Trying to find the right rating for Brad Stevens and his Celtics

  • Chicago Bulls' Jerian Grant, right, loses the ball out of bounds as Boston Celtics' Avery Bradley defends during the second half in Game 3 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series in Chicago, Friday, April 21, 2017. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast) Charles Rex Arbogast

  • When the Celtics went with a smaller lineup to start Game 3, Al Horford was able to create plenty of open looks at the center position, but the Bulls will be looking for that in Game 4. AP

Monitor staff
Saturday, April 22, 2017

The first two games of the Boston-Chicago series reminded us that, like many outside of New England warned before the NBA playoffs began, these Celtics and their No. 1 seed may be overrated. Dropping two games at home to a team that went 41-41 in the regular season will do that. Yet Friday’s Game 3, a 104-87 Boston win, reminded us not to let our opinions of Coach Brad Stevens and Co. sway too far in the negative direction, either.

As a whole, the opening three games leave one thing certain - Sunday’s Game 4 is appointment viewing (6:30 p.m., TNT). These Celtics are nothing if not compelling.

Any analysis on this series has to come with an asterisk - it seems nearly impossible, and perhaps unsightly, to judge how the death of Isaiah Thomas’s younger sister, Chyna, truly impacted Thomas the basketball player and his team. Maybe without that tragedy hanging over them the the Celtics win Game 1. Maybe that win carries into Game 2. Maybe all the doubters and upset hunters look elsewhere for prey.

Of course that’s not what happened. The Bulls made all the big plays down the stretch to win Game 1, 106-102. And then, in a game the Celtics should have been starving to take, Chicago bullied it’s way to a 111-97 win in Game 2.

After the embarrassing Game 2 loss, Stevens was 2-10 in the playoffs. Yes, Boston’s record had improved every year Stevens has been in town (25-57 in his first season (2013-14), to 40-42, 48-34 and 53-29) but what good is regular season success if you can’t win when it really matters?

The first four of those playoff losses came in 2015 when Boston was swept out of the first round by top-seeded Cleveland. That’s understandable. But what about last year, when the Celtics were dumped in six games by an underwhelming Atlanta team? That postseason left a sour taste that was, unfortunately, reintroduced to Celtics fans in this Chicago series.

These Celtics don’t seem to have that extra playoff gear, which is a testament to how hard they play in the regular season, but it makes postseason wins hard to find. And in the end, that’s the point in this league.

Ideally, Stevens would push his team into that higher gear during the playoffs when he has time to really dissect his opponent. Instead, it feels like Boston is the team getting exposed.

The Bulls have taken advantage of a weakness that has been glaring all season for the Celtics - rebounding. Chicago’s 148-111 rebounding advantage is primarily a personnel issue, but it took Stevens too long to work around those personnel deficiencies with moves like giving Tyler Zeller more minutes or going in the other direction with a small lineup (more on that in a minute).

What’s more disturbing is how disruptive Rajon Rondo was in Game 2. Chicago’s point guard seemed to know what the Celtics were going to do on offense before they did. Not only was it predictable, Stevens never adjusted his offense during the game.

Now let’s get to Game 3. When Stevens first announced he was inserting Gerald Greene into the starting lineup it felt like fake news. Greene didn’t play in Game 2 but he was going to start in Game 3? The move turned out to be brilliant.

The Celtics jumped out to a 14-4 lead. Their offensive pace was better. Their defensive rotations were faster. The move pushed Al Horford to the center spot, which led to him rolling to the hoop more and getting easy looks, something the Celtics desperately needed. Thomas didn’t shoot a free throw for just the third time all season and scored 16 points, but it didn’t matter because the other Celtics picked up the slack for the first time in the series.

It’s hard to know much of the Celtics’ improvement was due to Stevens’s move and how much was due to Rondo being out with a fractured thumb. We may get to know if Rondo returns for a potential Game 6 or 7. Still, it was a smart and bold move by Stevens.

And make no mistake, Danny Ainge made a smart and bold move to hire Stevens away from Butler. The 40-year-old coach has exceeded expectations, has obvious talent and the Celtics would be wise to grow with him. But, since 3-10 is still a fairly ugly at 3-10, it would also be wise not to overrate Stevens…and the same goes for his players.

Thomas has been excellent, especially given the circumstances. But after that, the Boston roster, like its coach, feels a little exposed. Jae Crowder was better in Game 3, but that’s only because he set the bar so low in the first two games by going 3-for-11 from 3-point land and doing little to slow Jimmy Butler, exactly the kind of player he’s built to defend. It was a bad combo for someone Crowder, who is supposed to be a prototype of the modern NBA “3-and-D” wingman.

Marcus Smart’s inability to shoot straight was definitely exposed (Chicago simply stopped guarding him on the perimeter). Same for Jaylen Brown’s dangerously inconsistent offense (two brutal fourth-quarter turnovers in Game 2), Kelly Olynyk’s soft interior game (3.0 rebounds per game in a series when you need rebounding is not okay from a 7-footer like Olynyk) and Amir Johnson’s creaking knees (six total rebounds in the first two games).

Game 3 was a step forward for these growing Celtics and their coach, but they don’t have time to steady themselves before they’ll be asked to take the next step. The Bulls will surely adjust to Boston’s small-ball lineup in Game 4, can Stevens counter in time? The Chicago players will likely find a little extra fuel after losing at home on Friday, can the Celtics match the extra-gear intensity?

Who knows, but it will be worth tuning in to find out.

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3341 or at tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)