BOSTON — To Brad Stevens, the way the Boston Celtics offense has been squeezed throughout the first two playoff games feels all too familiar. The Chicago Bulls are being aggressive on ball screens, selling out to force the ball out of Isaiah Thomas’ hands, and flying around the perimeter to contest his teammate’s shots.
As Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said on a conference call Wednesday, “I think it’s pretty similar, when you look at how we’re being defended and the way they’re loading up on the ball, to the way Atlanta defended us last year.”
In other words: it’s pretty similar to the last time the Celtics got bounced out of the playoffs, when they couldn’t surround Thomas with enough playmaking or shooting to score consistently against the Atlanta Hawks.
“Obviously, there’s a lot of attention on Isaiah,” Stevens said of this year’s series with Chicago. “They are doing a great job of overloading sides. They have been late to guys but still make an effort to go out and challenge. They’re playing really well on the defensive end. I thought they made a couple of real savvy mid-play switches last night. And, specifically, I think when you pay attention to (Rajon) Rondo, (Dwyane) Wade, and (Jimmy) Butler, those guys are always communicating and talking and directing. They are playing with great effort and energy.”
Yes, they are:
After scrambling all over the place (quite seamlessly), the Bulls switch Butler onto Celtics big man Kelly Olynyk. That matchup would favor Olynyk in the post. But on the perimeter, Butler decides, “Gimme that,” and Chicago’s off and running.
Through two games the Celtics have a 16.5 turnover percentage, according to NBA.com, which ranks them 15th out of 16 postseason participants — and would have slotted them dead last in that category during the regular season. Part of that comes from Thomas’ uncharacteristic carelessness; he is turning the ball over about twice as frequently during the first round as he did during the regular season. The star has (quite understandably, given the circumstances) lost focus at times; he missed six free throws in Game 2 for the first time in his career. But the Bulls have also been active and forceful with their pick-and-roll defense.
You can see Butler’s versatility in this clip. He starts the set off on Horford, switches off on Thomas, and trails the play to ruin the drive. Across the court, Rajon Rondo quickly switches off on Horford, but, realizing that’s not a good matchup, calls Nikola Mirotic over to take the assignment. The Bulls are typically meeting Thomas well outside the 3-point arc; elsewhere, they are helping, switching and rotating to take away easy options.
The message, essentially: we don’t think anyone else has the playmaking chops to beat us.
The result? The Celtics have been out of sorts. Even before they unraveled in the second half of Game 2, flinging the first shot that came available, they struggled to maximize possessions.
“We’ve got to space better than we have,” Stevens said. “We’ve got to focus our attention on drive and kicking. If we can’t get a finish, kicking it out and making the next right play for the next guy. Then you have to knock down shots.”
First comes taking care of the ball.
“They’re not a transition-type team coming into the series,” said Jae Crowder, “but we’ve made them a transition team with our turnovers and unforced errors. We just have to take that out of the game and make it a half-court game. We have to guard those guys and limit them to one shot.”
Stevens also said he is considering lineup changes. The Celtics don’t have any obvious answer to keep Robin Lopez off the glass, but could put more skill on the court, potentially by giving some of Amir Johnson’s minutes to either Kelly Olynyk or Jonas Jerebko. Tyler Zeller took Johnson’s place in the starting lineup during the second half of Game 2.
“I think you have to consider (changes),” Stevens said. “I don’t think there’s any question about it, simply because of the way the first two games have gone. I felt like to me the games have kind of gone like this: We’ve had some moments that are pretty good, but our transition, especially on offense, has hurt us. They’ve ended up converting on us and they’ve really hurt us on the glass in both games through the first three quarters and then (Dwyane) Wade and Butler did Wade and Butler things in the fourth quarter to really salt the game away and put it out of reach. You’re not gonna change–you try to limit, but you’re not gonna eliminate those guys’ ability to make really tough plays or really tough shots. You just have to maximize your other possessions better. So there is a large part of you that watches it and say, ‘You know, if we just play a little bit better in the first through third quarters,we’ll be in better position to have a chance to win.’ That said, we haven’t done that and they have. And so I think you have to consider everything.”
“I can’t wait for Friday night’s game,” added Stevens. “Like, I wish it was tonight. I think that’s because of the taste in your mouth. The way that we played in those spurts that we discussed. But I do think, like, yeah, you gotta be able to handle it, move on from it, get ready to play, and be completely connected on the road, in a hole, you name it, things stacked against you. That’s why I said earlier, like, that chip (on the shoulder) has to come out. That has to come out. And that’s the only way we’re going to have success.”