By Adam Spinella
The 48 hours between a Game One loss and the start of Game Two are the ultimate frustration for a coach. Desperation fuels changes and innovations, so as Brad Stevens aimed to keep the Boston Celtics from losing two at home, tinkering with the strategy or lineup would be a defensible move. But so would staying the course. After all, the Celtics were the top team in the Eastern Conference this season, and the best coaches know that doing less is sometimes more.
What ailed the Celtics in Game One was the dominant offensive rebounding presence of the Chicago Bulls. Robin Lopez looked more like Dennis Rodman and the uninspired men in green let Chicago win every 50-50 ball. As a coach, I’m still not sure there’s a way to coach rebounding tactically. Sure, there are fundamentals and tricks of the trade all players need to know. For NBA players (especially big men), they already know the vast majority of those tricks. At any level, rebounding comes down to determination, an acquired taste for physicality and a mindset. The onus belongs on the players, not Stevens.
Game Two revealed the struggles weren’t as simple as effort, and showed just how manipulative the feisty Rajon Rondo can be with the ball in his hands. A former hero for the Celtics, the embattled point guard continued his hot streak on Tuesday night with a line of 11 points, 14 assists, nine rebounds, five steals and a game-high +24.
Everything is connected to Rondo and his playmaking ability, as he’s the man pushing the first domino that collapses Boston’s defensive rebounding ability. As Rondo attacked with the ball in his hands, the Celtics defense became scrambled, adjusting to the high-speed drives and controlled dribble attacks. The defense rotates and is out of position from a natural state, and as the shot goes up against the warped defense, normal block-out coverages were distorted.
Lopez, another role player for Chicago, was dominant throughout the night. It seemed he couldn’t miss, going 8-for-11 from the field for 18 points to accompany five offensive rebounds. Even his production was manipulated by Rondo, who sucked in the entire Celtics; defense any time he attacked off a ball screen. Compensating for the putrid-defending Isaiah Thomas were the Celtics’ big men, and it allowed Lopez to camp out in the mid-range and hit open jumpers all night. Check out Rondo’s hostage dribble here, keeping Horford in helping position even after Thomas recovered to the ball.
Some nights, a team gets hot and simply can’t be stopped. Chicago had that night on Tuesday, hitting 40 percent from three and better than 50 percent from the field. The lucky shots fell, from Lopez’s desperation heaves at the end of the clock, Michael Carter-Williams pull-ups off the glass and Wade fadeaways over the wrong shoulder. Jimmy Butler posted one of the quietest 22-8-8 stat lines you’ll ever see, mostly because everybody around him seemed to be playing out of their mind.
It was that kind of night for the Celtics, who struggled to close the gap after the Bulls pulled away in the first quarter. Rondo paced the Bulls early, with six first-quarter assists, finishing the quarter +10 when on the floor. How good was Rondo in that early portion of the game? Stevens adjusted to place Isaiah into a quarter-high stance when guarding Rondo off the ball, trying to prevent easy catches for Rondo and keep the ball out of his hands. It’s rare that non-scorers get that treatment, and Rajon earned it throughout the night.
Stevens’ first sub after giving up four offensive rebounds in less than four minutes: Jaylen Brown for Amir Johnson, going small. The theory was that if they can’t rebound with bigs, at least go small and speed up the pace. But the Celtics’ half-court defense was porous throughout the night, and if the Celtics couldn’t keep Rondo out of the paint and get stops or finish a possession with a rebound, the speed and transition desired from a smaller lineup became a moot point. The adjustment wasn’t ill-conceived; Amir Johnson was dreadful in the nine minutes he played, and just because it had poor results in Game Two doesn’t mean it won’t work later in the series.
The Celtics coach did try one adjustment during the game that is worth watching as the series shifts to Chicago. To start the second half, Tyler Zeller was inserted into the lineup and played reasonably well. His ability to give the Celtics a true positional rebounder to wrestle with Lopez down low might chip away at the insane rebounding advantage the Bulls enjoy.
Rotational adjustments with their big men are only a stop gap, as perimeter defense appears to be the real issue. Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg deserves credit for devising a strategy that revolved around keeping the ball in Rondo’s hands and putting Isaiah Thomas in as many situations as possible where he’s forced to guard the veteran in ball screens. Thomas cannot hedge a screen and impede Butler; the Bulls did a great job of occupying the weak side with shooters so Rondo could apply pressure on the defense by rolling to the middle. Switches with Thomas guarding Butler are the most disastrous scenario for Boston.
On the other end of the court, the Celtics have struggled all series long to get in a rhythm. Chicago has a lot of different defenders they can throw at I.T. throughout the game — Rondo with speed, Wade with physicality, Butler with length. They’ve all had their shot at Thomas, and it wears him down throughout the course of a game and a series. Boston’s lack of other shot creators has reared its ugly head. They rely on Thomas heavily and have no other players possessing the ability to get easy buckets.
Thomas played a team-high 42 minutes in the loss, following 38 in Game One. Thomas was off all night, going an uncharacteristic 7-for-13 from the free-throw line while turning the ball over five times, many of which were unforced errors. The Celtics couldn’t survive without Thomas as a creator despite his poor shooting performance. Stevens plugged I.T. back into the lineup only a minute into the second quarter as he felt the game slipping away; that type of substitution was nearly three minutes premature to the Celtics’ normal substitution pattern.
The Celtics coach did everything he could during the game, adjusting lineups on the fly, tinkering with their defensive strategy on Rondo and giving 11 different guys a shot. His out of timeout play selection was brilliant as usual, giving the Celtics easy buckets to start the second quarter and later in the same quarter, both of which came for Jae Crowder. Simply put, Stevens’ heroics didn’t matter.
Game Two, and the whole series, has been won by the Bulls as much as it’s been lost by the Celtics. A nightmare matchup for Boston, an underrated Chicago team finally coming together, call it whatever you want. Chicago is firmly in the driver’s seat now as the series shifts to the Midwest. Unless the Celtics can find an effective way to keep Rondo out of the lane, have better effort on the glass and get points from players not named Isaiah, we could be looking at a quick exit for the East’s top seed.