The Bulls and Celtics both blew leads in their Thursday game at the United Center, but the Bulls pulled out the 89-80 win. Kent McDill called it a “game of streaks” and that it was.
The Celtics scored 12 in the first four minutes of the game, but only 68 over the final 44, despite a 22-7 run over an eight-minutes stretch of their 26-point third quarter.
The same Chicago Bulls that gave up those two runs to have the Bulls playing catch-up early blew a 16-point lead in that third quarter was the defense that dominated to allow only 34 points in the other 36 minutes of the game. The help was quick all contest, but recovering to shooters was inconsistent. And, as the Bulls are crafted, the rebounding killed Cs’ possessions to reward the defense.
On the other end, the Bulls Bench Mob had problems converting possessions, but the offensive rebounds turned the contest into a game of keep away. The Bulls out-hustled a Celtics squad uncharacteristically crashing the boards very hard. The Bulls still won those battles to elongate their own possessions and prevent the Boston Celtics from getting into an offensive rhythm for the remainder of the half. Limiting Boston’s touches had them iced to setup a 20-3 run when Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah, and Luol Deng returned to the game with Mike James running the offense at the point to relieve the struggling C.J. Watson and John Lucas III.
Doc Rivers still runs the Tom Thibodeau defense in Boston, but with a lot more zone. That made it difficult for the Bulls to get inside without erratic ball movement; and no one knows better than Thibs that this is the only way to get inside against a defense fixated on spacing and strong-side aggressiveness (27 of Bulls’ 30 FGs were assisted). In the second quarter, Mike James and his bigs used the Cs pick n’ roll defense against them by turning it into a three-man game, as the pick setter was simply a tool to handle the ball in the middle of the floor (Boozer: five assists) — instead of being a scorer — and using the defense’s imbalance find the most efficient shot.
As Doc is prone to do, he adjusted to put more balance into the zones, so he Bulls couldn’t simply put the ball in the weak side (James: four assists in 17 minutes) or open up the middle with widespread perimeter ball movement (Deng: ten assists).
The Cs zones also conflicted with their need to rebound the ball well to kill Bulls possessions, so when the ball couldn’t get inside, Bulls ball-handlers used their drives to the hole to open up shooters. The Bulls took advantage by shooting 10-for-21 on 3s — compared to only 17 long-2 attempts (hitting only two), which the Cs defense wants to force at all times because they’re inefficient and easier for helpers to recover for challenges.
The Cs attempted the same, but only went 3-for-15 on 3s (Paul Pierce and Mickael Pietrus combined to go 0-for-7). The only strong stretches for the Cs offense involved a couple of 3s by Ray Allen and defensive breakdowns where Pierce and Rajon Rondo were able to penetrate. Otherwise, Boston was largely pushed to the outside and strong challenges when anticipating 3s forced Cs to step up into the 2-point zone for long-2s — on which they shot 9-for-25 (36%).
In a game of forcing long-2s, the Bulls won — and with that, the game. Forcing the most inefficient shot can backfire when the rebounds aren’t grabbed, as the offensive boards on those shots create very efficient shots. But the Cs don’t have the athleticism to crash the boards on the offensive end and effectively get back on defense, so the Bulls almost made holding the Cs to six second chance points on six offensive boards look easy.
The Bulls’ ball movement added a high risk to the offense, which became 17 turnovers that Boston exploited for 18 points. And though the Bulls knew it’d be difficult to convert at the rim, the ball got there (17-for-32, 53.2%). The Bulls only scored 12 second chance points on 3-for-13 shooting in a game where Boston held them to 39.7% shooting, but the 16 offensive rebounds simply didn’t reward the Cs defense enough. The Bulls’ 34% offensive rebounding rate (ORR) and ten treys at 47.7% negated Boston’s 0.95 points-per-possession D enough to score a full point-per-possession. And enough to reward their own defense for stops and minimize the Celtics’ possessions just days after Boston beat them running the floor.