Against the Chicago Bulls, the Boston Celtics failed to produce a performance that you would expect from a team fighting to make the playoffs and avoid the play-in tournament. Instead, it was the Bulls who dominated proceedings, playing with a sense of urgency as they battled to keep their own post-season dreams alive.
For the Celtics, this contest wasn’t the first time they struggled against Chicago this year. They’ve played Chicago twice since the trade deadline, losing both contests while failing to find any scoring consistency.
“Their size is an issue for us. Their size and length hurt us in the game at our place, and it hurt us tonight,” Brad Stevens explained when discussing what went wrong for the Celtics in the 121-99 blowout.
Chicago’s roster is littered with size and length, from the 6’5” Coby White at point guard to the 6’8” and 6’9” big man rotation of Daniel Theis, Nikola Vucevic, and Lauri Markkanen - there’s size at every position for Chicago, which creates tons of disruption on the defensive end.
“Tonight, we didn’t execute our base offense well enough,” Evan Fournier detailed as he discussed Boston’s faltering offensive production.
The common denominator here is that when the Celtics come up against guys with height and wingspan, they revert to their unproductive ways. Early threes, settling for contested jumpers, and tentative ventures into the paint all creep back into their game plan. Fear takes hold.
You can see it in their shot selection. Against the Bulls, the Celtics took 39 three-point attempts on 86 total shots - that’s 45.3% of their total offense coming from deep. Of those 39 attempts, only 11 were successful - that’s a pitiful 28.2% conversion rate. The Celtics have displayed resurgences throughout the season, only to falter after notching a few wins and most of it comes back to this same issue: a lack of offensive continuity and what seems to be a fear of attacking the bigger teams in the restricted area.
The concerning thing here isn’t the capitulation at the hands of Chicago; it’s the fact that the Celtics clearly struggle against all teams that boast size throughout their roster. A quick glance around the Eastern Conference, and you rapidly realize that the Bulls aren’t the only team with this sort of roster makeup.
The Philadelphia 76ers have beat the Celtics in every meeting this year - they have an abundance of size. The Brooklyn Nets have size, too — not defense — but size nonetheless - they have handily dispatched the Celtics in each of their meetings as well. The Milwaukee Bucks, same thing, but Boston have won two of the teams’ meetings. Heck, even the Knicks boast the Celtics kryptonite, and they’re the final game of the season which looks to hold a ton of value.
Throughout his tenure as head coach, Stevens has consistently coached undersized teams. Facing bigger opponents isn’t something that’s magically occurred this year; it’s something the majority of this roster has excelled at throughout their time in the league. Yet, for whatever reason, there’s no snarl or bite in the offense when there are some tall trees in the forest.
“This was a tough night matchup wise for us. They put us in a bind in a lot of ways,” Stevens explained, as he went into further details on how the Bulls gave Boston fits on both sides of the floor.
Stevens and the coaching staff will know that sterner opponents than Chicago will await Boston if they have even a modicum of success in the postseason (assuming they make it to the postseason). As such, the team needs to rediscover their fearlessness when facing the behemoths of the league.
Isolation on the perimeter with a steady diet of pull-up or step-back threes isn’t going to get it done at this juncture of the season. Instead, the Celtics need to get back to attacking bigs on switches, driving and kicking the ball, and rotating with fire in their bellies on defense.
The Celtics have five games left this season, and three of those are against teams fighting to avoid the play-in tournament. There’s no time to keep playing scared or timid, so the Celtics need to figure out how to utilize their speed and scoring versatility sooner rather than later.