to go with an unconventional look for most of the night by employing a three-headed attack in which Canaan, Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade are the team’s primary ball-handlers.

“Obviously the dynamic of our team has changed with Rajon out,” Bulls Head Coach Fred Hoiberg said yesterday afternoon during a conference call with reporters. “We played quite a few stretches last night, really the majority of the game, without a true point guard on the floor. But that’s just the reality of the situation we’re in right now. And it’s probably going to be that way for the rest of the series.”

Butler has been the best all-around player on the team all season long, and Wade is a future Hall of Famer who literally stuffed the stat sheet last time out in Game 5 with 26 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists. In order for the Bulls to come out on top tonight, you have to believe both Butler and Wade are going to need to have big games at both ends of the floor. They’ve done it plenty of times before, so there’s no reason not to expect them to do so again this evening.

Canaan also is a key player for the Bulls tonight and someone to definitely keep an eye on. Although he led the team with 29 didn’t play by coach’s decisions during the regular season, the 6’0” guard has gladly and ably stepped up over the last two games, averaging 13 points and shooting 10-for-21 (47.6%) from the field while playing 35 minutes a night. More importantly, Canaan’s defensive physicality has bothered Boston’s leading man, Isaiah Thomas, a great deal. Last time out, Canaan stuck like glue to Thomas all over the floor and held him to 1-of-10 shooting from distance and 6-of-17 (35.3%) overall. Thomas did end the night with 24 points, scoring 11 in the fourth quarter, the vast majority of which came from drives into the paint and trips to the free throw line.

“I take my defense any day of the week,” Canaan said afterwards. “Their bigs did a good job in the second half of adjusting their screens and hitting me, making it tough for me to get back in front of (Thomas). I had success in the first half of staying in front and making every shot tough. Every shot was tough in the second half as well. He just was able to get to the free-throw line a couple of times.”

Heading into tonight, Thomas is averaging what looks to be on the surface an impressive 25.2 points in the series, but when you take a close look at the numbers you’ll see he’s shooting a rather ugly 43.8 percent from the field overall (39-for-89) and an even uglier 21.1 percent from behind the arc (8-for-38). Where Thomas is killing it is at the charity stripe, as he’s gone 40-for-49 (81.6%) from the line. The only other Celtic to have shot more than 10 free throws center Al Horford who has gone 10-for-11 from the stripe.

Clearly an important defensive key for Chicago is to get the ball out of Thomas’ hands, forcing one of his teammates to lead the way. Defensively, the Bulls have to come together to make sure someone is constantly in front of Thomas, especially when he looks to drive into the paint and attack the rim. Too often he has been able to turn the corner after one of Boston’s wings or bigs sets a screen. Thomas is simply too quick to just have a defender run alongside. Rather, a defender must stay directly in front and deny his attempts to blow through the paint. Physically, Isaiah Canaan is quick and strong enough to do so, and so far he has be able to body-up on Thomas and make his life somewhat uncomfortable. But to truly slow him down, it’s going to have to be a team effort, and the Bulls cannot be shy about dishing out hard fouls down low while at the same time making sure Thomas or anyone else is able to get up a shot while being fouled to post a cheap, backbreaking three-point play.

Offensively, the Bulls are at their best when they aggressively crash the boards and look to run the ball up the floor at every opportunity and attack the basket. In order for them to get into any kind of groove, it is essential the Bulls storm out of the gates focused, engaged and ready to battle from the moment the ball is tossed up.

In order to succeed, the Bulls have to freely share the ball and keep it hopping from player-to-player and from side-to-side. Everyone on the floor has to be involved in the action and be willing to take the action to the rim without fear of getting hit or being knocked down.

Chicago’s offense also can’t morph into a one-on-four contest with Butler or Wade attempting to take on all comers. There’s has to be constant movement — player and ball — which in turn will force Boston to chase and expend a great deal of energy. Chicago’s shooters also have to hit shots — especially the wide open ones. That’s where focus and fearlessness comes in to play.

A primary strength to Boston’s attack is their three-point shooting. The Cs averaged 33.4 treys (third most in the NBA) and connected on 12 per game (tied with Golden State for third most, as well) during the regular season. They have continued to launch an incredible amount of scuds in this series, shooting 185 over five games (37.0 per), making 60 from downtown, keeping up with their regular season mark of 12 makes per game. As mentioned earlier, Thomas hasn’t been such a dead-eye from distance (21.1%), but Horford (6-of-12, 50%), Avery Bradley (13-of-35, 37.1%), Kelly Olynyk (6-of-15, 40%), Gerald Green (6-of-15, 40%) and Terry Rozier (5-of-11, 45.5%) have.    

Defensively, the Bulls have to do a far better job of paying attention to the arc and running shooters off the curve. They also have to relentlessly crash the defensive boards as hard as they have on the offensive end. Rebounding must become a collaborative effort. It just can’t be starting center Robin Lopez cleaning the glass.

In Games 1 and 2, Chicago posted advantages of plus-17 in rebounding and plus-10 in second-chance scoring, however over Games 3, 4 and 5, all Boston victories, the Celtics closed the gap considerably, as they come into tonight a minus-10 on the boards but they’re now a plus-27 in second-chance scoring.

“We’ve gotten a little lazy at times on our defensive rebounding,” Butler admits. “They’re getting a lot of second-chance points and kick-out 3s.

The best thing the Bulls can do right now is to stay poised, focused and optimistic. Although they are facing elimination if they come up short tonight, they can’t allow doubt and/or despair to creep into their psyche.

The fact is the Bulls qualified for the playoffs as an eighth seed on the final day of the season whereas Boston ran away with its division and posted the best overall record in the conference. On paper the Celtics are supposed to win this series. But after capturing the first two games on the road, and doing so convincingly, it’s a tough pill to swallow seeing your best point guard on the bench in street clothes and then going out and losing three straight.

As a group the Bulls need to pull themselves together and take everything one at a time. Forget about having to win two in a row. The most important thing right now is to win tonight. In order to do that they need to commit to one another and believe in their heart of hearts that every possession, every rebound, every pass, every fastbreak and every defensive stop is the most important thing in the world.

Not to go all cliché or anything, but just as I quoted the late Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis a couple of weeks ago — just win, baby!


—   Anthony Hyde