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.

Zach LaVine is “tired of people talking sh*t about my defense” and working towards becoming an NBA All-Star

Zach LaVine is “tired of people talking sh*t about my defense” and working towards becoming an NBA All-Star

Zach LaVine is fed up with being underestimated and he’s going to do something about it. The Bulls guard has been having a strong pre-season so far but is looking to improve his skills as a two-way player.

“I’m just tired of people talking shit about my defense,” LaVine said. “I’ve always been a good on-ball defender. But there’s no reason I can be this good offensively and not be that on the defensive end.”

“I’m taking more pride in it,” he continued. “I’m pretty sure it’ll show. I’ll make sure of that.”

If you think LaVine sounds confident, he has good reason to be. Last season LaVine was one of only ten players to average at least 23 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 4.5 assists, making him stand out as an elite player in the company of MVPs and All-Stars. LaVine’s personal triumphs, however, were overshadowed by the Bulls abysmal 22-60 record last season.

So far, this preseason LaVine has been looking better on defense, averaging 1.3 steals per game through three preseason games. Any improvements on defense will greatly help LaVine’s All-Star case.

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3 takeaways from the Bulls' win over a limited Raptors squad in Toronto

3 takeaways from the Bulls' win over a limited Raptors squad in Toronto

The Bulls recorded their first win of the preseason with Sunday night’s 105-91 win over the Raptors. Here are three takeaways:

We got a peek at Jim Boylen's regular-season rotation

We had a clue that Boylen was going to go with Tomas Satoransky as his starter after he chose to sit him with the starters in the Bulls third preseason game against the Indiana Pacers. Sunday confirmed this idea. Boylen stated before the game that he would be starting to roll out his regular season rotations, and we saw "Sato" start next to the regular Bulls starting group of Zach LaVine, Otto Porter Jr., Lauri Markkanen and the returning Wendell Carter Jr.

On top of seeing the starting group, we got to see Thaddeus Young in his probable role as the sixth man, coming in for Carter to provide the Bulls with more of a small look where Markkanen acts as the center.

Markkanen was particularly effective on the glass against the smaller Raptors frontline sans Marc Gasol and Pascal Siakam. Lauri collected a double-double, finishing with 15 points and 13 rebounds, including four offensive rebounds. 

Giving an even greater effort on the glass will push Markkanen closer to All-Star status and it is not out of the question as we have seen him raise his rebounding average every season. Games like Sunday night's show that all of the muscle Markkanen added this offseason is going to pay dividends in the 2019-20 NBA regular season and beyond, which will allow the Bulls to play smaller more often to get dynamic scorers like Coby White on the floor.

White came in as a substitute for Porter, giving the Bulls another small-ball lineup in which LaVine acts as the small forward next to him and Satoransky.

Satoransky was great, finishing with 12 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 turnovers in 21 minutes. Sato pushed the pace but also could sense the right time to pull the ball back out and run a play in the halfcourt.

In general, the Bulls trotted out more three-guard lineups in this game, and the size of big guards like Satoransky and Kris Dunn help the Bulls blur the lines between wing and guard, mitigating some of the risks involved with not having a traditional wing on the floor.

On the flip side, the perimeter skills of a big man like Young allow the Bulls to play bigger lineups in which Young plays small forward next to two big men. In Sunday night's win over the Raptors, Young finished the game second on the Bulls in rebounds (7) and assists (3), while being in the right spot more times than not on D. 

With stretch-five Luke Kornet (2-of-7 from 3-point line vs Raptors), the gritty, playmaking Ryan Arcidiacono (3 assists, no turnovers), and rookie Daniel Gafford rounding out the rest of the new Bulls' Bench Mob," Boylen will have the ability to play many different ways, affording us a fair chance to see what he is made of as an NBA head coach. He is already passing his first test of showing that he is open to change, with the Bulls shooting 49 3-pointers on Sunday night, keeping their promise of being more aggressive from deep.

The Zach LaVine All-Star push starts now 

Overall, Zach LaVine has not been shy about already being at an All-Star level of play, you just have to ask him.

LaVine came into Sunday night's game sixth in the league in preseason scoring, averaging 22.0 points per game through two contests, and he kept up that scoring onslaught in a big way. He finished Sunday's win over the Raptors with 26 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals in just 24 minutes of action. He finished the night with four turnovers as well, and while you would like to see the assist-to-turnover ratio improve, high turnover totals are just the name of the game for high-usage stars.

Besides, Boylen and Co. likely would rather see LaVine collect some turnovers trying to make the extra pass—something the Bulls have committed to hard this preseason—rather than trying to iso and make a play for himself.

Notably, the LaVine-Markkanen pick-and-roll that figures to be a staple of the Bulls offense for a long time again made an appearance in this game, looking crisp at moments as defenses struggle with scrambling to Markkanen at the 3-point line or worrying more about LaVine's oftentimes dominant drives to the rim.

While it is encouraging to see LaVine score effortlessly, that is not a new development for Bulls fans. The true mark of improvement for LaVine will be his defense and playmaking, both of which looked good on Sunday night.

LaVine racked up two steals and showed an improved awareness and aggressiveness when prowling the passing lanes. What makes defense so huge for LaVine, besides the fact that his effort-level sets the tone for the team, is that he so often turns opponent turnovers into points in transition for Chicago.

The Bulls had 14 fastbreak points and 17 points off of turnovers in their win over the Raptors, with LaVine's efforts playing a large hand in the win. 

Coby White continues to score in bunches 

It has been stated many times how Coby White was more of a shooting guard in high school and only transitioned into being more a lead guard at North Carolina. And those natural scoring instincts have shown up time and time again in the NBA preseason, especially in transition. 

If you get White going towards the rim with a head of steam in transition, he will make it to the basket before the 24-second shot clock hits the 19-second mark, a remarkable display of his blazing speed.

Of course, everything is to be taken with a grain of salt in the NBA preseason, as we are often seeing White (and others) face off against a team's backups or even worse, players that won't even make an NBA roster. But what White has done well should play in the regular season, too. He scored 18 points on 37.5% shooting from the field, including hitting 4 of his 12 attempts from 3-point range. White was 2-2 from the free throw line and finished with one assist and no turnovers. 

It looks like it will be a while before we see Coby White look like an NBA-level floor general but he is already playing like an uber-confident, spark plug shooting guard.

The Bulls can utilize White's scoring in the regular season knowing that even if his court vision isn't where they want it to be, his shoot-first mentality and propensity to keep the ball moving should result in lower turnover totals than your usual score-first point guard.