Whichever way you look at it, the Celtics shouldn’t be in this position against the Bulls. From a historical standpoint, only one other No. 1 seed has lost the opening two games of a series to the No. 8 seed. That team went on to win, although it was a best-of-five series back then. Based on what we saw throughout the season with the Celtics winning 53 games and the Bulls needing a victory on the final day of the regular season to make the playoffs, they shouldn’t be the worse team through two games. Tied at 1-1? Maybe. Down 0-2? Not a chance.
And yet, here the Celtics are facing a must-win situation on Friday to avoid going into a hole no team has ever climbed out of. To understand how they’ve gotten to this point and how they can get a much-needed win on the road, let’s take a look at four reasons why the Bulls got the better of the Celtics in Game 1 and Game 2.
The Celtics can’t keep the Bulls off the glass
Defensive rebounding has been a problem for the Celtics in the opening two games of the series. To put their struggles on that end of the floor into perspective, the Bulls pulled down nearly as many offensive rebounds (20) in Game 1 as the Celtics pulled down defensive rebounds (24). It helped them score 23 second chance points, which made up 21.7 percent of their scoring on the night. It was a similar case in Game 2 with the Celtics recording 12 offensive rebounds — 10 coming in the first half — to score 14 second chance points.
None of this should come as a huge surprise to anyone who followed the Celtics this season seeing as they ranked 27th in the league in defensive rebounding rate and 24th in offensive rebounding rate. However, even for a team that has a tendency to give up a high volume of offensive rebounds, there’s no excuse for them to fall asleep after a missed shot by not putting bodies on offensive players to prevent them from sneaking in for uncontested putbacks.
Just keep an eye on Isaiah Thomas in the following video. He switches onto Jimmy Butler and lets him saunter into the paint for a putback once Dwyane Wade gets to the basket. With Kelly Olynyk being the only big in the key, there’s nobody in position to box Butler out in time.
The same goes for this possession from Game 1:
As well as this one...
...and this one from Game 2:
The Bulls are going to get offensive rebounds. Although they weren’t as dominant without Taj Gibson on the roster, they finished the season fourth in offensive rebounding rate, and Robin Lopez was one of the league leaders in putbacks. They made up for 18.9 percent of his offense in total. The Bulls also know it’s one of the Celtics’ biggest weaknesses, and they will continue to attack the offensive glass until it stops working. Even so, some of the Celtics' issues come down to little things they can control like effort. After they allowed only one offensive rebound in the second half of Game 2, that should give them some confidence heading into Game 3.
Butler is getting help from his teammates
In case it wasn’t already clear, Butler is putting his reputation as one of the best two-way players in the NBA on full display. He scored 30 points on 9-for-20 shooting in Game 1 and followed it up with 22 points, eight rebounds and eight assists on 8-for-19 shooting in Game 2. He scored 15 of his points in the fourth quarter in that close Game 1 victory with six free throws and several tough jump shots down the stretch, which is the type of performance you’d expect to see from a team’s star player in the playoffs.
Butler has been just as good on the other end of the floor, too. Thomas scored a game-high 33 points in Game 1, but Butler slowed him down in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter when he switched onto him as the primary defender. He had one block on Thomas in particular that ended up being the biggest stop of the night for the Bulls. The Bulls also put Butler on Al Horford on a few possessions in Game 2 to prevent a less capable defender from switching onto Thomas, similar to how the Cavaliers dealt with Stephen Curry in the NBA Finals.
Thomas and Butler are clearly the two best players in this series, and they’ve proven why they are All-NBA talents this season. What’s given the Bulls the edge through two games is other players on the roster have stepped up. Bobby Portis gave them a huge lift in Game 1 with 19 points off the bench on 8-for-10 shooting. In Game 2, Rajon Rondo put on a vintage performance with 11 points, 14 assists and nine rebounds while Wade chipped in with three 3-pointers en route to 22 points and Lopez scored 18 points on 11 shot attempts, many of which came from midrange. Then there was Paul Zipser, who was the hero off the bench in Game 2 with 16 points in 28 minutes.
Thomas hasn’t had anywhere near the same contributions from his teammates yet, which brings us to the next point.
The Bulls are forcing other players to beat them
Knowing everything runs through Thomas, the Bulls are showing him the respect he deserves when he has the ball in his hands. Every time Thomas comes off a pick-and-roll, for example, he’s met by Lopez far beyond the perimeter in an effort to take away the pull-up 3-pointers he made at a 36.7 percent clip during the regular season. Swarming him in that way also encourages him to give the ball up earlier than he’s used to and forces other players to become playmakers. That can lead to careless turnovers...
…and rushed shot attempts.
The Bulls haven’t been shy about leaving certain players wide open on the 3-point line, either, Marcus Smart being the obvious culprit. Smart converted only 28.4 percent of his 3-point attempts during the regular season and struggles to make midrange pull-ups consistently.
With two players guarding Thomas in the pick-and-roll, it allows Smart’s defender to roam around like a free safety when he’s on the court. It doesn’t mean Smart is unplayable for the Celtics — he’s an excellent defender who contributes in a number of areas — but the Bulls will live with him taking open 3-pointers if it means Thomas isn’t getting into the paint.
When Thomas gives up the ball, the Bulls work hard to stop him from getting the ball back. Just watch how Rondo face guards him for this entire possession. Once again, if it’s someone other than Thomas making the plays for the Celtics, they’ll likely live with the result.
Here’s another good example. Olynyk makes the 3-pointer over Bobby Portis on the closeout, but he hesitates before he shoots. In the regular season, the Celtics are used to players like Michael Carter-Williams leaving Thomas to rotate onto the 3-point shooter on the pop. In the playoffs, Carter-Williams knows better than to leave one of the best spot-up shooters in the NBA open to guard someone who shots 27.3 percent on open 3-pointers.
That’s why the Celtics need Horford to be more aggressive. Even though the odds of him averaging 20 points per game for the remainder of the series are slim — he’s never been a big-time scorer — he’s the second-best shot creator on the team. If he looks for his own shot more and forces the Bulls to rotate more aggressively than they have been through two games, his ability to find open teammates as a big man will pack a bigger punch.
The Bulls have veterans who have been here before
As cliche as it might sound, it helps having players who have had a taste of the playoffs before and know what it takes to win. Wade talked about it following Game 2 when he said he hated playing against Rondo in the playoffs — out of respect as a competitor, he added — when he was a member of the Heat because Rondo “knew all the plays.” As a result, he’s capable of messing up a team’s first and second option by being in the right place at the right time.
There are several examples of how that’s helped the Bulls in the opening two games of this series. As SB Nation’s Mike Prada pointed out, the Bulls were on a string in Game 1 when the Celtics went to the loop play they use often to get Thomas open looks in fourth quarters.
And as The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor noted, Rondo recorded a number of deflections and steals in Game 1 and Game 2 by being a step ahead of the offense on some of their basic sets.
Then there were the big shots Wade hit down the stretch in Game 2 to keep some distance between the Bulls and Celtics. Their success obviously starts with Butler — a star in his prime who can manufacture his shot on almost any possession — but it helps having a couple of players who can make something happen if the defense loads up on him or he simply doesn’t have it going. The Celtics lack those players, which is why everything runs through Thomas. If he’s not scoring 28.9 points and dishing out 5.9 assists, it’s going to be tough for them to compete in the playoffs.