CHICAGO — Playoff teams look most like themselves when they have room to breathe. The detailed game planning that goes into a seven-game series is a natural constrictor, slowly binding down even the most reliable scoring options available. The only relief is response. It can be as subtle as a tweak in execution or, in the case of Boston’s first-round comeback against Chicago, as clearly notable as a starting lineup change.
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It took Celtics coach Brad Stevens dusting off the gently used Gerald Green—and running a smaller, rangier rotation overall—for the Celtics to even mimic the flow that typically carries their offense. “The biggest thing there is that everybody in the league knows that he can go on these runs,” Stevens said. Even then, Boston needed a shift toward more traditional pick-and-rolls to balance the offense and only caught a groove once Rajon Rondo’s disruptive defense was removed from the series by a hand injury prior to Game 3. Isaiah Thomas, when given that kind of open space, has the power to restore order.
“Not one man can guard me,” Thomas said. His performance proved it. When Michael Carter-Williams tried to pressure Thomas up high, a quick crossover gave the 5'9″ guard all the room he needed to get up to speed. When Isaiah Canaan took his turn, Thomas would set up his counterpart with dribble moves before ramming him into a hard screen. Once Chicago tried to throw multiple bodies in Thomas’ way, he’d split them with uncommon ease. The bigs that could rotate to meet Thomas at the rim became unwitting accomplices in his aerial drama, accessories to be vaulted over or around in spectacular fashion.
“We just wanted to spread the floor out,” Jae Crowder said. “Give him space, let him create. I feel like at the time, they didn’t have an answer for that. We had shooters everywhere, we had Al [Horford] rolling to the basket, so we felt like we really had rhythm offensively.”
For as strange as the past week has been for the Celtics, it has been far more harrowing and surreal for Thomas, whose own personal tragedy looms over the entire series. Do not conflate the forces at work here; victory on a basketball court is not a victory over grief. That Thomas is able to play—and to thrive—however, does bring Boston closer to the team that Thomas knew. It is a taste of normalcy at a time when that must feel impossible. “Being here is what makes me, I guess, sane,” Thomas said.
Thomas with that kind of clarity is a revelation. The most threatening runs the Bulls made in Game 4 came in his absence. Upon his return, everything clicked back into place. Boston’s play through its unequivocal dynamo made for a confident reset.
“It reminds me of what kind of team we were at the beginning of the year,” Avery Bradley said. “That's a team that continues to fight, always playing with a mentality like we're the underdogs. Playing that way is almost like we're playing with our backs against the wall.” That Boston could even feign that mentality is its own doing. A No. 1 seed is no underdog, but by dropping the first two games of this series to the uneven Bulls, the Celtics effectively made themselves one.
Yet the backwards nature of that 0-2 start disguised a fundamental truth: To win this series, Boston needed only to reveal Chicago for what it had been all season. The Bulls are a team that spirals. There isn’t enough shooting on the roster to fully space an offense, meaning that there are almost always a few more defenders in the lane than should be. Passing lanes fade away in the crowd. Any need to collapse into the paint – a core mechanism to create open shots for most NBA offenses—is alleviated by the fact that the space is already manned. The best way for the Bulls to roll downhill is to run, and the only way they can run is by getting stops and turning the ball out quickly. But their best chance to actually get stops hinges on getting back and setting up—recurring issues for a team that also needs to crash the offensive glass and doesn’t always exercise perfect discipline in its transition defense.
The all-or-nothing feel of the Bulls this season is owed in part to this feedback loop. There have been games where Jimmy Butler alone could turn the tide, as he nearly did on Sunday. But Chicago’s natural disposition is a full tilt. When they aren't furiously closing the gap, they are withering plainly.
None of this erases the flaws that made the Celtics a reasonable mark for an upset in the first place. If Boston ever commits anything but its complete attention to the defensive glass, it will hemorrhage points. Any team that can engage Thomas on defense on command (something Chicago cannot do well, thanks to its miserable grab bag of point guards) will make hay in the matchup. Boston can be stalled and it can be rattled far more than one would expect of the top seed in the conference. That all of this is true does not disrupt an underlying balance: the closer this series comes to order, the further the Celtics will separate.