After a meaningless Avery Bradley three pointer clanged off the rim at the buzzer, the Chicago Bulls won Game 1 in the Garden by four points. Four points. After 48 minutes, only four minutes separated the Celtics from defending their home court. That’s a missed three pointer and a missed free throw. It’s a Chicago put back and a tough contested two at the end of a shot clock. Four points. Just four points.
While a loss is a loss, you don’t want to overreact too much to it even if it’s the first game of a seven game series that steals away HCA. Boston did a lot of good things Sunday night and turning a four point deficit into a win is just a matter of tightening a few screws in their game plan. The playoffs are all about adjustments (and later, making adjustments to those adjustments), so here are two areas that could use a little tweaking.
When you look at the box score, the rebounding differential jumps off the page. The Bulls won the battle of the boards 53 to 36, including twenty offensive rebounds with 8 belonging to Robin Lopez alone. They scored 23 second chance points and that was a big difference in the game.
It’s been a pesky narrative all season: the Celtics are a poor rebounding team. For what it’s worth, the Cavaliers and Warriors gave up more offensive rebounds per game in the regular season, but that hasn’t seemed to dog either of the Finals favorites. Keith made a great point in the Read & React that offensive rebounds are less about getting extra possessions and more about demoralizing the psyche of a team’s defense.
I think that’s true, but the Celtics have rebounding from poor rebounding performances. They’re 17-12 in games where they gave up 13+ offensive rebounds. They’ve found ways to win wars when they’ve lost the rebounding battles, but it’s certainly something they should address if they can, particularly against a Bulls team that relies on it.
Schematically, there are some offensive rebounds that are just difficult to prevent. For example, Brad Stevens’ preference to ice PnR’s gives the rolling big man an advantage because if the ball handler puts up a contested shot against the retreating big, the roll man has a size advantage on the defensive small trying to box him out. This is Robin Lopez’s bread and butter.
That’s been the defensive strategy all season for the Celtics and guys like Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley are just going to have to do a better job boxing out and crashing the glass. You can’t take everything away in the NBA and Boston will just have to live and die on contested drives. However, there are offensive rebounds than can be better prevented.
The Celtics like to box out bigs and let the wings grab the boards, so what teams like to do is sneak their guards into the restricted area off a missed shot. Like Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley, the Chicago guards dive into the paint when they know that there’s going to be a short rebound off a drive or a medium range two.
Boston will have to do a better job gang rebounding, particularly on the weak side. Having Jae Crowder on the floor more in the second half curbed Chicago’s ability to get on the glass, but all in all, there has to be a concerted team effort in rebounding awareness. Al Horford commented in his post game presser that rebounding was a key going into the game and the Celtics failed at it.
At the end of the season, the Bulls finished with the 6th best defense in the league with a 104.5 DefRtg. In the final 10 games when Chicago closed out the regular season on a 7-3 streak, they were #1 at 96.5 DefRtg in those ten games. Chicago is not a quick team but they’re physical. Pun intended, they’re bullies; they try to get into the ball as much as possible to disrupt an offense. That means hedging hard on PnR’s, staying tight on shooters, and bodying up off ball action. Frankly, they’re a team at least on the defensive end that’s built for the slower pace of the playoffs, but the Celtics are equipped to counter the Bulls’ aggressiveness on D.
Boston has been one of the league’s better ball movement teams and if they want to win the series, they’ll have to involve more players on offense. In Game 1, Thomas, Bradley, and Horford combined for 66 points, but the team will need contributions from their #4, #5, and #6 options to be a real threat. It’s easier said than done, but whenever Thomas and Horford draw a double team, they have to be able to find the open man and that guy has to either put subsequent pressure on the defense or rotate the ball to someone that can.
All season, pairing IT (or Smart) off a pick or dribble hand off with Horford has been an effective table setter for the offense. More so, if the ball can touch the paint off that action, good things happen more times than not.
Early in the game, the Celtics were very aggressive attacking the key with Al Horford rolling more (rather than popping) and Thomas and Smart going to the rim. In the second half, the Bulls adjusted and collapsed the paint. That’s when the secondary options have to step up.
With bigs like Lopez and Cristiano Felício dropping back, Horford and Kelly Olynyk will be forced to make plays either off the dribble or in the post. They can both shoot threes and they’ll have to make some perimeter shots to keep Chicago’s defense honest, but there’s a premium on their playmaking abilities when it comes to involving the rest of the team.
That means driving when they can and finding the open man when the Bulls sink into the paint. They combined for 11 of Boston’s 27 assists. They’ll need to work on the high and low post to engage the defense and kick out to shooters and drivers.
The Celtics were in a ton of close games this season and were 32-17 in games within five points with five minutes to go. None of that matters today though. They’re 0-1 in close games in the 2017 Playoffs and down 0-1 as a #1 seed. The Twittersphere will be flooded with hot takes about trades the Celtics didn’t make for a rebounding rim protector (“why didn’t the Celtics give up Rozier and a pick for Serge Ibaka?!?!”) and Marcus’ shot selection. None of that matters either.
For what it’s worth, the Celtics didn’t give up one offensive rebound and had their best offensive game in the 4th quarter. Think of a playoff series as a large canvas. They figured some stuff out late in the game that should carry into then next and the bottom line is that the Celtics were four points away from winning Game 1 and don’t have to make big changes heading into Game 2.