Breaking Down how the Celtics are Beating the Bulls with Small Ball

Boston's spread offense has been a nightmare for Chicago to to defend. I picked two plays to highlight why it works so well.

Take a time machine back to the summer of 2007. Tell yourself that Gerald Green gets traded for Kevin Garnett. Then, attempt to explain that Green lasts two more seasons in the NBA and then disappears to Russia. Garnett will retire in 2017 as a Timberwolf, and Green comes back to Boston in the same summer after bouncing around the league.

Gerald Green’s playoff career high of 18 helped Boston even up the in Chicago, as a part of what I consider a brilliant move by coach Brad Stevens to add him to the starting lineup in the last two games. While the Celtics’ collective inability to fight for rebounds was exposed by Robin Lopez in Boston, coach Stevens could have started one of Jonas Jerebko, Kelly Olynyk, or Tyler Zeller and prayed to the basketball gods that one of them magically became Bill Russell overnight, or he could go full small-ball and unleash hell from behind the arc. It turns out the latter is the better option if you recall Jonas Jerebko’s starting stint against the Hawks in last year’s playoffs. Different circumstances, but notably different results.

Everything beneficial about Gerald Green’s addition to the starting lineup can be summarized in the following clip:

The Celtics starting the play with all five players outside the arc, all of which are capable of knocking down a catch-and-shoot three. When Thomas drives, four Bulls surround him while the young Isaiah Canaan is still gathering himself after getting picked by Al Horford, leaving Green wide open in the corner with Bradley equally open above the break.

Now, I realize Green’s corner shot missed. Let’s talk about what happened afterward.

- Jimmy Butler is out of bounds after over-committing to defend the shot. Boston’s spread offense puts a lot of pressure on the defense to make smart decisions on a drive (which they didn’t by committing four defenders to one player) and also be prepared to defend a kick out (which they weren’t, as their best defender in Butler overextended on a shot he had no chance to really contest).

- Robin Lopez boxes out nobody

- Niko Mirotic stands behind Isaiah Thomas and watches the shot

- Dwyane Wade stands next to Isaiah Thomas and watches the shot

- Isaiah Canaan actually runs towards the ball! Except Green is already dunking it by the time he gets anywhere close

- Isaiah Thomas, who inexplicably has the inside position on Mirotic, removes himself from the play once Green catches his own miss

- Dwyane Wade contests the dunk while Lopez and Mirotic don’t even react to Green’s take off until the last second.

Not only does this clip show why Green’s quickness and athleticism can be helpful, it also highlights why the Bulls are so much worse without Rajon Rondo. As the play develops, Canaan runs directly into a Horford screen and falls over, and I guarantee you Rondo wouldn’t have been caught so off guard like that. This forces Butler to over-commit to an outside shot after the Bulls were all caught collapsing to cover Thomas. Had Butler stayed in bounds and in front of Green, the ball would have bounced right to him.

For another look at how exploitable Chicago’s defense is, here’s another high Al Horford screen that allows Isaiah to get to work:

Once again, Boston starts a play with five players outside the three point line. Both Horford and Crowder set pseudo-screens up high, and note how Mirotic and Carter-Williams commit to fighting over screens that never really happen. While they jump out to pick up Isaiah, Mirotic basically sets another pick on his own teammate, allowing Thomas to get to the middle of the floor, where Lopez steps up to stop the drive. Also note how Lopez’s eye are glued to Isaiah for the entire play, while Horford slips right behind him for an uncontested dunk. Just by motioning to set picks for Thomas, the Celtics cause Chicago to commit three players to defending Thomas before he ever gets to the free throw line, allowing for a lot of open floor space to find open cutters.

Although Boston let big leads slide away in consecutive games, it’s Chicago’s lazy and disorganized defense that has allowed Boston to build those leads in the first place. Fred Hoiberg’s latest adjustment is to add Isaiah Canaan to the starting lineup in game five after Canaan knocked down three non-garbage time jumpers in game four, and I have my doubts that Canaan will patch up the Chicago’s weaknesses - ball distribution and defending Isaiah Thomas. The Celtics have home court advantage again, as well as a smiling point guard and a new secret weapon. I have to say, I like their chances.

Like what you've read? Share it with your friends on      or  

2019 NBA Draft Prospects

Meet the top 30 prospects of the 2019 NBA Draft.

The NBA Collection

NBA themed T-Shirts that are actually worth wearing.


Podcasts from the Hashtag Basketball Podcast Network, covering NBA and fantasy basketball.

Fantasy Basketball

Expert fantasy basketball analysis, podcasts, injury updates, and 19 free fantasy basketball tools to help you dominate your league this season.

NBA Coverage

Full coverage of all 30 NBA teams.