Celtics storm Bulls in Game 3 for possible series-turning win

Celtics storm Bulls in Game 3 for possible series-turning win

One player can change a game, a playoff series, a direction of a franchise.

That player is Rajon Rondo, as his absence robbed the Bulls of their structure, their confidence and their edge. His absence gave the Boston Celtics new life, turning this surprising series on a trifle as they stormed into the United Center and took Game 3 of the first-round playoff series with a 104-87 win Friday night.

The Celtics have a chance to reset the series on Sunday evening with a win as the Bulls looked nothing like the confident outfit that stole two games in TD Garden to start the series.

The direct effect of Rondo being in a sportcoat was highlighted by Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade’s statsheet and the mere sight of Jerian Grant and Michael Carter-Williams, things that should scare even the most ardent Bulls optimist.

Butler couldn’t find decent driving lanes all game, and along with Wade, was forced to try too much one-on-one play, feeding right into the Celtics’ hands.

The two combined to shoot 13 for 39, part of a miserable, disjointed and ugly offensive performance where they shot just 38 percent and tallied only 11 assists compared to 28 in Game 2 and 22 in Game 1.

“You got a guy who's been in so many playoff series, finals, championships,” Wade said. “You can't replace that. Our guys gotta come in and be better. But we can't replace what Rondo brings. With every injury and every blow, it hurts the team in the moment and we have to move past it. We have to, with our point guards and young players on this roster, to be better.”

Butler, who goes to the line nine times a game in the regular season and averaged the same amount in the first two games, didn’t see a free throw at all due to solid defense from Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley.

“Shot a lot of jump shots,” Butler said simply. “When you do that, you don't get to the free throw line. I like my shots, I'm okay with that. I have been to the free throw line a lot this year and I think it's helped. But you gotta take what the defense gives you. I shot jumpers.”

Add to the fact Grant and Carter-Williams could barely get the ball upcourt and certainly couldn’t be counted on making simple entry passes made for an easy win for the Celtics, who were desperate for a win.

Seven of the Bulls’ 17 turnovers came from the point guards, who combined to shoot three for 10.

“We do have confidence on those other guys,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “The experience of getting that first start for Jerian, we’ll go back and watch the film on what we’re gonna do. Anytime he’s filled in that spot, he’s done a solid job for us.”

It didn’t translate and now Hoiberg has to instill some level of confidence in his point guards if he’s going to continue to play them for the remainder of the series, as they looked downright spooked in the atmosphere of the postseason—at home, no less.

“I think human nature might have a bit of that but you can’t allow that to happen,” Hoiberg said. “We have confidence in our guards, they’ve given us good play this year. We need to put in things that are simple, try to create some confidence for those players.”

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Without Rondo, they’ve missed more than stability at the position and pace and smarts; They’re without their version of a Celtics cheat code and the pendulum of confidence seems to have swung.

“I'm sure some of our young guys, being in the game without Rondo, it wasn't ideal for those guys,” Wade said. “He means so much to our team, he's been a great leader to those guys. Once the ball goes up, you gotta play.”

“We're not gonna put this all on missing Rondo because if that's the case you might as well not show up because we'll be missing him for awhile.”

The Celtics’ confidence showed in their approach to the game, as they took a 20-10 lead and stretched it to 18 before the end of the first by stretching their range, hitting seven of their 17 3-point baskets.

“Bottom line, tonight they came and threw the first punch. It took us a whole quarter to respond,” Hoiberg said.

Celtics coach Brad Stevens made a lineup change before the start, leaving Al Horford as his only true big and inserting wing Gerald Green in the first five instead of Amir Johnson. Green scored just eight but the personnel change allowed the Celtics to play faster as they spread the floor and relentlessly zigged and zagged until the Bulls said “Uncle”.

Horford was getting dominated by Robin Lopez on the glass in the first two games but rebounded in a big way, scoring 18 with eight rebounds and six assists. Even though the Bulls wound up restoring a bit of order in the second by playing Butler, Wade and Paul Zipser to create length against the Celtics guards, cutting a 20-point lead down to one only lasted for so long before the Celtics again took control in the third with a 32-22 advantage.

“We have to. We feel we have to play better defensively,” Wade said. “Offensively will take care of itself. They came out offensively and put it on us. The offense is the shiny part of it but if we do what we need to do defensively, we'll be fine.”

The Celtics didn’t turn the ball over as much as they did at home, and had balanced scoring across the board as Bradley was efficient on offense and hellish on ballhandlers, finishing with 15 points, seven assists and seven rebounds in 36 minutes.

Crowder was just six of 15 but was a plus-23 and scored 16, as every Celtic starter hit at least two triples, keeping the Bulls on their heels all night.

“It’s a totally different team,” Crowder said. “We felt like with the switching we’d really throw a curveball at him. Try to make them stagnant as possible without the primary ball handler which is Rondo, passing the ball and creating for others. We had a good game plan going into it.”

Isaiah Thomas showed his value once he wasn’t hounded by Rondo, making Wade and Butler work on the defensive end and freeing things up on the outside. He didn’t have an offensive explosion, although he drew enough attention to find Horford multiple times for duck-ins and dunks.

His nine assists to go with his 16 points displayed a smart enough floor game, but one would think he’s going to find his range sooner rather than later—which should scare the team that has to face him Sunday afternoon.

A series can turn on a trifle, and that trifle has turned.

Bulls announce substitute broadcasters for first five Neil Funk-less games


Bulls announce substitute broadcasters for first five Neil Funk-less games

If you haven't heard, Neil Funk is cutting 20 road games from his 2018-19 Bulls' play-by-play schedule.

Friday, the Bulls announced that Adam Amin, Andy Demetra and Kyle Draper will fill in for Funk for the first five of those games.

Amin, a play-by-play commentator for ESPN, will games on Oct. 22 against the Mavericks and Nov. 14 against the Celtics. He grew up in Addison, resides in Chicago and also does play-by-play for Bears preseason games.

Demetra is from Oak Brook and currently is the play-by-play broadcaster for Georgia Tech basketball and football. He will call games on Oct. 26 against the Hornets and Oct. 27 against the Hawks. He has previous play-by-play experience with the SEC Network, Pac-12 Network and Fox Sports South.

Draper will call the Bulls' Nov. 7 game against the Pelicans. He is the Celtics' pregame and postgame host for NBC Sports Boston and an occasional play-by-play annoucer and sideline reporter for the Celtics.

The Bulls said they will continue providing updates on substitute broadcasters as they are scheduled.

Pistons have the look of a playoff team in wide open East


Pistons have the look of a playoff team in wide open East

Finishing 9th in the Eastern Conference last season cost Stan Van Gundy his job as Pistons head coach and President of Basketball Operations. Van Gundy was replaced on the bench by 2017-18 Coach of the Year Dwane Casey, who was fired after the Raptors were swept by Cleveland in the conference semi-finals.

Casey’s job in Detroit is to find a way to develop the young players on the roster while getting the team to the playoffs. He has a pair of All-Star caliber players in the front court, Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond, along with highly-paid, erratic point guard Reggie Jackson.

Griffin has battled injuries in recent seasons, but Van Gundy decided to roll the dice at mid-season a year ago by trading Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley AND a 1st round pick to the Clippers for the former slam dunk champion in a desperate bid to save his job. The trade didn’t work out for Van Gundy, but it’s possible Griffin could enjoy a resurgence in Detroit this season.

The 29-year-old power forward scored 26 points, pulled down eight rebounds and dished out six assists in the Pistons’ 103-100 win over Brooklyn on Wednesday. Meanwhile, Drummond had a monster game with 24 points and 20 rebounds. As Bulls fans know all too well, Drummond has made the 20 rebound game commonplace when facing Fred Hoiberg’s squad in recent years.

As for Jackson, a severely sprained right ankle limited him to just 45 games last season, probably costing Detroit a chance to make the playoffs. The 8th year pro is lightning quick, with the ability to disrupt defenses by getting into the paint and challenging bigger defenders at the rim. Jackson scored 19 points in the season opener against Brooklyn, and he’ll be a problem for the Bulls Saturday night, especially if Kris Dunn is unavailable.

Casey is still trying to figure out how to use the rest of the roster Van Gundy built, with recent 1st round pick Henry Ellenson and former rotation player Jon Leuer getting DNP-CD’s against the Nets. Meanwhile, two other expected rotation players, small forward Stanley Johnson and swingman Reggie Bullock missed the opener because of injuries.

That left second year guard Luke Kennard and 2018 2nd round draft pick Bruce Brown as the other starters in game one, something that’s unlikely to continue once everyone’s healthy.

So, how do the Bulls even their record at 1-1 on Saturday? Here are my three keys:

1. Keep Drummond and Griffin off the offensive boards. This is much easier said than done. Drummond in particular is relentless going after missed shots, and his bulk will cause problems for 19 year old rookie Wendell Carter Jr. Hoiberg hinted at possible line-up changes on Friday morning, which could include starting veteran Robin Lopez at center to battle Drummond inside. Griffin has turned into more of a jump shooter now and doesn’t have the multiple jump capability that characterized his early seasons in the NBA, but he’s still a threat to create 2nd shot opportunities.

2. Close out on three-point shooters. Of all the defensive issues for the Bulls in Philadelphia on Thursday, losing touch with shooters in transition was probably the most troublesome. Robert Covington seemed to be open at the three-point line throughout the game, and Bulls players struggled to handle cross-match situations. Kennard had one of the best games of his rookie season against the Bulls, and Jackson, Ish Smith and Langston Galloway are all capable of heating up from long distance.

3. Attack Detroit’s interior defense. The Bulls were at their best offensively in the first quarter against Philadelphia when they drove to the basket to set up easy scoring chances. Zach LaVine was getting to the rim at will in scoring 15 of his 30 points in the opening 12 minutes, and his penetration also set up Bobby Portis for open looks from the three-point line. Hopefully, Dunn will return to stabilize the point guard position and give the Bulls' first unit another shot creator so they can sustain their pace and scoring potential over four quarters.

Saturday’s home opener is definitely winnable against a Detroit team still finding its way under a new coaching staff. Better effort and attention to detail on the defensive end along with a fast-paced, drive and kick offensive attack should make for an exciting opening night at the United Center.

Make sure to join Kendall Gill, Will Perdue, Kelly Crull and me for a special one hour edition of Bulls Pre-Game Live at 6 p.m. on NBC Sports Chicago and the new My Teams app, followed by the play by play call with Neil Funk and Stacey King at 7 p.m. And, stay tuned after the final buzzer for reaction and analysis on an expanded edition of Bulls Postgame Live.