How the Bulls, who barely made the playoffs, are running the top-seeded Celtics off the floor

  • Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4) walks past the Chicago Bulls as they huddle during the second quarter of a first-round NBA playoff basketball game in Boston, Tuesday, April 18, 2017. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa

  • Avery Bradley (right) and the Boston Celtics visit Jimmy Butler (left) and the Chicago Bulls for Game 3 of a first-round playoff series tonight at 7. The Bulls currently lead the series, 2-0. AP file

Washington Post
Thursday, April 20, 2017

There aren’t many upsets in the first round of the NBA playoffs, but the Chicago Bulls are trying to do just that after taking a commanding series lead over the Boston Celtics with a 111-97 win on Tuesday night. The victory gave the No. 8 seed a 2-0 lead over a No. 1 seed in a first-round series for the first time since the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Lakers took a 2-0 lead on the Phoenix Suns in 1993.

The Bulls also have a chance to become just the sixth No. 8 seed in NBA history to knock off a top seed since the league expanded to a 16-team playoff format in 1984.

“Everybody’s locked in, ready to go,” Bulls’ Jimmy Butler said after Tuesday’s game. The two teams meet tonight in Chicago for Game 4. “I like our chances.”

He should – Chicago is almost unrecognizable from the team we saw during the regular season.

The Bulls won the tiebreaker against the Miami Heat to squeak into the playoffs, finishing the year with a net rating that was barely in their favor (plus-0.1, 14th in the NBA). They were also the worst shooting team in the league (48.7 percent effective field goal percentage), relying on an abundance of midrange shots (24.5 per game, fourth most) widely known as one of the league’s most inefficient ways to score. Those midrange shots still exist in the playoffs (24 per game), but the Bulls are using the three-point line more often and have become better in their half-court sets, producing nearly a point per possession (0.995) in the playoffs compared to just 0.9 points per possession (26th in the NBA) during the regular season.

Rajon Rondo, the Bulls’ 31-year-old point guard and member of the 2008 championship Celtics, is turning back the clock, averaging a double-double (11.5 points and 10 assists per game) in the playoffs. Rondo finished Game 2 with 11 points, 14 assists, nine rebounds and five steals. Jimmy Butler scored 22 points. Dwyane Wade also had 22 points – 16 in the second half – and Robin Lopez added 18 points and eight rebounds.

And those rebounds by Chicago help to exploit Boston’s biggest weakness.

The Celtics were one of the worst rebounding teams in the league during the regular season (48.5 percent of available rebounds, fourth lowest), and that has gotten worse against the Bulls in the playoffs (43.5 percent), especially on the offensive glass, where Chicago is winning more than a third (37.8 percent) of all available rebounds.

The addition of the Al Horford was supposed to shore up this issue for the Celtics, but the team grabs a slightly higher percentage of rebounds with their 6-foot-10 center on the bench (48.9 percent) than they do with him on the court (48.3 percent). This isn’t anything new – there was a similar disparity last season when Horford was a member of the Atlanta Hawks (47 percent with him on the court vs. 48.5 percent when he was off) – mostly due to Horford’s tendency to help guard the perimeter. But it is a major cause for concern, considering how Chicago’s bigs are manhandling Horford and his teammates on the glass – Boston is now allowing 18.5 second-chance points per game in the playoffs, up from 13.9 points per game (fourth most) during the regular season.

Chicago’s defense has improved, too, slowing down Boston’s offense almost to a halt. The Bulls are limiting them to 102.7 points per 100 possessions over two games, nearly six points fewer than the Celtics’ regular-season performance (108.6, eighth in the league), mostly through hindering Isaiah Thomas’s ability to score.

The Celtics averaged 104.4 points per 100 possessions during the regular season with Thomas on the floor but just 94.1 points per possession with him on the bench, so any downturn in his performance is going to have major ripple effects on Boston’s ability to get back in this series.

Why it’s working

Lopez will take a few strides toward Thomas, who is forced to abandon the pick and roll and instead dribble the ball back to the top of the arc. Once Thomas makes the pass, Lopez quickly returns to his original man to defend the paint. In this instance it forces the new ballhandler, far away from the team’s best playmaker (Thomas), to attempt a contested shot with few ticks remaining on the shot clock.

“As much as we’ve talked about Rondo, Butler and Wade, Lopez has crushed us,” Celtics Coach Brad Stevens said.

The Bulls are also making the most of their size advantage against Thomas in transition, forcing him into a turnover on three of his eight transition opportunities.

“It’s not an ideal situation for us,” Boston forward Jae Crowder said. “You don’t put yourself down 0-2 at home. But it’s not the end of the world for us. We have the unit to go to Chicago and take Game 3. It’s not ideal, but we feel like we can bounce back.”

Game 3 is critical – teams that go up 3-0 in any NBA playoff series are 121-0 – but the Celtics have a tough road ahead. According to the win probabilities at FiveThirtyEight, Chicago has a 63-percent chance to beat Boston at home in the United Center and an 82-percent chance of moving on to the second round.

“I looked around and a few times in the game guys were putting their heads down, I think getting down on themselves,” Celtics guard Avery Bradley said after Tuesday’s loss. “But as a team, we have to stay together. The other team is looking at that. They’re using that as motivation for themselves.

“I could even hear Rondo, like, ‘Yeah, they gave up. They gave up.’ But you never can let a team see that. You have to continue to be positive and go out there and play hard, no matter what the outcome is.”