After landing a max-contract free agent, showing marked improvement to grab the one seed over the defending champions and raising expectations, the Boston Celtics are somehow back on the verge of another first-round exit in the playoffs.
Boston wasn’t just supposed to overcome the first-round roadblock this year, but be a legitimate threat to reach the Eastern Conference Finals and potentially offer the Cleveland Cavaliers at least some resistance.
Instead, the Celtics are facing a 2-0 hole to the eighth-seeded Chicago Bulls following two uninspiring losses on their home floor.
Game 1 was somewhat excusable, given the trauma Isaiah Thomas was going through in the wake of his sister’s death. But there is no more comfort to take in writing it off as an isolated disappointment following the lifeless display in Game 2, a 111-97 loss that only reiterated how real Boston’s problems in this series truly are.
And the problems are multiple, from the Bulls’ aggressive defence to Boston’s lack of rebounding.
Thomas has by no means been the cause for concern offensively, but he’s having a tough time navigating what Chicago are throwing at him. As Cleveland and Atlanta did to the Celtics the past two playoffs, the Bulls are hedging aggressively with their big man in the pick-and-roll. Thomas has been able to exploit the brief mismatch before his defender recovers for the screen at times, but when he’s held in check for a couple seconds, Chicago’s defence gets back in place.
The Bulls’ massive rotations should be ripe with opportunities for Boston to pick and choose favourable matchups, but the Celtics just don’t have the personnel to fully take advantage. It leaves Boston flinging the ball around the perimeter in search of open lanes or shots that have been few and far between, while also being squandered too often when available.
Despite fielding an efficient offence in the regular season, the Celtics’ attack has been largely neaturalised through two games. What hasn’t been a surprise though, is Boston’s lacklustre play when Thomas heads to the bench. Marcus Smart, while a good playmaker, has been dared to shoot and his shortcomings as a marksman have been magnified.
On the other end of the floor, the Celtics have had no reprieve.
Chicago have shot better than expected, such as Dwyane Wade hitting 4-of-6 from beyond the arc, while role players like Paul Zipser and Bobby Portis have stepped up as key contributors. But the Bulls are only converting at 46.9 per cent from the field and 35.3 per cent on 3-pointers, so it’s not as if they’re shooting lights out.
It only feels that way because they’re grabbing offensive rebounds at a ridiculous pace – 37.8 per cent – and coming away with points on possessions that would otherwise end with nothing.
The Celtics don’t have a deep roster of big men to rely on to keep the Bulls of the glass. Amir Johnson is capable, as is Tyler Zeller to a degree, but having either on the floor limits the floor spacing and what Boston want to accomplish on offence. Robin Lopez is eating Al Horford and Kelly Olynyk alive, meaning Brad Stevens has little to turn to.
A bad mix of lack of size, playmaking and rebounding that was always limiting the Celtics’ ceiling, but now it’s threatening to stop them dead in the tracks, keeping them from making any progress at the time of the year when it matters.