The No. 1 seeded Celtics are down 2-0 after losing to the No. 8 seeded Bulls 111-97 Tuesday and, with the series going back to Chicago for Game 3, they run the risk of going down three games to none–a near impossible hill to climb–and getting booted from the first round for the third season in a row.
Boston doesn’t look like the team that won 53 games and nabbed the top spot from the Cavaliers during the regular season. Their identity is gone, the leadership doesn’t seem to be there; the calmness and trust in Brad Stevens has been replaced by frayed nerves.
If the Celtics are going to turn this thing around, it has to start immediately. Here are a few adjustments they can make in Game 3 to help win their first game of the series.
1. Tighten the rotation
One of the Celtics’ strengths this season was their depth, but it hasn’t been that way in Round 1, as they’re bench is being outscored by 8.5 points per 100 possessions. Brad Stevens has played 13 different players compared to Fred Hoiberg’s 10 (technically it’s 11, but I’m not counting the garbage time minute he gave to Denzel Valentine). The Celtics bench has played 162 combined minutes in the first two games compared to 151 minutes for Chicago’s reserves.
Gerald Green, James Young and Terry Rozier may not have a place in this series. The three of them are so far a combined 3-of-7 shooting. That’s seven shots that could go to Isaiah Thomas, who is averaging three fewer attempts per game than he did in the regular season.
The Celtics spent the first two games searching for answers, and they looked disorganized. They’ve already used 29 different lineups in the first two games, and the starters have played just 17 minutes together compared to Chicago’s starters playing 31 minutes together. It’s time Stevens decides on something and goes with it.
His best lineup in the first two games was a three guard unit with Thomas, Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart on the perimeter with Jae Crowder, and Al Horford at center. In nine minutes that unit is +2.0. That’s not a lot, but it least it’s a positive number, and it takes Amir Johnson off the floor, who has been downright bad in the first two games, and it allows the Celtics to make some other adjustments.
2. More high pick-and-roll
Spacing has been more of an issue for the Celtics than it has been for the Bulls. Chicago has gotten away with playing Robin Lopez 33 minutes per game. Boston made teams pay for playing plodding centers in the regular season, but Lopez has been able to camp out in the paint and dominate the glass. Lopez can hide on guys like Amir Johnson or Tyler Zeller, but he can’t if he’s matched up with Al Horford or Kelly Olynyk. As Nate Duncan said on his podcast, in 2015 the Atlanta Hawks used Horford in high pick-and-rolls and pick-and-pops to take advantage of Robin Lopez’s similarly slow brother Brook Lopez.
It should also create more space for Thomas, who was limited to 20 points on 6-of-15 shooting, including 1-of-5 from three-point range, in Game 2. Rajon Rondo has re-found his defensive drive, and his length is bugging Thomas. Put Thomas in space and let him jitterbug 25 feet away from the rim with a stretch-5 opening up the lane and he should be more effective.
Spacing the floor more by starting plays further away from the basket will also unclog the passing lanes, which would help correct Boston’s turnover problem (31 turnovers in two games) and limit Chicago’s fast break opportunities.
3. Push the tempo
The Celtics played at a pace of 99.32 during the regular season, but they’re just 97.25 in the playoffs. It’s true that games slow down in the postseason, but the Celtics still shouldn’t be playing at a pace that would have been among the eight slowest in the league during the regular season.
The Bulls are controlling the tempo to their advantage. The less dudes like Dwyane Wade, Rondo and Lopez have to run the better. The Celtics should be trying to get those guys to play as many possessions as possible for the balance of the series. Pick up the pace and win Game 3, and maybe you can wear these guys out by the time Games 5 and 6 come around.
4. Make rebounding less of a factor
A lot has been made about Chicago’s advantage on the glass in this series. They’re grabbing 27 percent of offensive rebounds and 51.7 percent of total rebounds, compared to 21.2 percent and 48.5 percent rates for the Celtics. Boston tried starting Zeller in the second half of Game 2, but he grabbed just one rebound in nine minutes. Not exactly solving the problem.
Rather than try to matchup with the Bulls, the Celtics should go full tilt in the other direction. Forget rebounding! Just outscore those darned Bulls! Playing more units with Horford and Olynyk at center would sacrifice any facade of trying to compete on the glass with Chicago.
This is what the Big Three-era Heat did in series against the Indiana Pacers. Knowing they had no chance of beating Roy Hibbert and David West on the boards, the Heat played Chris Bosh at center and allowed Hibbert to go to town on the glass.
Not only did this take the ball out of Paul George’s and other perimeter players’ hands as they kept feeding the big fella down low, but it also allowed Miami to trade two-pointers for three-pointers. Eventually, it forced Hibbert to run more than he liked, and he often ran out of steam late in games.
The Celtics should do something similar. If they can pick on Lopez and Christiano Felicio by dragging them out of the paint enough, it could force Hoiberg to match up with smaller units, taking those big bruising bodies off the court and playing into Celtics’ style.
(Plus we all know Hoiberg actually wants to play that way, but he doesn’t have the personnel. Would he not jump at the chance to try it, though?)
Stevens has already come around to the idea that Johnson isn’t playable in this series, playing him just nine minutes and benching him for the start of the second half in Game 2. Johnson and Zeller can’t compete with Lopez and Felicio, so why try? Instead, make the Bulls matchup with smaller lineups.
There are only a few guys on the Celtics that may be playable in this series, but if Stevens plays his cards right, it should be enough to get a game on Chicago’s home floor.