It’s been a while since we had to deal with a loss. A 9 game-winning streak can make you believe a team is invincible. That their deficiencies are only for show, and that no opponent can get close to exploiting them. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, and eventually, as confidence rises, those deficiencies only become more of a target, and on Monday night, the Chicago Bulls took advantage of that target.
Like it or not, Chicago seems to be one of the few teams capable of deflating the Celtics. In England, football (soccer) fans like to call that type of team a ‘bogey team’ — one opponent who no matter how badly they’re playing, always finds a way to give you problems. Chicago is Boston’s bogey team, or at least, this current version of the Bulls is.
Credit to Billy Donovan too, he knew exactly what he wanted his team to do, and how he wanted them to do it, and they executed his gameplan, in what could be seen as a symbolic show of support for a coach who has come under scrutiny in recent weeks.
With all this being said, I have chosen four plays, one from each quarter, which I feel the Bulls utilized to attack specific areas of the Celtics' defense or to catch them off guard due to their eagerness to limit certain types of shots.
First quarter - cross action
This play stood out to me for two reasons. 1. It was designed to take advantage of Nikola Vucevic’s size and low-post presence. 2. Without a shot-altering weakside helper cough, cough, Robert Williams, there simply wasn’t an additional Celtics defender that could alter Vucevic’s thought process once he caught the ball on the low block.
The play breaks down like this: DeMar DeRozan sets a step-up screen for Vucevic before Alex Caruso sets a cross screen to allow the Bulls’ big man to rotate onto the strong-side block. From there, Ayo Dosunmu executes a punch action ( a fancy way of saying a post-entry pass) and Vucevic goes to work on Grant Williams.
Now, credit to Williams on this possession, he fought through some tough screens to stay connected to Vucevic, and gave a solid account of himself as a post-up defender, getting low, staying connected, and forcing Vucevic into a physical battle — he did all the right things. However, sometimes a size advantage is what it is, and without a hand in his face, it’s hard to stop a bigger opponent from scoring when in close proximity to the rim.
Second Quarter - LaVine’s Dunk
Why do I like this possession? Simple! The audacity!
There aren’t many players in the league, who would consciously choose to attack Marcus Smart head-on. We’re talking about the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, after all. Yet, Zach LaVine knew exactly what he wanted to do as soon as he saw the space in the middle of the court, so, he attacked it, irrespective of who was guarding him.
We’ve got to credit Chicago’s weakside guys on the above possession too, keeping Boston’s defense occupied by setting a stagger screen for Patrick Williams, before having Dosunmu drift toward the block to position himself for a potential rebound.
Of course, it was that decoy action on the weakside that ensured no Celtic rotated over or was available to dig/stunt at the drive before LaVine took flight. You see, Boston is ranked 2nd in the NBA for limiting opponents' corner 3 attempts, so running a decoy for the weakside corner man was always going to play into the Celtics system, and allow for the space in the middle that LaVine took advantage of.
Third Quarter - Dosunmu attacking a Jayson Tatum close-out
The above play looks like it could have been taken directly out of Joe Mazzulla’s playbook. A drive and kick to the corner from DeMar DeRozan. Some low-post playmaking from Vucevic. And then, the hard cut to the paint from Javonte Green before Dosunmu forces Tatum to plant his feet and blows by him.
You see, for all of the action that occurred in that possession, it was Green’s cut that put the nail in the coffin. As soon as the former Celtic dove towards the rim, he took Brown away from the perimeter, opening a clear driving line for Dosunmu to attack. Once the ball found its way to Chicago’s second-year guard, the writing was on the wall.
We’ve seen the Celtics run actions like this when their initial half-court offense has been stymied, so it stood out when the Bulls literally gave Boston a taste of their own medicine midway through the third quarter.
Fourth Quarter - Caruso in the dunker spot
There’s nothing overly creative about this possession. There are no fancy screening actions or moments of individual brilliance. But, I found the fact that Caruso was placed at the dunker spot to be interesting, and slightly amusing.
By having Caruso on the dunker, which is where athletic big men usually reside, you’re empowering Al Horford to help off and challenge any drive toward the rim. So, when DeRozan spins free of Tatum, Horford is already in position to kill DeRozan’s momentum, yet, that leaves Caruso free to receive the pass and finish with an up-and-under, allowing him to use the rim to protect the ball.
I would expect to see this type of play for Smart or Bruce Brown, but I guess I was sleeping on Caruso, because he executed his role like he’s been doing this for a while — and maybe he has, but I’ve just never noticed. Either way, Boston’s eagerness to defend the three, and take away the mid-range for DeRozan was taken advantage of, and it was even more points on the board for Chicago.
Boston is a better team than Chicago. They’re younger, deeper, have more elite-level talent, and a far more diverse playbook — yet, for some reason, the Bulls just know how to shake the Celtics, right down to their very core. Of all the underdog teams in the Eastern Conference, the Bulls are the ones who I pray Boston avoids in the first round of the playoffs, because if they don’t, we’re in for a tougher-than-it-needs-to-be seven-game series, and I’m just not ready for that.