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How the fast paced Celtics slowed down to win Game 3

Instead of speeding up the bigger and slower Bulls, the Celtics took it down a few gears to grind out a win on the road.

NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Chicago Bulls Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

Of the first three games between the Celtics and Bulls, Game 3 was the slowest paced of the series. Ironically, Boston won in a blowout. During the regular season, they were 12th in pace and 2nd in passes made per game. The Celtics like to be active on offense with lots of motion from the players and the ball, but on Friday night, they slowed everything down and were much more deliberate with their actions. It was Boston’s most playoff-y performance so far.

The cliche is that everything changes in the post-season. The games are called different, it’s much more physical, and every possession counts. In the first two games in Boston, there were times when the offense seemed simultaneously rushed and bogged down, infected with hero ball, and unprepared for the moment. You could see it in Isaiah Thomas’ first few cracks at the rim early in the first quarter on Tuesday.

Thomas is doing what you’re supposed to do in Brad Stevens’ read-and-react offense. If a hole opens up, hit it fast and hard. Unfortunately, that played into Chicago’s hands. They could pack the paint and be ready for Thomas or any other driver trying to get to the rim.

In Game 3, that all changed. Instead of relying on the random of the read-and-react, Boston honed in their efforts and took a very calculated approach in attacking the Bulls’ olé defense. First, here’s the shot chart:

Not to glean too much from a bunch of x’s and o’s, but if you watched the game, the Celtics were very forceful in attacking the basket from the middle of the floor. That eliminated Chicago’s ability to load up the strong side of the ball with an extra defender. By surrounding the ball handler with shooters on both sides, the Bulls couldn’t help off the perimeter as much because the Celtics could kick out to either side. But even with less motion and less ball movement, the Celtics had 34 assists on 41 made field goals including 17 from behind the arc. More so:

It’s ironic that in a game that featured fewer possessions and put more emphasis on Boston’s marquee players, Brad Stevens went deeper into his bench and found more contributions from his second unit.

These just happen to be all of Jonas Jerebko’s buckets, but they’re good examples of Boston’s normal pace-and-space philosophy on offense: quickly move the ball and capitalize as soon as the defense makes a mistake. Everybody has a chance to make a play with no one really featured.

There are times when that motion offense feels like it’s just motion for the sake of motion as a way to tire the opposing team or to get a sense of what their coverages are going to look like. But instead of spinning Chicago’s wheels, Boston made them make definitive decisions on defense. In Games 1 & 2, the Bulls could play back and pack the paint. In Game 3, the Celtics put them in more screen coverages in order to force more double teams, switches, and open looks. Chicago couldn’t just lay in wait in the restricted area.

For example, they ran double screen pick and rolls with Thomas, Al Horford, and another wing several times. It was effective because 1) it engaged three defenders all above the break and out of the key, 2) 3) it kept Chicago’s defense in motion and didn’t allow them to key in on one player, and 4) it forced them to make several split second decisions that Boston took advantage of. Thomas and Horford could quickly read and react to the D while the Bulls were trying to recover. You can’t stress enough how slow ran their sets on Friday night. Instead of trying to beat the Bulls with speed (that Chicago had somewhat neutralized by packing the paint), they played at a medium pace, inviting the Bulls to overcommit on the ball handler.

Thomas and Horford weren’t the only duo running PnR. Here’s Kelly Olynyk and Marcus Smart. Neither are particularly fast, but if you watch them run the pick-and-pop, they don’t move the ball until they’ve drawn the double team.

After the game, Stevens still saw room for improvement: “we gotta be more spaced than we were,” Stevens said. “And so I think we missed some opportunities but we did have some good possessions where we were spraying it out.” With seventeen three pointers made by the Celtics in Game 3, the Bulls could adjust with less help in the paint in favor of protecting the perimeter. That could play into the hands of new starter Gerald Green or even a re-insertion of Jaylen Brown into the rotation as potential drive-kick-and-drive-again candidates. The playoffs are all about adjustments and knowing Brad Stevens, he could hit the gas in Game 4 instead of pumping the breaks in Game 3.

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