Brad Stevens

NBA Buzz: Time for Fred Hoiberg to make adjustments for the Bulls

NBA Buzz: Time for Fred Hoiberg to make adjustments for the Bulls

You've heard it said by countless NBA players, coaches and executives over the years: "Playoff basketball is all about adjustments."

And after dropping two games to the Celtics on their home court, the Bulls clearly need to make some changes to their strategy on both offense and defense. Fourteen-year veteran and three-time NBA champion Dwyane Wade admitted as much on Monday.

"They made adjustments (after losing the first 2 games in Boston). We didn't need to because we were up 2-0. Then coming off of Game 3, we felt watching the film we played low motor, not enough energy, so we didn't feel the game plan was necessarily the key. But it was coming out of Game 4. So now I'm sure it will be a few adjustments we'll look to make, and hopefully it makes a difference."

Fred Hoiberg indicated before practice on Tuesday that the Bulls had studied mistakes made against Boston's staggered screen-and-roll game, and would work on some new coverages for Game 5. Isaiah Thomas shredded the Bulls at the United Center with his ability to keep his dribble going while maneuvering around and between multiple screens either to score himself or find wide open shooters.

The Celtics' strategy oftentimes forced one of the Bulls' big men to switch on to the 5-foot-9 Thomas, and that's an impossible task. Thomas was able to blow by those slower defenders in Game 4, scoring eight of his 10 baskets at the rim. Boston's plan also forced Hoiberg to take Robin Lopez out of the game in the fourth quarter on Sunday, after Lopez had helped the Bulls grab a brief two-point lead briefly in the third quarter. Thomas was more of a facilitator in Game 3, dishing out nine assists, many of them to Al Horford rolling down the lane with little resistance. 

Look for the Bulls to try to trap Thomas early on screen-and-roll plays and force him to move the ball to another player on the perimeter. And, if Thomas does get a driving lane to the basket, the Bulls need to go with my former studio partner Norm Van Lier's advice and take a couple of hard fouls to make him think twice about whether he wants to venture back into the paint.

Brad Stevens changed his starting lineup before Game 3, starting journeyman Gerald Green at forward and moving 6-foot-9 Amir Johnson to the bench. Green paid big dividends in Game 4, scoring 16 of his 18 points in the first half, helping Boston race out to a 20-point lead. The Bulls need to be more aware of closing out on Green at the 3-point line, and not let him take uncontested shots. It's going to be a tall task for the Bulls’ defense with all the confidence the Celtics gained during the last two games, but if new starter Isaiah Canaan can have some success pressuring Thomas out front, maybe the Bulls can force Boston out of their comfort zone and make them rely on contested perimeter jumpers. 

The challenges are just as great on the other side of the floor. Without Rajon Rondo pushing the pace and moving the ball around to multiple shooters, the Bulls have been forced to play a grind-it-out style, too dependent on isolation plays for Jimmy Butler and Wade. 

Again, the hope is Canaan's 3-point shooting (3-for-7 in Game 4) will help create better spacing in the offense, and Butler and Wade can be more effective coming off weakside screens to get the ball on the move to the attack the basket. 

The Bulls also need to run more post-up plays against Boston's small lineup. Get the ball inside to Robin Lopez for some early chances against Horford, let Wade back down the smaller Avery Bradley like he did a couple of times in Game 4, and when the Bulls are successful in getting Thomas to switch on to Butler on screen and roll plays, punish the tiny defender inside and try to get him into foul trouble.

Hoiberg also has to find a way to get more open 3-point looks for Niko Mirotic, Bobby Portis and Paul Zipser. All three young forwards have had their moments in the series, and getting them into a comfortable rhythm early is crucial to the Bulls' offensive success.

Finally, we've all seen enough of young point guards Jerian Grant and Michael Carter-Williams in this series. Both players have lost their confidence, and neither has had any success trying to slow down Thomas. If Hoiberg needs to use another perimeter player, give rookie Denzel Valentine a look to see if he might be able to provide some outside shooting, with either Butler or Wade running the point. 

Rondo did some light shooting before practice on Tuesday, and I'm guessing he'll play in Game 6 on Friday, even though he'll be severely limited because of the right thumb fracture. Let's hope the Bulls’ coaching staff comes up with the right adjustments to win Game 5, and set up for a possible clinching situation for the home team.  

AROUND THE ASSOCIATION

Fascinating piece in the latest issue of ESPN The Magazine, profiling Miami Heat president and nine-time NBA champion Pat Riley. Written by Wright Thompson, the story details Riley's inner struggles trying to chase one more title after the break-up of the Big 3 of Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh.

Thompson details Riley's 2014 free agent meeting with James in Las Vegas, where James and two friends watched a World Cup game on television while only half listening to Riley's pitch to stay with the Heat. Riley was furious after James told him a short time later he was going back to Cleveland, and told Thompson he's glad he didn't go to the media with a Dan Gilbert, scorched-earth-style statement.

Riley admitted to Thompson he now understands why James made the choice he did. "He went home because he had to go home. It was time. It was really time for him to go home, in his prime. If he's ever gonna do anything in Akron again, this was the time to do it. Otherwise, he'd have had a scarlet letter on his back the rest of his whole life."

Thompson also writes that Riley regrets re-opening contract negotiations with Chris Bosh after James bolted for Cleveland. He wishes he would have said no to Bosh's request and given the money to Wade to keep him in Miami. The piece details how Riley is still hurt by Wade's decision to sign with the Bulls and wishes he would have handled things differently to be able to keep the face of the franchise as a lifetime member of the Heat. 

In his end of the season news conference with Miami reporters, Riley says no decision has been made yet on Bosh's future with the team. It's expected the Heat will petition the league to get the final two years of Bosh's contract removed from the team's salary cap because of career-ending blood clot issues. Bosh would then be free to sign with any other team as a free agent if he tries to resume his career.

The Heat will have to decide whether to use the new cap room to re-sign productive players on the current roster like Dion Waiters and James Johnson or chase one of the big name stars in free agency. Given Riley's quest for one last championship, you can expect him to make a run at free agents Blake Griffin, Kyle Lowry, Paul Millsap and Gordon Hayward. 

The Clippers' situation will be interesting to watch this summer. Head coach and president of basketball operations Doc Rivers has already indicated he'd like to keep the team together, but with Griffin, Chris Paul and J.J. Redick all headed to free agency, the cost of keeping all three might be cost prohibitive.

Paul and LeBron James, in their leadership roles with the Players Association, helped change the rule that prevented teams from offering long-term contracts that extended beyond the season a player turns 35. Now, Paul is in position to sign a new five-year contract well in excess of $200 million, so the odds are he remains with the Clippers.

Whether or not the 28-year-old Griffin or the 32-year-old Redick remain is a story that won't unfold until the start of free agency in July.

For those of us thinking the Cavs might be vulnerable in the Eastern Conference playoffs after a mediocre regular season, forget about it. James and company made an emphatic statement about their readiness to defend their NBA championship with a four-game sweep of Paul George and the Pacers. 

James continues to play at an All-World level, leading the Cavs back from a 26-point deficit in Game 3, and told reporters he likes what he's seeing from his team so far in the playoffs. Cleveland's defense is still shaky, but does anyone really think they'll have trouble advancing to a third straight NBA Finals? Me neither.

Meanwhile, Golden State also appears ready for Cavs-Warriors NBA Finals, Part 3. They dispatched Damian Lillard and the Blazers in four straight, with Steph Curry looking like the two-time MVP Steph, capped off by a 37-point long ball shooting exhibition in the series clincher. Kevin Durant played well in limited minutes in Game 4, and if the Warriors stay healthy they will be a solid favorite to bring the Larry O'Brien trophy back to the Bay Area in June. 

Speaking of health, all of us who follow the NBA closely, are rooting for the Warriors’ head coach and former Bulls’ three-time champion Steve Kerr to get back on the bench very soon. Kerr was forced to miss the last two games of the series against Portland because of the continuing after-effects of a botched back surgery.

Kerr said the neck pain and headaches he was experiencing became so debilitating he couldn't function at the level he needed to during the playoffs. Assistant coach Mike Brown will run the Warriors in Kerr's absence, but it's just not the same around the team without Kerr's presence.

Getting to know Kerr a bit during his time as a player with the Bulls, you couldn't ask for a more likeable, down to earth athlete, and he's kept that same self-deprecating sense of humor through the daily pressure of life as an NBA head coach. 

Kerr has experienced all the success anyone could ask for during his time in basketball, including six NBA championships, three as a player with the Bulls, two with the Spurs and one as head coach with the Warriors. 

But as we all realize, good health is more important than anything in life, and right now Kerr's life has been all about managing pain for the better part of two years. Here's hoping Kerr can find the answers to his health issues, and be able to get back to experiencing the joys of coaching what looks like the NBA's next dynasty.

Isaiah Canaan will start Game 5, but Bulls need more adjustments against Celtics

Isaiah Canaan will start Game 5, but Bulls need more adjustments against Celtics

If the Bulls were doubting Thomases before Sunday afternoon, Isaiah made them pay for it dearly with each turn of his hand, each herky-jerky dribble and each devastating floater.

Perhaps wiser to their errors, the Bulls will go into Game 5 in Boston with an Isaiah of their own in the starting lineup, as Isaiah Canaan will make the start at TD Garden on Wednesday night.

Having been banished to the inactive list and end of the bench, Canaan's best moments under the United Center lights had been one-on-one matchups with his teammates hours before the real games began.

So being tossed in with 2:15 left in the first quarter and the Bulls already behind 13 points presented both opportunity and some nerves given the stakes. Having played a total of 92 minutes since the calendar turned to 2017, beggars can't be choosers.

"Throughout the season you just wonder when that opportunity is going to come," Canaan said. "I believe everything happens for a reason. You never can see what it may be, from going from not playing for the second half of the season mostly to playing in the most crucial time of the season in the playoffs, I guess God just sent me a sign to mentally be locked in and really battle your faith."

He responded by pressuring Thomas in a way Jerian Grant and Michael Carter-Williams couldn't with any effectiveness, probably due to his quickness and similar build to Thomas.

"My job is to make his job miserable," Canaan said. "He's a great player and he can find different cracks, but I'm just going out there trying to interrupt their timing, try and milk as much time as I can off the shot clock and just keep him uncomfortable. Not let him get settled in for what they want to run, so I'm just out there to make him uncomfortable and speed him up."

Canaan scored 13 points in 33 minutes, hitting three 3-pointers and being a +11 while on the floor, so it's easy to see why Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg wasn't going to mess around with the Grant and Carter-Williams combo that hadn't done much of anything in the friendly confines of the United Center over the weekend.

"I really thought he did a good job picking up the ball and pressuring the pickup point a full 94 feet," Hoiberg said. "I thought his initial ball pressure was good. We have to get off to a much better start if we want to have any chance of winning another game in this series. That's two games in a row now we've gotten ourselves down 20 points and fought all the way back."

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Still, Thomas scored 33 points and exploited a once-aggressive Bulls defense that seemed to be on its heels for most of the second half against Thomas, leading to Hoiberg's claims about Thomas carrying the ball to give himself an advantage in his hesitation moves.

Hoiberg wouldn't revisit the topic before Monday's practice and praised the Celtics guard who's battling through the devastating loss of his sister, who died right before the series opened in Boston last weekend.

"I'm a huge Isaiah Thomas fan. He's as big a competitor as we have in our league," Hoiberg said. "Obviously, he's as tough a guy to guard as we have in our league. I think the world of the kid, especially what he's going through now, how he's fought through that and like I said last night, he's a warrior to go out there and do what he's done so far in this series."

Thomas has averaged 25.8 points on 45.8 percent shooting with six assists and four rebounds per game. At times, the Bulls' size has bothered Thomas at the rim, particularly Jimmy Butler coming over to help alter his share of attempts, but since the Celtics have altered their approach Thomas has found easier traction to the basket.

Celtics coach Brad Stevens inserted Gerald Green in the starting lineup and the move has worked masterfully, with Green scoring 18 points with four 3-pointers and one highlight-worthy baseline dunk.

It's rendered Robin Lopez effectiveness to a minimum, as he was an unsung hero on the offensive glass in the first two games, meaning Stevens' move to play smaller was a risk, albeit a calculated one.

The Bulls didn't adjust at all to it in Game 4 after the Celtics won decisively Friday night, but changes besides Canaan have to be in store if the Bulls hope to come home looking to clinch a berth in the second round as opposed to fighting off elimination in Game 6.

"It changed it entirely. Obviously when it was big-big, we dominated them," Dwyane Wade said. "Dominated them defensively, incredibly. They made adjustments, we didn't need to because we were up 2-0. Then coming off Game 3, we felt watching the film we played with low motor, not enough energy so we didn't feel the gameplan was the key. 

"But it was coming out of Game 4. So now it's a few adjustments we hope to make and hopefully it makes a difference."

Still in mourning, Isaiah Thomas dictates pace, delivers for Celtics

Still in mourning, Isaiah Thomas dictates pace, delivers for Celtics

Brad Stevens opted for a smaller lineup in Game 3 against the Bulls, hoping his Celtics could stretch the floor to open up an offense that struggled with spacing in Games 1 and 2 losses.

The plan worked, as the Celtics hit 17 3-pointers and were able to switch with ease defensively. But it was the smallest player in that lineup who ultimately made the biggest difference. Isaiah Thomas didn't post gaudy numbers, and the King of the Fourth scored just two points in the final period.

Instead the Celtics leader, still in mourning, was masterful in a game his team needed already trailing 2-0 in the best-of-seven series. Thomas' 16 points were the fewest he had scored all season playing normal minutes, and he made just 7 of 18 attempts from the field. But he also handed out nine assists, his highest total since late January, controlling the Celtics offense that looked far more like itself than it had in the first two games, scoring 104 points on 48 percent shooting in a blowout victory Friday night in Chicago.

"Isaiah is such a tough guard. Once he gets into the teeth of the defense, when he kicks it out and we're making the next pass and the next pass and everyone's touching the ball, that's fun basketball," said Avery Bradley, who added 15 points and a career-high seven assists. "Everyone’s playing with confidence, everyone understands they need to take the shots that's coming their way, and it's fun basketball."

With Rajon Rondo sidelined, Thomas took advantage of a Bulls defense that continued to pressure him whenever he received the ball. Whereas in the first two games Thomas looked rushed and forced a handful of shots – he went 6-for-15 in Game 2 – Thomas was patient in finding open shooters and cutters off those double-teams. He didn't pass more often; he simply made better passes. His teammates mirrored his efficient play, too. In addition to his nine assists, Thomas had three secondary assists as well.

With Stevens opting to play small with four players on the perimeter, it allowed Al Horford more room to operate inside. That meant pick-and-roll action with Thomas, and the pair sliced up a Bulls defense that had no answer in Robin Lopez or help defense because of the floor spacing. During the Celtics' decisive 20-7 scoring run in the third quarter, Thomas assisted on all four Horford baskets, three of which came at the rim.

"I though Isaiah was great," said Horford, who received assists from Thomas on six of his eight field goals. "I feel like he really was reading the defense, just making the simple play and knowing when to shoot, knowing when to pass."

Thomas' shot was off for a second straight game – he was 3-for-10 in the first half despite four assists – and the constant double-teams and hedging didn't allow the league's second leading scorer much room to work.

But his two biggest shots came during that third-quarter run when Thomas hustled to catch the Bulls defense out of order following missed shots. He buried a triple over Jerian Grant on the right wing and on the next possession connected from the top of the key to push the Celtics' lead to nine. Later in the quarter a Thomas hesitation layup past Dwyane Wade put the Celtics up by double-digits for the remainder of the game.

"We put our offense in Isaiah's hands but he has to make the right play, whether it be driving and kick, scoring opportunity," Crowder said. "We put it all in his hands to make a play and he did a great job tonight."

That Thomas even took the floor Friday night was impressive in its own right. The All-Star point guard had spent the previous two days in Tacoma, Washington, with his family mourning the loss of his 22-year-old sister, killed in a car accident last Saturday morning.

Thomas has understandably opted not to speak with media since the series began Sunday evening. The Celtics released a statement on Wednesday from Thomas in which he called it "without question the hardest week of my life." Stevens said that Thomas was feeling better after returning to the team Thursday night before Game 3, and that both Thomas and the team were happy he traveled home during the team's off-days.

"For me it's all about, we have to maintain the perspective that there's gonna be some real ups and downs, and that’s just part of it," Stevens said. "And we're here to support him and we're gonna do our jobs and coach and play basketball, but we understand that there is a bigger picture and we are here as his support network that's in Boston. There's going to be times, as you all know, as you go on certainly time provides some healing, but you're always going to have days.”

No one can be sure how Thomas is feeling, save for those closest to him. But for one night in Chicago, the 5-foot-9 point guard stood tall and turned in a performance that his team needed. How the series plays out from this point – the Celtics still need to win Game 4 on Sunday to avoid a 3-1 hole – will be dictated largely on how Thomas plays.

He looked like a new player in Game 3 - Crowder added that Thomas' trip home acted as a "fresh start" - and more like the MVP candidate who, if he continues this play, can lead the top-seeded Celtics back from the hole they put themselves in.