In a game where many assumed the story would be about how the Celtics adapted their defense to stop Jimmy Butler, it was the Bulls making key adjustments against Isaiah Thomas that fueled the Bulls’ Game 2 victory.
Despite winning Game 1, Isaiah Thomas appeared as if he would be a real problem for the Bulls in this series. Thomas scored 33 points on 55.6% shooting, and made 3/7 of his three point shots. It was a performance that was spectacular while at the same time almost ordinary for Thomas, the engine behind Boston’s eighth ranked offense this season.
It stood to reason that the Celtics were in pretty good shape. If just a couple of their role players had strong games, the Celtics would easily outscore the Bulls, assuming that Isaiah would easily put up 30 points a game. The Bulls have only one option remotely capable of guarding Thomas by himself, but Jimmy Butler needs to stay fresh for the fourth quarter and Fred Hoiberg is not asking him to handle the Thomas assignment all game.
But the Bulls, full of pleasant surprises in this young playoff run, rose to the challenge in Game 2. Thomas scored just 20 points on a miserable 6/15 from the field, and was unable to replicate the offensive impact that he made in Game 1. After being torched by the dynamic scoring threat Sunday night, what did the Bulls do differently in Game 2?
Trapping and doubling
The game started off well for Thomas. On Boston’s first possession, Amir Johnson set a high screen for his point guard that forced Robin Lopez into an uncomfortable switch. Rajon Rondo was slow maneuvering around the screen, and Thomas fired a three over Lopez before the Bulls could execute a hard trap.
But after that initial play, the Bulls defenders did a much better job of playing together and maximizing their effort to stop IT. Rondo played with a ferocity that I frankly didn’t think he was still capable of, chasing Thomas through picks and funneling him into tight spaces.
Thomas committed five turnovers in the game, two of which were the result of Chicago sending a second defender at him. In the first quarter, Rondo and Lopez went to trap Thomas way above the arc on the right side of the floor. Isaiah did not want to deal with the oncoming pressure and threw an errant pass that never came close to it’s intended target and turned into a Jimmy Butler transition bucket.
Then in the third quarter, Thomas, guarded by Jimmy Butler, ran a pick and roll with Tyler Zeller. Butler and Lopez completely ignored the roll man, and Butler was able to harass Thomas from behind and poke the ball free off of Isaiah’s leg to force a turnover.
The Bulls switch and Rondo knows they're good with Butler and RoLo on I, so he calls out to Niko to switch onto Horford. pic.twitter.com/PJWW3dPdVv— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) April 19, 2017
Help without fouling
There were plenty of times that Isaiah was just too fast for the Bulls initial attempt to trap on the perimeter. Thomas is a smart player and knew what the Bulls were trying to do to slow him down, and he moved quickly to counter their strategy.
Several times Thomas jetted around the trapping Lopez, who was not quick enough to contain the jitterbug point guard. On a few of these occasions IT was able to score from floater range. But on most of the possessions IT broke the trap, he found a second line of defense ready for him.
The Bulls' rotations are just airtight. RoLo shows and recovers. pic.twitter.com/sVllcYMcYs— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) April 19, 2017
On Thomas’s second shot of the game, he was able to turn the corner on Lopez and slash through the lane. Nikola Mirotic made a solid contest in the restricted area, but Thomas made an even better finish.
The very next possession looked like it was going to play out the same way. Thomas was too fast for the trapping Lopez, and again found himself with a full head of steam on his way to the rim. But this time, Mirotic made his rotation earlier and cleanly blocked the finger-roll.
No matter who was in the game for Chicago, the Bulls were excellent about making clean shot contests in the paint. Mirotic and Lopez have plenty of experience bothering shots inside by jumping straight up and down. Jimmy Butler flashed a little verticality skills of his own.
The Bulls played all this great second level defense without committing tons of fouls. Thomas was able to draw six shooting fouls (and made only 7/13 of his free throw attempts), but the majority were questionable calls at best. Three of them were drawn when Thomas felt minimal contact on the perimeter and barfed up wild jump shots, and a fourth came on some phantom contact on Cristiano Felicio in the lane.
Overall, the Bulls were excellent getting themselves in good help position to contest under control and force Thomas to miss shots he was hitting in Game 1.
Over at The Ringer, Kevin O’Connor did a great breakdown of what the Bulls have been doing to get the best of Boston these first two games. His first point is especially relevant to how they’ve slowed down Isaiah Thomas: The Bulls did a great job of tracking Thomas when he didn’t have the ball. Part of what makes Thomas so dangerous is that he is just as much a threat with or without the rock in his hand. He’s constantly sprinting around the court, coming off screens, taking dribble handoffs, and waiting for the defense to loose track of him before popping open for an easy shot.
The Bulls simply did not allow that to happen in Game 2. Chicago is so locked in right now, extremely prepared for the trickery that Boston used to propel themselves to the top seed in the East. The attention to detail is simply taking away free points that Thomas and the Celtics became accustomed to scoring in the regular season.
I can’t believe I’m typing this, but I think the Bulls can win this series. The Celtics’ role players did not step up at home, and playing in front of what will be a fired up crowd in Chicago will not do them any favors. The Celtics need huge games from Isaiah Thomas if they hope to dig themselves out of this 0-2 hole.
And after Chicago’s dominant win in Game 2, it’s looking unlikely that Thomas will be up to the challenge.