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Rope-a-dope: how Rondo has Bullied the Celtics

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The Celtics have been Rondowned by the Bulls.

NBA: Playoffs-Chicago Bulls at Boston Celtics Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

While focus and effort could have been issues in both losses for the Celtics, you have to give a lot of credit to the Bulls. Chicago is simply playing better to their strengths than Boston. They know they’re older and slower than the Celtics, but they’re also bigger and they know if they want to win the series, they have to turn every game into a wrestling match in the paint.

What’s sinister about Chicago’s schemes is that for them to bully Boston around, they actually have to get them on their turf. While Game 1 and Game 2 were in the Garden, the Bulls were able to dominate in the paint where they have considerable advantages over the Celtics. Like a boxer, they had to let their opponent in to knock them out.

Here’s the bait. If you watch Rajon Rondo early in the game, he doesn’t really try and keep Isaiah Thomas in front of him. He practically invites IT to drive and makes little effort to recover, knowing that Thomas is venturing into tall trees. I don’t know if the Bulls as a team game planned for this or if it’s just some mind game that Rondo is playing on Thomas.

That all seems to change as the game progresses. Turn up the volume when you watch that clip above. In the second half, you can actually hear Rondo calling out the coverages like a linebacker pre-snap. Former CelticsBlogger and current Ringer Kevin O’Connor even called Rondo “clairvoyant.”

And not only does Rondo know what all the cards the Celtics are holding, the Bulls have stacked the deck in their favor. If this was Hold ‘Em, Chicago knows that they dealt Boston a high pair, but in the end, they know the turn and the flop will only help their hand.

Side note: it’s hard to see the Celtics in this 0-2 hole, but there’s some joy in seeing Rondo playing so well, isn’t there? Rondo gets why there were a smattering of boos by the Garden crowd during Boston’s homestand, but that’s just a playful sign of respect for a player that cut his teeth on the very same parquet floor.

There’s a lot happening on this play: 1) Rondo seems less reluctant to give Thomas space to turn the corner. What he’s done really well is eliminate IT’s pet move of backing into defenders and drawing the fall. RR stays close enough so that Thomas feels the pressure, but doesn’t over commit so that Thomas can hit the breaks and create contact. 2) Nikola Mirotic sinks into the paint at the slightest suggestion that Thomas might drive or Al Horford rolls on the pick. The Bulls are very paint conscience. They’ll live and die on Boston’s perimeter shooting. 3) While Marcus Smart showed a lot of hustle in Game 2, he also took several ill-advised three-pointers and drove hoping for a foul call that never came.

Here’s the ensuing possession. Again, notice all the points of emphasis for the Bulls: 1) Rondo giving Thomas room in the half court to prevent penetration, 2) Mirotic shading into the key to dissuade a drive and 3) Paul Zipser going under the Horford screen on Bradley, a good perimeter shooter. The Celtics get a bucket off a weak Avery Bradley floater that turns into a hustle play from Kelly Olynyk to Smart, but chalk that possession up as another win to Chicago’s defense.

Finally, here’s yet another failed attempt by Boston to get easy buckets at the rim. Late in the 4th quarter, Stevens tried to flip the field by going small and having Olynyk at the 5 and Crowder at the 4 (a secret weapon that was revealed by Marc D’Amico and Crowder in today’s Celtics.com’s Film Study). Well, it wasn’t such a secret for Chicago.

Even with KO and Crowder keeping Ziper and Cristiano Felício above the break, the trio of vets kept to the Bulls’ front court scheme: Rondo chips Thomas a few times to slow down his drive, Dwyane Wade provides some resistance in the paint, and Jimmy Butler blocks IT’s lay up attempt in the restricted area.

However, there are counter measures in Boston’s arsenal. As Jae Crowder put it, the Celtics can’t play hero ball. They need to stay aggressive with attacking the paint, but their aim should not be driving to score, but driving to make a play. This isn’t something new. They’ve been playing like this all year. With Olynyk or Horford or Jonas Jerebko playing above the free throw line, it creates driving lanes from the wings with very little rim protection. The Celtics will need to hit some outside shots, but they should also take advantage of the created space.

Horford, and to a lesser extent, Olynyk, are going to have to be more of a playmaker, too. Whether that’s in the post playing off of pick-and-pops and DHO’s, Big Al needs to command the ball, draw a double team, and find open teammates. For the Celtics to have any chance in stealing a game at the United Center, they need to be able to draw Robin Lopez et al out of the paint and always moving. If they can just sit back and lay in wait, the Bulls will sweep the Celtics and remove one more team from this overbooked flight for two to the Finals.