The Boston Celtics’ fantastic regular season where they finished top of the conference over the likes of other top contenders like the Toronto Raptors and the Cleveland Cavaliers was on the verge of being ruined just two games into the postseason.
In Games 1 and 2 against the 8-seed Chicago Bulls, Boston found themselves out dueled at home by playoff veterans like Rajon Rondo, Jimmy Butler and Dwayne Wade in two emotional losses for the Celtics after the death of Isaiah Thomas’ sister one day before the series started.
In Game 2, Boston was just outplayed in every dimension; but mostly rebounding and scoring in the paint. The Celtics were outscored 32 to 20 in the paint in the second half of the game. They were also outrebounded by the Bulls 43 to 38 in the game. Rajon Rondo tore them up and looked like vintage Rondo playing in the TD Garden from 2008 to 2014. Two losses at home made it look like they were giving up their season, but a lineup change, injuries and a motivational speech from Kevin Garnett helped the Celtics overcome the deficit to tie the series at two games each. Here’s how they did it:
The Injury to Rajon Rondo:
Through two games, Rajon Rondo was the x-factor in this series. He was a rebound away from a triple double in Game 2, in a game that included 14 assists as well. Rondo was having his way with the Celtics’ defense, especially when the likes of Isaiah Thomas was guarding him. He’s far too big and physical for the smaller Thomas, who tends to struggle in one on one defense. The Bulls PG had the highest plus/minus in the game at +24, even after he broke his thumb in the second half of Game 2.
Rondo’s absence has given the Celtics new life in this series. It offers their offense, namely Isaiah Thomas and backup point guard Terry Rozier, an easier matchup at the point guard position against guys like Isaiah Canaan, who will be getting his first career playoff start on Wednesday, and Jerian Grant.
This also allows Thomas and Rozier to have more opportunity to be playmakers and create offense for other players like Al Horford and surprising Gerald Green. This resulted in a scoring increase of 4.5 ppg while scoring 104 ppg in Chicago opposed to the 99.5 ppg in Boston.
Offensively, Rajon Rondo was killing the Celtics, with 11.5 ppg, 8.5 rpg, and 10 apg through two games, playing like the former all-star he was when he played with the Celtics. The two other point guards for the Chicago Bulls, Jerian Grant and Michael Carter-Williams, have combined to be 6 of 28 from the field in the series and been responsible for nine turnovers in just the last two games since Rondo got hurt. His injury may have been the turning point in the series.
Brad Stevens decided there was no use in fighting the fact that the Celtics were going to be outrebounded, so he decided to go small in Game 3 by starting Gerald Green over Amir Johnson. This was Green’s first start in a Celtics uniform in 10 years. He has averaged 13 ppg and 4 rpg over the last two wins and been the spark the Celtics needed with energetic defense and reliable three-point shooting.
Amir Johnson has also seen significantly less time in Games 3 and 4, with just six minutes in Game 3 and a DNP in Game 4. Johnson’s being replaced by Al Horford at the 5, mainly because he’s getting dominated in the paint and Horford can shoot as well as spread the floor, with the ability to drive to the basket, all of which Johnson can’t do. Robin Lopez had his way with Johnson in the first two games.
Not to say Horford isn’t getting dominated in the paint as well, but he just offers more than Johnson in terms of other playmaking on offense. It’s also allowing the Celtics to attack using several small-ball lineups including players like Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier and Gerald Green, all of whom saw 20 or more minutes in Game 3.
If the Celtics can manage to continue playing this way while Rondo is out, and Thomas continues to play motivated basketball, they may just be able to overcome a 2-0 deficit. This is the Bulls though, that’s the thing. Next round if they give up a 2-0 lead to the Hawks or Wizards, there’s no chance they’re coming back against to better teams in comparison to Chicago. For this round anyway, it looks like the outlook is significantly brighter than it was just a week ago when the Celtics saw themselves down 2-0 to the 8-seeded Bulls.
Final Note: Kevin Garnett apparently left Isaiah Thomas a voicemail before Game 3 to play for the team, and this is what Avery Bradley had to say about it after the 104-87 victory in Chicago, “Isaiah played a clip from KG before the game, and it kind of got us going a little bit. KG said some inspirational words for us, and it reminded us that, you know, Celtics, we’re always supposed to be the hardest-playing team, every single night. We’re supposed to use Isaiah’s family-use that as inspiration, to come out and play hard for him and his family. And that’s what we did tonight.” So it was nice for the team to get some advice from a former Celtics legend after falling into a 2-0 hole.