Rajon Rondo’s shrieking, distinctive voice could be heard through the Advocate Center before the Bulls practiced Saturday afternoon but because his distinctive game won’t be available, Fred Hoiberg is faced with his first big playoff test as coach.
The Bulls still go into Sunday evening’s Game 4 with an opportunity to put the Celtics in a precarious position but you’d be hard-pressed to find many who believe the Bulls actually have the advantage in this series.
It's easy to forget the Bulls have a 2-1 lead, but it looked like they forgot it themselves in their 104-87 Game 3 loss Friday night.
“I feel we have a really good team,” Jimmy Butler said before practice. “I’m taking our chances over theirs. I don’t care how many games. We just have to get to four. We don’t care who counts us out. We really don’t care who wants us to win.”
With no legit point guard, Hoiberg not only has to counter Brad Stevens’ fruitful move in going small but also has to find someone credible to get the Bulls into their offense as Jerian Grant and Michael Carter-Williams took turns being overwhelmed in trying to fill Rondo’s shoes.
One has to wonder if Hoiberg will go with a big lineup on the perimeter to counter the Celtics, as the Bulls’ best stretch was in the second quarter when Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade and Paul Zipser bothered the Celtics with their size and length. He wouldn’t rule it out but in true Hoiberg fashion, wasn’t about to tip his hand.
“Yeah, we’ll look at everything. That lineup was out there on the floor even though we didn’t start that way,” Hoiberg said. “That is a lineup that will obviously play together at some point in the game, but again looking back at the course of the year and going back and watching film, when Jerian was our starter we did have some very good minutes out there.”
The advantage would be forcing Thomas to guard a much bigger player and if he winds up on Butler or Wade, it could truly compromise a Celtics defense that wreaked terror on the Bulls Friday night.
It could certainly facilitate ball movement, but not the pace Hoiberg so desires as Butler and Wade playing point means the Bulls will play a slow-down game—along with the fact that chasing Thomas around on the other end for long stretches will cause issues.
“The biggest thing we were doing yesterday was taking the ball out of the net, and that just kills any opportunity you have for pace,” Hoiberg said. “Again, too much ball holding as was evident by our assist numbers. I mean 14 for the game, and we were single digits for most of it. So we’ve got to get the ball moving better.”
In theory, Hoiberg would want to keep Grant or Carter-Williams in there, but the duo combined for seven turnovers and just three assists while being hounded by Avery Bradley. In a season full of changes and tinkering it wouldn’t be shocking to see Hoiberg make a change in the first five.
But it’s hard to see a clear option that would satisfy every objective going into Game 4.
“That first quarter, we got down 20 right away and obviously we have to do a lot to prevent that from happening,” Hoiberg said. “We’re going to get through practice today and then make our final decision on the lineup for tomorrow.”
Grant said after the film session and before practice that he hadn’t heard anything about being pulled from the starting lineup, but admitted the obvious: That his performance didn’t do much in the way of inspiration, despite his experience in starting 28 games this season.
“I got to take care of the ball,” Grant said. “I had some careless turnovers, I have to push the pace …didn’t play with a whole lot of energy band so I feel that starts with me.”
Grant shot 42 percent from 3-point range in his starts and has decent size in terms of his matchup with Thomas. Carter-Williams had some decent moments against Thomas defensively but provided nothing on offense, and given the fragility of both, one wonders if Hoiberg will give either one more chance before the series goes back to Boston Wednesday.
Nerves were clearly a problem for both, which can be rectified with a more open playbook or just the familiarity of a second game at the United Center. If it’s not nerves, then it means neither are options moving forward and the organization has a problem on its hands, beyond this series, beyond this season.
“We’re confident in Jerian,” Hoiberg said. “His teammates are confident in him, so it’s just about going out there and having something positive happen out of the gate. That always helps. Again, we’ll see how things go today, and make a final decision.”