BOSTON — The Celtics are almost to the finish line and the second round of the NBA Playoffs after beating the Chicago Bulls in Game 5 108-97.
Avery Bradley had a career-defining game on both ends as he led the Celtics with 24 points while frequently guarding Jimmy Butler throughout the game. Bradley and the Celtics fought the Bulls into the ground, establishing their defensive prowess in the fourth quarter to shove the Bulls to the brink.
After weeks of heartbreak, pain and struggle, the team has broken through the fog of the war and are just one night from victory.
“It’s kind of been the story of our team, being able to fight through our adversity,” Bradley said. “No matter what we’ve been through, being able to overcome it. We believe in one another.
“We went to Chicago knowing we were going to win those games. Not hoping.”
Stevens matched Butler’s substitution pattern for Bradley to be on the floor with him the entire game, winning that battle at +11 in 39 minutes. His performance was epitomized by one perfectly timed wardrobe malfunction.
Boston steamrolled the Bulls in the fourth quarter, which ironically started with an Avery Bradley goaltend on a chase-down block. The Celtics ripped off a 13-0 run, including six points on a pair of personal fouls followed by technical fouls over the course of 32 seconds.
Robin Lopez drew his fifth foul and exited the game picking up a tech. Wade saw shades of the past, remembering seeing teams break down emotionally when he was a one seed with the LeBron era Heat.
“I’ve been a one seed before against an 8 seed. I understand what it means, especially on the road,” Wade said. “Letting these guys know there are games where you’re not gonna get a call to our liking. The home team gonna get a little more cooking than you.
Stevens wanted to keep Bradley out there with at least one of his other two great perimeter defenders at all times to contain Wade and Butler. Bradley’s activity level on both ends was remarkable for someone playing nearly 40 minutes. The fact that he was always guarding the Bulls’ highest usage player was a defining achievement.
“As long as Wade and Butler were on the floor, yes, I felt that way,” Stevens explained to CelticsBlog. “But I trust our other guys to guard him. So with Marcus out there, he would be assigned to one, and Avery or Jae would come in and guard the other.”
Bradley held Butler to 1-for-5 from the field while guarding him, while Bradley went 5-for-10 for 11 points while Butler was on him.
"I was just trying to be a little more aggressive on the offensive end,” Bradley said. “I knew my team needed me to do that, and just trying to pick my spots on both ends of the floor, trying to stay out of foul trouble, trying to eliminate letting Jimmy Butler get to the free throw line.
“That was my goal this game and I felt like I did a great job at it."
When CelticsBlog asked Bradley how he won the matchup, as Butler admitted post game, Bradley explained how he wanted to apply pressure, but survive the entire fight.
“I’m trying to make it hard on him. Like I said, Butler’s a very good player. And my job for our team is to go out there and defend, try not to foul, and make the player work for every shot. Make him work on both ends of the floor. And that’s what I tried to do tonight.”
Bradley has developed an effective strategy against Butler over the past few games, trying to force him further out behind the three-point line when on ball and fronting him when off ball. In an effort to reduce Butler’s patented midrange fadeaways out of the post-up, Bradley would front Butler to prevent the entry pass much like Smart will do. Hoiberg noted that the Celtics pushed the Bulls’ ballscreens higher than he wanted, allowing Bradley enough space to sit back a step on Butler and prevent him from driving the lane.
Boston went switch heavy to contain Butler, mixing in a bit of zone to prevent any temporary breaks in the perimeter wall. While the Bulls were able to bail put of double teams to find weak side shooters a few times, Boston’s consistent effort, led by Bradley, snuffed it out in the long run.
From the Bulls’ perspective, they expected the great defense from Bradley. It was his scoring explosion that buried them.
“We gave up 24 points tonight and that’s tough to overcome,” Wade said.
Al Horford had another huge game, coordinating several different defensive strategies throughout a tense second half. He was a force in transition and hit a crucial early fourth-quarter three to restart the Celtics’ momentum.
Horford picks off the inbounds pass and takes it all the way! pic.twitter.com/AB69V7nSCo— Boston Celtics (@celtics) April 27, 2017
Horford had 19 points, four rebounds and four assists in the second half, finishing with 21, 7, and 9 respectively.
“We need him when they go small, like they did, to be able to score in the post and play through them in the post rebound, make plays,” Stevens said of Horford. “He was active defensively, he got his hands on a ton of balls. he was great blocking out. He just did a lot of good things. And as you know, we play through his passing quite a bit. so yeah, we just need to keep doing it.”
With the Bulls using Isaiah Canaan and Anthony Morrow to find short stretches to get Jimmy Butler to rest, Brad Stevens had Morrow’s man come screen for Thomas and open up the floor. The Celtics played with the ball higher and more spacing, allowing more freedom of movement for Jonas Jerebko and Kelly Olynyk. Despite a few wasted possessions, the strategy worked and gave the Celtics control of the offensive flow in the early fourth.
Olynyk and Jerebko both had their best performances of the series, with Olynyk fighting everywhere in the second half. His brick-wall screen on Isaiah Canaan was perhaps his most anti-Olynyk moment of a career performance.
Kelly Olynyk takes Isaiah Canaan out with this crushing pick. pic.twitter.com/9zm1NTBfgi— Rey-Rey (@TheNoLookPass) April 27, 2017
Olynyk finished with a playoff career-high 14 points and game-high +16 in 19 minutes. His three-point play in the fourth quarter revealed a rare explosion of emotion from the ManBun.
Jimmy Butler took the onus to do everything for the Bulls after Game 4. The first half showed Avery Bradley taking the mantle for the Celtics. He played every minute alongside Butler, guarding him much of the half.
Bradley spent most possessions dancing in front of Butler, then leaking out on the break to finish ahead of the Bulls’ transition defense. Bradley played with a purpose that had him hitting all sorts of shots rarely seen from him, including a one-handed putback on a rebound and a falling baseline hook.
The initial gameplan with Thomas, coming off a huge 33-point performance, was to be more passive. He drew in the defense and functioned as a traditional point guard, whipping wraparound passes to weak side shooters. The Celtics threw half a dozen cross-court wraparounds in the first half.
Just a sick wrap around pass from Isaiah Thomas. Filthy pic.twitter.com/DccZ4g3rlH— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) April 27, 2017
Despite the Celtics going five-out most of the time, they were actually big on the Bulls lineups, who went small much of the second quarter using end-of-the-roster vet Anthony Morrow. Morrow had 8 points in the second quarter, but the Celtics took advantage by beating the Bulls 11-2 in second chance points.
The Celtics head back to a Game 6 in Chicago with a chance to win their first playoff series under Brad Stevens. Butler has done almost everything he can to keep his team alive. Dwyane Wade put on a vintage performance Wednesday night. Perhaps the shocking return of Rajon Rondo will be the last chance for the Bulls.
Bradley will lead the charge, to stay calm and carry on.
“I think just staying calm, that’s the main thing,” Bradley said. We can't go into his game thinking we’ve already won. We have to be mature about this situation and play the way we’ve played the past three games.”
With the Washington Wizards taking the series lead against the Atlanta Hawks heading into Game 6, a battle between John Wall and Isaiah Thomas may be on the horizon.