Badly in need of a Game 2 victory, the top-seeded Boston Celtics failed to rebound against the eighth-seeded Chicago Bulls on Tuesday night in every possible way. As fallible as they looked in Game 1, the optics were even worse two nights later with time to adjust to the advantages the Bulls exploited in the series opener.
Rebounding has been a weakness for the Celtics all season long -- they ranked 27th in total rebounding percentage during the regular season and Brad Stevens harped on the issue repeatedly. We knew the Bulls, who ranked fourth in both ORB% and TRB%, would present a unique challenge for the Celtics, but no one forecasted that the advantage would allow Chicago to take the first two games of the series with relative ease.
The Bulls outrebounded the Celtics 53-36 in Game 1, including a dominant 20 offensive rebounds that generated 23 second-chance points. The plan for the Celtics to mitigate those second and third opportunities heading into Game 2 was to be more physical.
“We just have to do it,” Stevens said a few hours before the tip. “At the end of the day we’re not going to win every rebound that’s a 50-50 rebound, from a size standpoint. We have to do a better job of hitting early, we have to do a better job of making sure we block out every crash, those types of things. When I say hitting early, I mean if two people come together on a rebound, we need to hit first. We actually did that a couple of times and they got the ball because of their size or their length. This is the team we struggled against the most in the regular season, and it's a big deal for us.”
The Celtics jumped out to a 7-0 lead and corralled the first four rebounds of the game, but it was mostly downhill from there. The Bulls weathered the early storm and Robin Lopez went to work against anyone Stevens threw at him. When it became obvious that the glass would be an issue once again, Stevens went small by substituting Jaylen Brown for Amir Johnson. After Brown endured a rough stretch, Stevens went to Terry Rozier. He kept Al Horford out on the floor longer than usual hoping his size would lend itself to a few rebounds. Nothing worked.
By halftime, Chicago held a 54-46 edge, a +8 rebounding advantage and had already grabbed 10 offensive rebounds (10 points). Lopez, Rajon Rondo and Nikola Mirotic combined for 21 rebounds in the first two quarters. Boston had 20 as a team.
The first half could not have gone better for the Bulls. Not only were they dominating the glass, but Rajon Rondo’s defense on Isaiah Thomas was superb and a roster that has been perceived as top-heavy built an eight-point lead despite just 15 combined points from Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade.
Stevens wisely inserted Tyler Zeller into the lineup to begin the third quarter, which helped control the defensive glass, but it became a case of too little, too late. Butler caught fire and the Bulls methodically built a bigger and bigger lead. How bad were things for the Celtics? They shot 61.9% in the third quarter and outrebounded the Bulls by four, but still lost the period 32-29.
The biggest issue morphed from second-chance points to simply holding onto the basketball. It seemed like Jae Crowder drove into the paint only to make an overpass to an unprepared teammate over and over again. With Rondo blanketing Thomas so effectively, one of the game’s most dynamic scorers was rendered almost ineffective in the second half. The Bulls turned 16 Celtics’ turnovers into 23 points.
“They aren’t a transition team, but we’ve made them a transition team with our turnovers,” Crowder said after the loss.
In the end, the rebounding battle wasn’t nearly as ugly as it could have been. Chicago held a +5 edge and grabbed just one offensive board after the second quarter. As the game wore on, the Celtics looked more and more out of sync. The 111-97 loss puts them on the wrong side of history and in need of at least one, probably two, wins on the road to avoid elimination.
“I think we’re sped up a little bit by their defense,” Stevens said. “I think their length and their ball pressure and Wade and Butler and Rondo and their bench and the bigs are just really up and active in utilizing their length on us. We’re going to have to be better spaced and we’re going to have to get the ball side-to-side in an appropriate fashion and attack from there. Hopefully we’ll be more patient on Friday.”
Patience has been the modus operandi in Boston for what seems like years. For this season's team at least, time is quickly running out.