Brad Stevens

Bulls-Celtics observations: Good Kyrie/bad Dunn, C's second half blitz, heads down

Bulls-Celtics observations: Good Kyrie/bad Dunn, C's second half blitz, heads down

The third quarter: The Bulls were overwhelmed, blitzed by the Celtics. A two-point game at the half blew open in a matter of minutes as Kyrie Irving and Al Horford keyed a 13-2 run that effectively ended matters as the Bulls never seriously challenged the Celtics after that.

Not only are the Celtics one of the best teams in the NBA, their offense is among the most diverse, with an athlete like Jaylen Brown on the wing along with a budding scorer in rookie Jayson Tatum to go with a scorer in Irving and a playmaker in Horford.

It was on full display and the Bulls had little in reserve. Tatum scored just 13 but was all over the floor, and Brown—while not as offensively gifted as Tatum—was explosive from the corners and in the open floor, scoring an easy 20 points on just 10 shots, hitting four triples.

Look, part of this was predictable. The Bulls gave them a 23-point whipping almost two weeks ago in Chicago. Payback was necessary.

“They’d lost two in a row, we knew they would come out with great energy,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “For 24 minutes, we matched it. They came out in the third, threw the first blow and we never recovered. We shut it down for a stretch. You can’t do this. Against a team like this, you can’t shut down.”

Even their hustle plays, like David Nwaba crashing the glass for an offensive rebound, went unrewarded. He tried to kick it back outside to reset the offense except no one was in that space, as it trickled out of bounds on the other end.

They mustered up just 34 points in the second half after 58 in the first.

Just one of those nights.

Bulls offense, what Bulls offense: Irving missed the first meeting between the two and it resulted in the Celtics’ worst loss of the year. Well clearly he wanted to return the favor as the Celtics led by 23 midway through the fourth after Irving’s fifth triple.

His counterpart, Kris Dunn, couldn’t engineer the Bulls’ offense to the same effect. Dunn played his worst game in ages, going one for 12 for two points and seven assists in 25 minutes. He still got inside the paint but couldn’t convert much of anything, unable to combat Irving’s tricky pick-and-roll game.

Without that element to the offense, one that Celtics coach Brad Stevens called “the best in the NBA” over the last 10 games, the Bulls were easy to defend.

“Those are my shots. Shots I work on, shots I hit,” Dunn said. “Plenty of good looks. They didn’t fall today. I’ve had plenty of bad games like that, Look at the film see what I can fix. I’m not gonna get down on myself, still gonna be confident. We got a lot of good looks, just didn’t hit.”

Dunn wasn’t the only one to struggle. Bobby Portis had a loud, impactful first half with 15 points and seven rebounds before mustering just two points and one rebound after.

Nikola Mirotic had his most humble game to date with nine points and nine rebounds, hitting just three of 10 shots.

The Celtics defense confused the Bulls for long stretches and unlike their game in Cleveland, they couldn’t respond in the second half, shooting just 31 percent and turning it over 12 times.

Dunn baptism: Every point guard goes through nights like Dunn had. Great ones, bad ones, mediocre ones. Irving had been on a mission coming into Saturday’s game and Dunn wasn’t going to get in his way.

Irving can say some pretty amazing things—as in weird—and he can match those words with on-court exploits.

“Just our pace, staying on the boards, making sure we were communicating what we needed to do to extend the lead as best we could,” Irving said of the third quarter where the Celtics outscored the Bulls 38-18.

It was an easy 25 that felt like it could’ve been 40 if Irving really wanted to send a message. Which is why in a way, it was a message to the second-year point guard.

“You know he’s good. Ain’t no secret to that,” Dunn said. “He shoots the ball well, try to make it difficult for him. You know he’s gonna take 20 shots. Try to make it difficult. The only thing you can do.”

Perhaps Dunn was trying too hard to get it back, a hard temptation to resist with the freedom Irving plays with nightly. Combined with being close to home for the first time this season, he had to take this lesson on the chin—even though he went down swinging in trying to take the game to Irving.

“Nah, you got to. You have no choice,” Dunn said. “Good players, if you just let them be aggressive, they’ll be so comfortable they’ll do anything on the court. You gotta bring it back to them, wear them down.”

His attitude is important considering how many point guards will come his way on a nightly basis, as well as his struggles coinciding with the team’s offense sputtering.

That’s no coincidence.

“He had a tough night, no doubt about it,” Hoiberg said. “He had a really good stretch of basketball. Again, we’re not going through the season without bumps in the road. We’ll battle back, get Kris’ confidence up, which he will. I’m confident of that.”

Heads down: Some of those ugly habits started to appear in the second half, habits many thought were long gone in this new and improved version of Bulls basketball.

The body language was bad, they kept their heads down for extended periods and didn’t stay with the game plan—even though it’s tough to hang in with a team that shot 70 percent for most of the first half and you’re hanging by a thread with crowd-quieting jumpers.

At some point, the thread was going to snap and we were all going to be reminded this team is in the early stages of a rebuild.

“They just had more edge than us, specifically in that stretch of the third quarter,” Robin Lopez said. “Seems like we conceded a lot, they seemed pretty comfortable out there, especially on offense.”

Dunn could see it, but things were already headed downhill in the first 90 seconds of the third quarter and it continued for the entire 24-minute second half. It shouldn’t be chalked up to mental weakness; the Celtics just had more to play for than the Bulls did, and have better personnel.

“The ball wasn’t going in for us, heads went down,” Dunn said. “We didn’t fight adversity. The first half we did a good job defensively, they still made tough buckets. It’s one of those days. Credit to them.”

As long as this stretch doesn’t continue—they haven’t had a loss like this since Dec. 4 when the Cavaliers came into Chicago and beat them by 22—it can be written off as anomaly.

“We’ve been pretty good about not getting down on ourselves these stretch of games,” Lopez said. “We reverted a little tonight. I don’t think that’s gonna be a problem going forward. The mental makeup of our guys has been pretty fantastic. That bit us tonight.”

The Bulls can learn plenty from the Celtics' near-perfect rebuild

tatumaingestevens.png
USA TODAY

The Bulls can learn plenty from the Celtics' near-perfect rebuild

Before you read any further, let’s get this out of the way: no organization will ever match what Danny Ainge and the Celtics accomplished the last four years. In that span they have hoarded assets and dealt them at the right time, developed young talent, signed A-list free agents in two different offseasons and traded for a top-5 point guard in the prime of his career.

The Celtics have gone from a 25-win team in Brad Stevens’ first season to the class of the Eastern Conference and holders of the NBA’s best record. They hit on just about every move (looking at you, James Young) and are built to win now and in the future.

So there’s your disclaimer: this isn’t written to be a blueprint for how the Bulls can mirror what the Celtics did and, voila, the 2021 Bulls are looking down on the rest of the league.

There are steps, however, the Celtics made that the Bulls can follow as they begin the first phase of their own rebuild. And hey, the Bulls play the Celtics tonight, so it’s timely. Follow along. We’ll be looking at a handful of moves the Celtics made from 2013 to this past offseason (not all of them, because there isn’t enough room on the internet), and how the Bulls can, in theory, attempt to recreate it within their own organization. And one last time, that’s all this is: a theoretical blueprint for how the Bulls can get back to winning games and competing for titles.

Chapter 1: Enter the rebuild with a splash

What the Celtics did: Danny Ainge broke up the Boston Three Party, sending Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry to the Nets for a package that included four future unprotected first-round picks. The writing was on the wall for the C's, who had just completed a 41-40 season and bowed out to the Knicks in the first round of the playoffs. Garnett was 37, Pierce was 36 and LeBron had been to three straight Finals. The trade ensured Boston would be drafting near the top of the 2014 NBA Draft (they won 25 games the following season) and gave Ainge plenty of ammo for later years, regardless of how the Nets did. The fact that Brooklyn imploded as a franchise just one year after that trade helped.

What the Bulls can do: Trade Jimmy Butler. The Bulls began their rebuild in June when they dealt the three-time All-Star. In return they received Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the No. 7 pick, which they used on Lauri Markkanen. It’s a good bet that all three pieces are not only part of the future, but significant pieces. Dunn, 23, has shown marked improvement in Year 2. Markkanen, 20, is a Rookie of the Year candidate. And LaVine, 22, was averaging 19 points on 46 percent shooting before his ACL injury. His ceiling is an All-Star wing. So the Bulls initiated Step 1 of the rebuild, and the early returns are they made out just fine.

Chapter 2: Draft well

What the Celtics did: All those picks were nice to have, but Ainge still had to draft the right players. And he did just that. In 2014 they nabbed Marcus Smart with the No. 6 pick (their own) and James Young with Brooklyn's (the only bad selection). The following year they took Terry Rozier with their own pick. Both have proven to be valuable bench commodities. But then the fun started. Brooklyn went in the tank and the Celtics grabbed Jaylen Brown with the No. 3 pick in 2016. Then they won the Lottery in 2017, only to deal that pick for the No. 3 pick and another future first to the Sixers. With that No. 3 pick they drafted Jayson Tatum, who has taken on a major role in the wake of Gordon Hayward's ankle injury. That's four straight years of first-round "hits," with Brown and Tatum having sky-high ceilings.

What the Bulls can do: It’s easier said than done, but hit on their draft picks. We already know the Bulls are looking at a likely top 3 pick next June, and assuming a Marvin Bagley III or Luka Doncic doesn’t carry the franchise on his back as a rookie, another top 5 selection in 2019. Maybe even 2020 depending on how quickly (or slowly) the rebuild goes. GarPax adhered to the “younger and more athletic” mantra in drafting Lauri Markkanen, and there’s nothing but youth and athleticism at the beginning of drafts each year (especially 2018). Not focusing on positional needs (the Celtics took similar guards in consecutive years, then similar wings the two years after that) and instead evaluating and drafting the best talent available will be key. Simply put, unless you sign LeBron James and Chris Bosh in a single offseason, rebuilds only work if you hit on draft night.

Chapter 3: Make smart trades

What the Celtics did: Once the rebuild was underway the Celtics made three significant trades. First they took on Tyler Zeller's salary from Cleveland so the Cavaliers could sign LeBron James in 2014. The Cavs also attached a first-round pick to that deal (more on that later). With the rebuild in full swing they let Rajon Rondo go to Dallas a few months later, and received little-used Jae Crowder and another first-round pick. And that draft pick from the Cavs? They put that in a deal in 2015 that landed them Isaiah Thomas the following year. No one could have predicted what Thomas would become, but he was certainly worth the risk at the time. Three trades (pre-Kyrie deal) that hurt in the short-term but netted them draft picks and role players who could potentially thrive with plenty of minutes open in Boston.

What the Bulls can do: The Bulls aren’t going to find the next Isaiah Thomas in a deal, but they can find a Jae Crowder-type player. What that would require is dealing a veteran that can help a contender. The prime candidate, of course, is Robin Lopez. He doesn't hold crazy value given his limitations, but he's a reliable veteran who could bring back value. A team like Denver dealing with frontcourt injuries or Cleveland needing frontcourt depth could be options, but that's speculation. Nikola Mirotic is another trade candidate for a team looking for spacing and versatility, though his unusual no-trade clause makes that more difficult. Justin Holiday is an option, too, if he isn't part of the long-term plans. The Bulls don't have much tradeable talent, making inevitable deals all the more important with what they can trade. They can't afford another Gibson/McDermott-to-the-Thunder debacle.

The second part of this is taking on bad contracts and attaching draft picks to them in trades. The Nets did this in the offseason in taking on both Timofey Mozgov's (Lakers) and DeMarre Carroll's (Raptors) bad contracts, and it's something the Bulls could and should seriously consider. Players like Brandon Knight (Phoenix), Matthew Dellavedova (Milwaukee) and Luol Deng (Lakers) have ugly contracts that teams are certainly looking to rid of. Eating a year of two of those salaries to stockpile future first-round picks (the Nets got a lottery-protected 2018 first-round pick and a second-round pick in the Carroll deal) or talented young players (the Nets got D'Angelo Russell in the Mozgov deal) can pay off down the road, and the salaries don't matter in the short-term. Hey, maybe Brandon Knight revives his career in Chicago. OK, let's not get crazy.

Chapter 4: Retain your role players

What the Celtics did: Boston committed to Avery Bradley, their first-round pick in 2010, by giving him a four-year, $32 million deal. They did the same with Jae Crowder, giving him a five-year deal after he showed plenty of promise as a 3-and-D wing. Crowder was used to land Irving, while Bradley was dealt to make cap space for Gordon Hayward, though the two were arguably Boston's best defenders the previous two seasons when the C's began their turnaround. Plus, both turned out to be extremely team-friendly deals. They'll have to make a decision on Marcus Smart next season, but there haven't been any players during this rebuild that got away from Boston. They evaluated talent correctly, gave up quickly on mistakes (James Young, R.J. Hunter, Jared Sullinger) and invested in the right players that helped them get to where they are now.

What the Bulls can do: Develop role players with current roster. The Bulls haven't drafted well of late, to say the least, so there isn't a slam dunk contract extension awaiting any of the players on their rookie deals. But those decisions won't have to be made for a few years. Players like Denzel Valentine, Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis all could play themselves into roles for the future. It isn't exactly likely, but Portis is still 22, Valentine and David Nwaba are 24 and Jerian Grant is 25. Let's not close the book on one of those players blossoming in a few years’ time into an able-bodied reserve. Let's not bet any large sums of money on it, either. But the point to take away here is these early rebuilding years are about evaluation as much as anything else. Assuming the Butler return (Dunn, Markkanen, LaVine) are locked in, finding those role players for the future on the current rebuilding roster is important. Then locking those players down as they settle into their roles adds another piece to the puzzle.

Chapter 5: Attract big-name free agents

What the Celtics did: Sign Al Horford and Gordon Hayward to long-term deals. Only the Sixers have completed a rebuild without the help of big-name free agents (no offense, JJ Redick). But the rebuild was moving in the right direction after the Celtics won 48 games in 2015-16, and doing so with players mostly on rookie deals gave them cap flexibility that summer. They signed Horford to a four-year, $113 million deal and proceeded to win 53 games. They lost in five games to LeBron and the Cavs, but they again had max cap space this past summer when Hayward became a free agent. And although Hayward suffered that gruesome ankle injury on Opening Night, he'll make a full recovery and the Celtics will have him for three more years. These deals were possible because A) the Celtics were starting to win, and both Horford and Hayward saw an opportunity to win titles and B) they did that early winning with players on team-friendly deals, so the money to sign those All-Stars was there.

What the Bulls can do: It doesn't make sense to name names (don't worry, we will in a little bit), but the key here is to improve little by little each season to the point that an A-list free agent sees himself as the missing piece toward a championship run. When the Celtics signed Al Horford they had improved from 25 to 40 to 48 victories in the East. When they signed Gordon Hayward this past summer that record jumped to 53 wins and included an Eastern Conference Finals appearance. Even with max space next summer (and maybe even the summer after that) it's going to be tough to lure a max free agent in if the Bulls are winning 25 and 30 games. Again, this is going to take time. But the final piece, at least as it was for Boston, will be finding All-Stars ready for a fresh start, and ones who want to do it in a big market with a steady head coach and a young team ready to compete now.

OK, so you want names? Assuming the top guys aren't coming in 2018, here are expected big-name free agents for 2019 that realistically could be looking for new homes: Paul George, Klay Thompson, Nikola Vucevic, Kemba Walker

And 2020: Kyle Lowry, Hassan Whiteside, Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving and...Jimmy Butler

Chapter 6: Trade for Kyrie Irving

What the Celtics did: They traded for Kyrie Irving and turned him into an MVP candidate.

What the Bulls can do: Trade for Kyrie Irving. OK, so this part isn't happening. The Bulls won't have a disgruntled superstar fall into their laps and have the assets to deal for him. But, hey, it's nice to dream.

After fighting through unspeakable adversity, Celtics 'enjoying the moment' with new perspective

18217199_10154638694570679_853959586_n.jpg
USA TODAY

After fighting through unspeakable adversity, Celtics 'enjoying the moment' with new perspective

Championship moments rarely occur in the first round. With a playoff format that drags the postseason out for more than two months, with playoff series taking as long as two weeks, the second season feels like just that. It’s far too early to say what exactly Friday night in Chicago will mean for the top-seeded Celtics, but a sense of a team coming together under unfathomable circumstances may prove to be the turning point in a season that a week ago appeared hanging by a thread.

It happened in three parts.

On the floor the Celtics looked every bit the part of a 51-win team that edged out LeBron’s Cavs for the top spot in the East. Brad Stevens’ small-ball approach came full-circle as the Boston guards lived in the paint against the Bulls, kicking out to open shooters for 16 3-pointers that helped the Celtics put away the game (and series) midway through the third quarter.

Avery Bradley starred for a second consecutive night, tallying 23 points while making Jimmy Butler work for his, while eight different Celtics hit a 3-pointer and the team shot 49 percent. For the first time in the series the Celtics looked dominant, like a team poised to contend with the Cavaliers for supremacy in the East.

“It felt good to play Celtic basketball again,” Avery Bradley said. “We were all smiling, having fun, and that’s what it’s supposed to be. That’s how hard we worked this entire year, to play that type of basketball.”

Isaiah Thomas was naturally somber much of the series. The well-documented death of his 22-year-old sister put a damper on the series before it began, and the MVP candidate understandably chose not to address it on the few occassions he spoke with the media. But Thomas looked more like himself as the series went on. Not only did his numbers improve, he appeared more vocal after made baskets, laughed off trash talk from Bulls point guard Isaiah Canaan, and engineered the Celtics' offense to near-perfection.

His defining moment came late in the third quarter with the Celtics nearing a 30-point lead. After a hard foul he gathered his four teammates in a huddle near the baseline and shouted that the series for the Bulls was "a wrap for these m------------!" This was the same player who two weeks earlier was brought to tears prior to Game 1, and who will bury his sister on Saturday in Tacoma, Washington. Under unthinkable circumstances, Thomas averaged 23.0 points and 5.7 assists in 34.8 minutes in the series.

“I feel like he has grown,” Al Horford said. "And we all have in a way with all the adversity that has gone on. It could have easily gone the other way, but I feel like especially tonight when we got the game in hand, in control, we all just kept on repeating to stay focused to keep it going, keep pushing. We didn’t want to give them any life and we were a focused group and we were enjoying the moment.”

Thomas' journey won't get easier. He'll have another short turnaround to get ready for Sunday's second-round matchup against the Celtics. But like his teammates did in Games 3 and 4, when Thomas flew by himself to Chicago following his return home to Tacoma to mourn with his family, they'll have another opporuntity to grow closer. Brad Stevens kept an incredible perspective on the situation throughout the series, and applauded his team for doing the same while still fighting for wins.

"Bigger things than basketball happened, and that took precedent and it takes precdedent," he said. "I was really proud of our guys for how they treated each other, how they stood together, stuck together. And how nobody pointed fingers, they were just a great support for one another, especially Isaiah."

When Thomas does return, and when the Celtics gear up for their next postseason journey, expectations will have remained the same. Though the Wizards were one of the league's best teams in the second half, and with John Wall and Bradley Beal playing on another level, it'll take more performances like Friday night - both on the court and collectively staying together - for Boston to advance. A 2-0 hole against the Wizards will feel a whole lot different than it did against the Bulls.

That sort of letdown doesn't feel like it will happen again. Though no one would have wished such tragedy to force it, the Celtics came together at a critical moment and came out better for it. Their work isn't done, and they know it. But the way they were able to handle the adversity in Round 1, anything seems possible for Stevens, Thomas the top seed in the East.

"We just try to stay the course in the day-to-day. And if that results in us winning more games or winning in the playoffs, or whatever the case may be, there’s only one goal in the Boston," Stevens said. "Seventeen (NBA championship) banners above us. We don’t have a choice. We only shoot for one thing there."