By Rob Mahoney
We probably should have seen this coming. Both the Boston Celtics and the Chicago Bulls typically use elite defensive play to drag along their inefficient offenses, leaving their head-to-head matchups to be waged as a battle of attrition. That was certainly the case in Wednesday's ugly, tightly officiated affair, in which Boston escaped with a 71-69 win.
• The scoring limitations of both teams were in full view throughout Wednesday's game, but the third quarter -- which the Bulls "won" 13-8 -- showcased a really remarkable level of offensive inadequacy. One particular two-and-a-half-minute stretch comes to mind; after Kevin Garnett made a jumper with 8:29 remaining in the frame, Boston and Chicago combined their efforts into 12 consecutive bungled possessions (nine misses and three turnovers) without a single point to show for it. For those that lack the patience to sit through this entire game on DVR or League Pass Broadband, that brief stretch conveniently presents this matchup in a nutshell: slow play initiation, unproductive perimeter passing, sloppy ball-handling, and contested mid-range jumpers. Identical sequences repeated throughout the game to varying effect, but harsh reality set in for both teams in the third as neither club had the shot creators necessary to contend with so well-schooled an opposing defense.
The Celtics were generally more successful in terms of actually creating a shot attempt of some sort, though they ultimately struggled due to the clamps put on Paul Pierce (eight points, six assists, six rebounds) and Kevin Garnett (12 points, 11 rebounds, three assists). Chicago's top defenders honed in on Boston's most reliable offensive players, and in doing so challenged the likes of Brandon Bass (14 points, nine rebounds) and Avery Bradley (10 points, 4-12 FG) to beat them. That gambit worked brilliantly, as the Celtics scored at a rate of just 82.6 points per 100 possessions -- a mark that registers about 15 points worse than the last-place Washington Wizards' season average.
The only problem was that the Bulls didn't fare all that much better. Kirk Hinrich was dearly missed as the Bulls stalled in the initial stages of their offensive execution, and struggled throughout the night with even the most basic dump-offs and entry passes. Some of that is just the fate of any opponent who matches up with the Celtics (Boston's opponents turn the ball over on 15.6 percent of their possessions on average, fifth in the NBA), but the Bulls seemed particularly sloppy in committing 22 total turnovers in a game played at a glacial pace. That Chicago was able to remain competitive while giving away so many possessions is impressive, if only in the same way that Boston's win was remarkable in light of their 36.8 percent shooting from the field.
• Since returning from a hamstring injury almost a month ago, Luol Deng just hasn't been the same. According to NBA.com, Deng averaged 35.0 percent shooting on over 15 attempts per game during an eight-game stretch leading into Wednesday, and he didn't much help that percentage much by putting up eight points on 4-of-10 shooting against the Celtics. Every scorer goes through ruts, but what's worrisome with Deng is the nature of the shots he's missing. The Bulls' offense doesn't have the luxury of wasting quality attempts, and yet recently Deng has been leaving points on the floor by missing wide open shots from his most comfortable zones. Thus it comes as no surprise that Chicago is now 4-5 since Deng's return to the lineup, with each of those losses coming against a formidable defensive opponent. Deng doesn't have to be any better than his season averages (roughly 17 points a night on 42.5 percent shooting from the field) for the Bulls to make do, but anything less puts this team in an incredibly difficult situation that even their highly disciplined defense can't consistently manage.
• Toward the end of this game, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau chose to employ a full-team, full-court press, and in doing so was able to create problems and consternation for the Celtics' ball-handlers. I'm honestly surprised that we don't see a similar full-court front from Celtics opponents more. Rajon Rondo was too clever off the dribble and too quick for opponents to bother in the open court, but Avery Bradley, Jason Terry, and Paul Pierce can be easily pestered by an on-ball blitz with a half-way decent pressure scheme. The Bulls certainly have that, and were even able to force a five-second violation in crunch time on one of Boston's back-court inbounds plays. Doc Rivers will surely equip his team to better handle that kind of pressure next time around, but this would seem to be a valuable tool that opponents can use to drain Boston's shot clock, create turnovers, and wear down its most prominent offensive players. Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.