In Game 1, the Celtics made a slew of mistakes against the Chicago Bulls and there was an argument they were still the better team. After Tuesday’s Game 2 meltdown in which the Celtics basically relented midway through the fourth quarter out of frustration and lack of defensive stops, it’s apparent who the better team is.
The Bulls dominated this matchup, 111-97, Tuesday night, answering every Celtics’ run with a better one. The Bulls are getting clutch play from their complementary players such as Robin Lopez (the MVP of the series so far) and a guy named Paul Zipser, a rookie second-round pick from Germany.
Meanwhile, Brad Stevens was searching deep into his bench for a spark, but his team’s weaknesses are being exposed and he is being outcoached by Fred Hoiberg.
The No. 1 seeded Celtics are the first team to lose both opening home games to a No. 8 seed since the first-round series expanded to a best of seven, so what they’ve done is pretty difficult to do. On Tuesday, the starting lineup got whipped.
This was simply Chicago’s night. A team that has spent the season struggling on offense delivered significant shots as the Celtics repeatedly closed their deficit. After Chicago’s lead was cut to 62-60, Jimmy Butler responded with a 3-point play and Nikola Mirotic canned a 3-pointer.
When the Celtics responded again, the Bulls went on a 9-0 run that essentially sealed the game, and the Celtics resembled Jack Johnson in the blazing Havana sun against Jess Willard in 1915, eventually succumbing to the heat and the pressure.
The Celtics have long been accused of being a one-man team with their success based solely on the production of Isaiah Thomas. And they are proving that to be true in this series. Thomas was visibly shaken, understandably, three days after his sister’s shocking death, missing six free throws and committing five turnovers.
But when he needed help, there was no one to respond. Avery Bradley missed 10 of 15 shots and six 3-pointers. Jae Crowder scored 16 points in 35 minutes but lacked impact. Al Horford, signed to a maximum contract for moments such as these, finished with 7 points in 32 minutes, again losing his battle to workmanlike big man Lopez.
It’s been flat-out demoralizing. The Celtics, around NBA circles, will essentially be considered frauds unless they make a dramatic comeback. Eventually the eighth seed has to play like the eighth seed, right?
The Celtics can only hope that occurs in Chicago.
The only positive from this game is that now the pressure shifts to the Bulls finishing off this series. They have turned themselves into the favorites and the Celtics will hear for the next 48 hours about their shortcomings. So perhaps the Celtics can play a little looser, understanding that they aren’t expected to win this series.
What is bizarre is the Celtics weren’t beaten by second-chance points (14-12) and scored more points in the paint. The Bulls finished the season shooting 38.5 percent of their midrange shots this season. On Tuesday, they were 13 for 26, including eight midrange jumpers combined from Lopez and Zipser.
The Celtics are being pelted by the Bulls’ complementary players and that is the difference in the series.
The Celtics are shell-shocked and embarrassed, but they still have five chances to win four games. And it will be up to Stevens, now 2-10 in the postseason, to generate a game plan and some confidence in his players.
“We have to get ready to play Friday; that’s what our focus has to be; we don’t have any other choice,” Stevens said. “And that’s what we said in the locker room. We’ll figure out what we didn’t do well and there’ll be quite a lot. But the Zipsers, Mirotic, [Bobby] Portis — those guys have had huge impacts on the first two games of this series.
“I mean, I’d expect it from [Dwyane] Wade, right? I think we all do. And this is who [Rajon] Rondo’s been throughout his career. And Butler is Butler, but those other guys are impacting the series in a big way.”
The problem is the Celtics “other guys” haven’t responded. They are relying solely on Thomas’s usual heroics, but in the playoffs, 20-point fourth quarters are rare. This is when the deepest teams usually win, and the Celtics are proving to be thin and fragile.
It hasn’t been Stevens’s best moment. He is scrambling for productive lineups and actually got some good minutes from Terry Rozier, who looked fiery defensively against Rondo. But it wasn’t enough, not when Wade’s scoring 16 points in the second half and Lopez drains three midrange jumpers in the third quarter and even Michael Carter-Williams banks in a straightaway jumper.
It was a helpless feeling for Stevens. The Celtics are a beautiful team to watch when they move the ball and shoot threes well, but they are doing neither. The Celtics led 7-0 and then lost all control of the game.
So how do they get back some respect? They have to play as if they have no pressure. They have to actually get early contributions from Horford (he’s taken just 21 shots in the two games) and they need “other guys” to make plays, treat Game 3 as if they are the underdogs (which they are), and try to gain back a semblance of respect.
The Celtics have been exposed, but the question is whether they have enough guile and belief in themselves to restore some pride. Because pride is really what it’s all about right now.