Some great play from Chicago and bad moves from Danny Ainge have put the Bulls up 2-0 in the first round.
Robin Lopez: Destroyer of Worlds
Controlling the glass is a key to winning games and Robin Lopez has been a one-man wrecking crew. During the regular season, Lopez was a key reason the Bulls ranked third in rebounds per game and first in offensive rebounds per game, giving a team that could not hit threes more chances to put the ball in the basket. Out of players who averaged at least 25mpg, Lopez ranked 12th in offensive rebound percentage followed by Taj Gibson at 22nd overall. The loss of Taj Gibson was supposed to diminish Chicago’s advantage on the glass, but the Celtics have had no real answer for Lopez. Al Horford and Amir Johnson have not been able to muster much against Lopez. The larger Kelly Olynyk and Tyler Zeller have been better matchups for Lopez, but lack the offensive ability to be a net positive over their counterparts. The constant double-teaming of Jimmy Butler has let Lopez get fantastic position for offensive rebounds and easy put backs. This also allows Chicago's guards to make runs at offensive boards as well. Brad Stevens has the skill to figure out the answer, but the perfect puzzle piece might not exist on his roster.
Jimmy Butler: Mayor of Boston
The best part of this 2-0 lead is that we have not got a full “Jimmy Butler is your Father” game. Jimmy has taken the game over for important stretches, facilitated the offense, and has made the correct decisions when drawing double teams. He is often the best player on the floor, which usually means wins in the playoffs. Yet, we have not seen an “oh yeah, Jimmy’s a Top 10 NBA talent” game. His defense has been excellent in containing Isaiah Thomas both on the help side and when he matches directly up with the undersized guard. Jimmy’s size and defensive intelligence is a huge mismatch for Thomas.
Rajon Rondo’s Effort
National TV-Rondo, Revenge-Rondo, TNT-Rondo; call it what you want but when Rondo is dialed in he still has the talent to be one of the best players on the floor. He has controlled the pace of the games and at times truly orchestrated the offense. He’s limited his turnovers and is actually correctly gambling for steals. The most impressive aspect of these last two games has been his defensive engagement. Guarding Isaiah Thomas is an impossible task, but Rondo has been at least adequate. His length has bothered Thomas, and the lack of bad steal attempts or taking plays off has really made a difference for his impact on the floor. If the Bulls can keep Rondo engaged, they will continue to play like a much-improved team.
Chicago’s Role Players
Fred Hoiberg is still messing with his rotations, but not as drastic as he did during the regular season. His philosophy to go with the hot hand just happens to be working over this two-game stretch. We’ve seen multiple role players step up at key points in the game. Bobby Portis had an incredible Game 1 when Niko was struggling. When Portis struggled in Game 2, Paul Zipser stepped up and Niko found his shot. Niko has also been solid with guarding Al Horford, negating his pick and pop ability against the slower Lopez. Hoiberg has accidently started running Dwyane Wade with the young second team; a lineup that worked really well in limited minutes during the regular season. It is also a solution to the Three Alpha’s horrible advanced stats when playing together (which Hoiberg still does), and provides a steady veteran presence against weaker lineups. These little bursts of output from the supporting cast have been missing during the regular season run, due to random playing time, inconsistent rotations, and miserable coaching. In the playoffs, these extra contributions have been the X-factor the Bulls have needed.
The Celtics didn’t make any moves before the Trade Deadline
Danny Ainge had plenty of large and small assets to work with before the trade deadline. Brad Stevens and others in the Celtics organization openly acknowledged that this team was not as good as their record led people to believe. There was a multitude of players up for grabs on the cheap as well. If the Celtics wanted to make a run at the weak East Conference in the short term Paul George, Boogie Cousins, and Jimmy Butler (currently the best player in this series, haunting the city of Boston, and might drop them out of the first round) were all available. Players like Jae Crowder plus assets like Jaylen Brown and the Nets first-rounder were the price to pay to upgrade this Celtics team to a contender in the East. As we’ve seen this series, they desperately need a playmaker to help when defenses focus in on Isaiah Thomas. So maybe you can argue the price was too high for a major move. That the Nets picks are too valuable for the future of the franchise, or maybe since Ainge fleeced the Nets he expects the rest of the league to crumble during negotiations and get a huge haul for nothing on every deal?
This does not excuse the Celtics from making zero moves. They had plenty of mid-tier assets they could have given up to address their lack of rebounding, a problem that plagued this team all season. Serge Ibaka or P.J. Tucker were available without the Celtics destroying their major core assets. Both players would have improved the Celtic’s rebounding and playoff roster, but apparently, players like Terry Rozier and Jonas Jerebko were too high of a price. Instead, Ainge stayed the course and continued to hoard his assets. For some reason, the city of Boston is still fully committed to his philosophy, but that might change with two more wins in this series.