Remember when you were a kid, playing your favorite beat ’em up video game, and that one friend would always spam the controller, kicking your butt with the same tired move over and over again? Well, that’s pretty much how the Chicago Bulls found success against the Boston Celtics on Monday night.
There wasn’t some profound cheat code that head coach Billy Donovan stumbled upon nor was there anything special about how Chicago handled their business. Simply put, they found Boston’s weakness and attacked it relentlessly for two and a half quarters. It was a simple high-slot pick-and-roll with either Nikola Vucevic or Andre Drummond operating as the roll man. But really, anything that involved getting the Bulls’ bigs in the paint seemed to do the trick. Straight bully ball played at pace.
Let's take a look at some of the ways Chicago took advantage.
We all know that Boston came out cooking with gas but quickly ran out of fuel. Once the second quarter got underway, the Bulls went straight into their ‘punch’ actions — a fancy term for a post-entry pass.
On this possession, the Celtics are playing without a recognized center on the floor, so the Bulls quickly play into the size mismatch by feeding Vucevic on the post. With such a size difference and versatile scoring profile, the Celtics have no choice but to send three at the ball, leaving the weakside shooter open along with a kick-out option onto the perimeter.
However, Vucevic is a low post sorcerer who manages to face up in space and hit a jump hook for an easy two points. In fairness, the Celtics do seal the veteran big away from the rim to limit his chances of grabbing an offensive board, but the damage has already been done courtesy of a friendly roll.
Just a couple of possessions later, the Bulls feed Vucevic on the block again, except this time, Chicago takes advantage of the defensive attention he receives. Both Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who are tasked with guarding DeMar DeRozan and Ayo Dosunmu respectively, help off to apply pressure onto Vucevic and limit his chances of success when facing up.
However, Vucevic recognizes the help and kicks it out to DeRozan who has cut inside, seals Tatum on his hip, and gets the easy bucket. Two simple plays, both of which pay dividends on the scoreboard.
Most of Chicago's pick-and-roll success came from running them in the slot area, the gap between the top of the perimeter and the wing. Now, I’m not saying any of the Bulls' bigs feasted on these actions, but their presence certainly created some confusion for Boston’s defensive units.
This possession doesn’t end in a bucket for the Bulls because Al Horford did a fantastic job of splitting his man while operating as a drop defender. But, the example above does show the pressure Chicago could apply to the rim simply by allowing Vucevic to gain a presence in the paint while rolling.
You can see that the defense has to focus on the ball handler, with Derrick White operating in the rear-view, Marcus Smart ‘digging’ at the dribble, and Brown leaving his man to help tag the roll - which he decides against - leaving Vucevic clear to shade onto Horford’s weakside and receive the dump-off pass.
Interestingly, Joe Mazzulla’s Celtics aren’t dealing with these simple actions very well. Sure, having your 5 drop is ubiquitous throughout the NBA, but where is the tagger, someone to slow down the roller, or limit how deep into the paint he can get?
Last season, under Ime Udoka, the Celtics often went to ‘veer back’ coverage when they were mismatched with size.
This is one adjustment I'm shocked we didn't see last night - switching to 'Veer Back'. Send a small with Vucevic on the PnR, get under him and limit penetration, then send help to force the ball out of his hands or a tough shot.— Adam Taylor (@AdamTaylorNBA) October 25, 2022
Udoka went with this quite often last season. https://t.co/FkyxMBg37H
I’m not saying that running some veer back would have been the answer against Chicago because Boston’s coaches are far more tuned in to the team and have a far deeper understanding of the game than me. But, what I am saying, is that the coverage the Celtics stuck with didn’t work, and trying something new could have been exactly what was needed to halt Chicago’s rhythm for stretches.
“We have to be better (at rebounding), the way that we’re playing now. We’re playing with four guards out there, trying to play fast and do things. It’s an understanding that everybody has to get in there and rebound, especially when we’re cross-matched…We have to find a way to come up with them (rebounds) because that’s the way we’re gonna be able to play that style,” Al Horford said after the Bulls out-rebounded the Celtics 60-45.
"We have to be better [on the boards]… it's an understanding that everyone has to be able to get in there and rebound."— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) October 25, 2022
Al Horford talks about the #Celtics need for improvement rebounding after tough loss to Bulls
Presented by your New England Ford Dealers pic.twitter.com/HyiN5UnguM
It’s not that Boston has bad rebounders, it’s simply that they lack the size necessary to command their space around the glass. However, throughout the Brad Stevens era, we often saw the Celtics lean into a ‘rebounding by committee’ approach, and be successful while doing it.
Of course, everything starts with being in tune defensively — understanding your coverages, when to help and when to stay, and most importantly, where your box outs are going to be set.
Vucevic ended the game against the Celtics with 23 rebounds, Drummond with 12. That's more than 50% of the Bulls' total rebounds, and just ten short of Boston’s total throughout the night. Obviously, you’re not going to win every battle on the boards when you’re cross-matched, but you can make life far more difficult than the Celtics did on Monday night.
Luckily, we’re only four games into the season, and the Celtics have a 3-day gap before they face the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday, October 28. So, one would hope the focus of their upcoming practice sessions is how to contain the roll man and how to team-rebound. Chicago is big; Cleveland is even bigger. If you thought dealing with Vucevic and Drummond was bad, wait until you’re facing Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen.