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Celtics’ small-ball adjustments hurting Bulls’ defense

Matthew Schmidt

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(Photo by Nuccio Dinuzzo/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)
(Photo by Nuccio Dinuzzo/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)

They say a series doesn’t start until the home team loses a game. Well, in the case of the Boston Celtics and the Chicago Bulls, the series doesn’t start until the home team wins a game.

After dropping Games 1 and 2 on their home floor, the Celtics responded by going into the United Center and winning two straight contests to even up their first-round playoff series with the Bulls.

Because of course.

When Chicago marched out of TD Garden with what was a resounding 111-97 victory in Game 2, it looked like Jimmy Butler and Co. had Boston figured out.

The C’s couldn’t get anything going offensively. Robin Lopez was destroying them on the glass. Rajon Rondo was running the show like a maestro.

Now, here we are, just a few days later, and it now seems like it’s the Celtics who have the Bulls figured out.

Rondo being out with a broken thumb has certainly played a significant factor, but let’s not discount the adjustments Boston has made to work itself back into this series.

It all started when Brad Stevens decided to start Gerald Green in Game 3.

A weird move? It seemed like it at the time, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and you know what? The move has worked.

It’s not just starting Green, either. It’s playing small in general.

Stevens realized that the only way to truly neutralize Lopez was to keep him off the court, and by going with small lineups, he has forced Fred Hoiberg’s hand.

Lopez simply does not have the quickness or athleticism to get out on the perimeter and defend guys who can spread the floor, and this obviously affects the Bulls on both ends.

They lose Lopez’s interior presence defensively, and they lose his ability to gobble up offensive rebounds on the other side.

To accomplish this, Stevens has gone with speed over brawn, giving extensive playing time to Green and throwing Terry Rozier into the fray. Green’s penchant for hitting three-pointers has sent Chicago’s defense scrambling, and Rozier’s blazing quickness has thrown into a wrench into how the Bulls wish to defend.

Chicago is not a fast team at all. It plays a physical brand of basketball and simply tries to wear the opposition down, and for the first two games of the series, it was effective.

But now, the Celtics have flipped the script, and it’s the Bulls who are on the ropes.

The smaller lineups employed by Stevens have also allowed more room for Isaiah Thomas to operate in the pick-and-roll. Earlier in the series, Chicago was blitzing and trapping Thomas every time Boston sent a screener. Now, the Bulls can’t do that, because instead of Amir Johnson being on the floor, you have guys like Al Horford, Kelly Olynyk and Jonas Jerebko, all of whom can knock down the outside shot.

Thomas and the C’s picked apart Chicago’s defense with pick-and-rolls in the second half, as Thomas both found seams in the defense for his own shots and set up Horford and Olynyk for easy buckets underneath.

Isaiah’s passes were on the money, and Boston’s floor spacing was such a factor that Thomas was even able to get some relatively uncontested buckets in the paint.

The Celtics’ ball movement was much better in Chicago. Now whether that’s a result of a concerted effort to make sure the ball doesn’t stick or the smaller lineups is anyone’s guess (it was probably a combination of both), but there is no question Boston’s offense was much crisper and more fluid than it was in Games 1 and 2.

The C’s will almost surely continue this strategy in Game 5 and beyond. Expect to see a lot of pick-and-rolls with Thomas and Horford, Olynyk and possibly even Jerebko, and expect the Celtics to have lineups full of shooters at all times.

The only Celtic you’ll probably see on the court who doesn’t space the floor is Marcus Smart, but he is obviously there for other reasons.

It then begs the question, what adjustments can Hoiberg make at this juncture?

The Bulls are not exactly a deep team, and they appear to be starting to run on fumes. Butler played 46 minutes in Game 4, and save a strange three-point barrage in Game 2, Dwyane Wade has looked like a corpse of his former self.

Hoiberg’s best chance may be to just try and impose his club’s will on Boston, playing Lopez 30 minutes again and trying to beat the C’s up on the glass. Chicago just does not have the personnel to match up with the Celtics’ small-ball lineups, so Hoiberg may have to resort to playing big again.

Whatever the case, Boston has adjusted and has seemed to turn the tide of this series.

Can the Bulls respond?

Well, I think we know one thing for sure: You never know what to expect from either of these two teams.

We’ve got a series, folks.

Matthew Schmidt is a life-long sports fan who was born and raised in New Jersey, which makes the fact that he is a Celtics and Marlins fan kind of peculiar. Don't worry; he likes the Giants in football, so his New Jersey roots have not been completely tarnished. You can also find his work at Bleacher Report and Baseline Banter.

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