The Celtics play the Bulls for the fourth and final time tonight. If the game resembles the previous three, it’ll be a physical battle where offense doesn’t come easy. Boston’s first loss of the season came on October 24th at Chicago. When they played again on November 4th, it was Boston’s first win of a 9-game winning streak that the Bulls eventually snapped on November 21st.
The Celtics throttled their opponents in October and November, but for whatever reason, they couldn’t figure out this team. The Lavine/DeRozan/Vucevic core has been around .500 since starting last season 26-10. The NBA commentariat has urged Chicago to break up this high-floor-low-ceiling trio and tank for Wembanyama.
They don’t have any exciting young players and caught some bad injury luck with Lonzo Ball. Their 2020 deadline deal for Nikola Vucevic is increasingly looking like a disaster. Nonetheless, this uninspiring roster beat the Celtics 121-107 on October 24th and 120-102 on November 21st — two of Boston’s worst scoring outputs of the season. The Celtics narrowly won 123-119 when they played on November 4th.
In the first game, the Celtics roared out to a 39 point 1st quarter, leading by as much as 19, but by the end of the 3rd they trailed by 21. Chicago scored a combined 70 points in the 2nd and 3rd periods including 32 points in the paint while holding Boston to 37 percent shooting for the game.
The Celtics showed lackluster effort on the boards and were outrebounded 60-45. On this play towards the end of the first half, LaVine slices through the lane, misses the layup, and three Celtics watch Vucevic get the offensive rebound putback:
Vuc finished the game with an absurd 23 rebounds, 10 of which were offensive. On this next play, all five Celtics were in the paint watching Patrick Williams snatch an offensive rebound and convert on the second chance attempt:
The effort level was alarmingly poor, but it was likely influenced by Chicago’s physical defense on the other end. Alex Caruso played just 18 minutes and took 2 shots, but he had a tremendous defensive impact, and his +29 was far and away the best on the team. Here, he plays lockdown defense on the much larger Jayson Tatum and forces an airball:
And on this play, he blocks Malcolm Brogdon driving to the basket:
After Caruso entered the game towards the end of the 1st quarter, he seemed to inspire his teammates to play more active defense. Watch how bodies fly around the floor as the Celtics move the ball in the halfcourt:
These two shots aren’t bad, but the Bulls defensive activity prevented shots at the rim and they got decent contests on the subsequent three pointers. Usually when defenses are in constant rotation, it’s easier to grab offensive rebounds, which Grant Williams does here and kicks it to an open Jaylen:
This is a shot Jaylen makes regularly, but it wasn’t his night or the team’s night. The Celtics shot 14/24 (58 percent) in the 1st quarter but just 23/76 (30 percent) the rest of the game. The Bulls got manhandled at the start, responded by playing with greater desperation, and the Celtics’ effort eventually cratered.
Chicago used a similar formula to win on November 21st, but unlike the first game, Boston played a dreadful 1st quarter, shooting 27 percent and collecting 6 turnovers. In this clip, Jaylen had Horford open at the top of the key, but instead spins between two defenders, seeks out Grant Williams behind the arc, and throws in to the first row:
In the Boston’s previous game against New Orleans, they hit 10 threes in the 1st quarter. This game they went 5/17 in the 1st quarter, as early-possession threes weren’t falling:
These aren’t bad shots. Jaylen’s and Horford’s were lightly contested and Grant was wide open. But maybe the Celtics should have tried to move the ball, get the Bulls in rotation, and take advantage of the multitude of mismatches at their disposal. On this play, Tatum could have pulled the ball to the perimeter on the switch, attacked the slow-footed Andre Drummond, and found an open shooter, but instead he opts for a difficult contested layup.
The Celtics were coming off a 9-game stretch where they outscored teams by 12 points per 100 possessions. They were playing offense at a historic rate, but in this game their shots weren’t falling, they couldn’t get easy buckets, and the Bulls took advantage of their size on the other end.
While Nicola Vucevic didn’t have another 10 offensive rebound night, he did finish 6/7 from the field. Knowing the Celtics were switching, he establishes inside position on Tatum and finishes an easy layup:
As the Bulls built their lead, they played with more confidence. They shot 51 percent from the field and 48 percent from three. Patrick Williams had a solid game, scoring 17 points on 6/9 shooting and finishing this lefty layup over good defense from Grant:
Williams makes this move with more confidence as his team has a double digit lead, otherwise, the Bulls coaching staff probably isn’t drawing up isolations for him. DeMar DeRozan has killed the Celtics in the past, but during this game he was uncharacteristically accurate from three-point range. Here he dribbles into a three to give Chicago a 19-point lead:
And here, as the Celtics mount a 4th quarter comeback, DeRozan hits this fadeaway three over two defenders:
My expert analysis on the November 21st loss: The Celtics missed shots they usually make while the Bulls hit shots they usually miss.
Chicago would sputter over the next 12 games, going 4-8 while ranking 19th in offensive rating and 22nd in defensive rating. There’s been a lot of talk about the Bulls breaking up this team, that trying to reclaim last season’s first half glory is a fool’s errand.
But they’ve won three straight against playoff teams Brooklyn, Philly, and Utah (not currently a playoff team but just 1.5 games behind). They’re 8-3 over the last 11 games and have the second best offensive rating during this span. LaVine and DeRozan can go off on any given night, and while they don’t have any high-ceiling blue chippers, they have a roster full of solid rotation players.
I wouldn’t call this a big game against the Bulls, but it’s not a great look to go 1-3 in the season series. If this happens, maybe it’ll further inspire Chicago to make a run for the 7th or 8th seed. I can already picture the storylines:
They beat Boston 3 out of 4 times in the regular season... why can’t they win 4 out of 7 in a playoff series?
The Celtics have played uneven basketball for over a month. They had great wins against Milwaukee and Dallas, a confounding loss to OKC, while barely squeaking by Houston and San Antonio. With Robert Williams back anchoring the defense, tonight is an opportunity to regain focus, build a winning streak, and beat a Chicago team that’s given them problems.