After defeating the Orlando Magic on Saturday, the Boston Celtics are now 3-0 heading into tonight’s game against the Chicago Bulls. Billy Donovan’s team is 1-2 over their first three games, losing to both the Washington Wizards and Cleveland Cavaliers, so they will likely come out of the gates hot as they look to get back to .500.
Other than Lonzo Ball, the Bulls look to be healthy, with Alex Caruso listed as probable on their latest injury report. Still, the real threats are DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine, and Nikola Vucevic, so Boston’s defense will need to be locked in from the opening tip — which leads us to our first trending topic heading into today’s game.
Rediscovering the defensive mindset
“120 points (tonight) and 100-plus points in the first game, that’s just not who we are...If we’re trying to get back to where we want to be, we’ve got to play way better than this,” Jayson Tatum told NBC Boston’s Abby Chin after Boston’s win over the Magic.
Finding a balance is hard, especially so early in the season. Thus far, we’ve seen a Celtics team that has a newfound aggression on the offensive end, and it’s been hella fun to watch. Quick decision, a willingness to pressure the rim, and a seemingly unstoppable drive and kick game — Boston’s offense is scary good right now.
Last year’s success was built on concrete defensive principles, with the team taking pride in their stinginess. Sub-100-point scoring nights from the opposition became a regularity, as the Celtics ground everyone in their path to a halt. Joe Mazzulla might have revolutionized the offense, but now he needs to find a balance between what worked so well last season and what’s taken his team to three straight wins to start this basketball year.
Luckily, the Bulls are one of the Eastern Conference’s great pretenders, having pushed all their chips into the middle with DeRozan and Vucevic while still relying on developmental jumps from Patrick Williams and Coby White. If there was ever a time for the Celtics to show they can still shut up shop, it’s going to be tonight.
Still, we’re only three games into the season, so there’s no need to worry about the defense too much yet. After all, Boston’s didn’t become a lock-down team until midway through the 2021-22 season — so there’s plenty of time.
Taking away the mid-range
Whenever you play against DeRozan, you can’t provide too much space in the mid-range; he’s simply too dangerous off the pull-up and off the catch. To start the season, Boston has relied upon a switching system that sees 1-through-4 switch with the big man either playing up-to-touch or simply sagging off a screening center in drop coverage.
That type of scheme will cause DeRozan’s eyes to light up. Drop defense aims to protect the rim and force you to beat it from the mid-range, and that’s not going to work against the kind of middies. Last season, DeRozan took 1099 mid-range shots, converting 536 of them, which is a 49% success rate. To begin this season, the 33-year-old is 21-of-30 from the same area, good for 70%.
Put simply, if you drop against DeRozan, it’s going to be a long night. Luckily, the Celtics' perimeter defense still boasts a number of elite wing stoppers, who will chase over/under screens, switch early and often, and pressure shooters in the rearview. Unfortunately, DeRozan is clutch, so speeding him up isn’t going to get the job done. Instead, Boston will need to find ways of staying in front of him, whether that be going under screens, icing him in corner pick-and-rolls, or bringing their big up to his level once he penetrates while having the low man shade towards the paint to offer some additional coverage.
Stopping DeRozan isn’t going to guarantee a victory, but allowing him to get cooking from his favorite spots on the floor will only embolden him as the game wears on, and as we already know, you don’t want him in rhythm down the stretch of a close game.
More Blake Griffin, please!
Blake Griffin might not be the high-flying dunkathon he once was, nor is he a legitimate three-point threat, but there’s something about the energy he provides when he’s on the floor that’s captivating.
A solid screener, passer, and rebounder, Griffin has enough left in the tank to be a viable rotation piece this season. Yet, it’s his willingness to dive for loose balls, tie-up with opposing bigs on 50-50 plays and encourage his teammates that has seen the veteran quickly endear himself to the Celtics fanbase.
I’m not saying Griffin needs to be one of the first subs in the rotation, but if the offense or defense begins to look a little flat, some additional 3-5 minute stretches of Griffin could be exactly what the doctor ordered. It might not always be pretty, but apparently, it’s always going to be fun and entertaining, and of course, having an additional enforcer on the floor never goes amiss when things get chippy.
The Bulls are a well-coached team who believes they have all the necessary pieces to be a force in the Eastern Conference, and when Lonzo Ball is healthy, that might be true. Yet, Chicago’s biggest flaw last season was their lack of depth, and throughout the summer, they failed to address their biggest areas of need.
Still, Goran Dragic is always a threat off the bench, and there is some serious talent to contend with. However, Boston has already dispatched the Philadelphia 76ers and Miami Heat, so there’s no reason to believe that the Bulls won’t be the next notch on their belt. Of course, DeRozan will be a new type of threat that forces Mazzulla to adjust his defensive coverage, and that will always be interesting to watch.
However, both Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have started this season in scorching form, and Derrick White has suddenly become the new Ray Allen. Win or lose, the Celtics will be right there at the final whistle.
I’m predicting that Boston goes 4-0 to open the season.