After two thrilling and decisive victories led in part by mercurial point guard Rajon Rondo, the Bulls had to adjust on the fly with the news of Rondo’s broken thumb. They did not seem particularly prepared to do so, as Boston put on a passing and shooting clinic to comfortably take Game 3 104-87. The Celtics shot an unconscious 17 of 37 from long distance and tallied up a truly impressive 34 assists. With Jimmy Butler turning in an extremely off-night, the Bulls had no chance.
Jerian Grant got the start for the injured Rondo while Brad Stevens made a surprise change by inserting Gerald Green for Amir Johnson at power forward, Green’s first start of the season. That move paid off early as the Celtics asserted their will with a spread out attack from the beginning. Green nailed two threes in his first stint as Boston overall hit on seven of their first 10 to go up 27-10.
The Bulls fell behind by relying almost entirely on tough long-range jumpers to start the game. When they inevitably missed most of them, Boston was able to aggressively push the pace and capitalize with far too many open looks from deep. Stevens’ secondary move of putting Avery Bradley on Butler and Jae Crowder on Dwyane Wade paid clear dividends as well. Butler didn’t score his first basket until the last minute of the first quarter, finishing the period with two points on 1/5 shooting.
Boston completed the first quarter with 11 assists on 12/21 shooting and 7/11 from deep; Chicago shot just 31% with only one assist. Yuck. The 33-15 deficit seemed potentially insurmountable, but the Bulls made a surprising second quarter surge to keep the Celtics on their toes. Wade momentarily found a rhythm, leading a 13-2 run early in the quarter. He lost the touch though, finishing 6/18 with 18 points and three assists. He simply has to be a better playmaker with the Bulls lacking a point guard. He can still do stuff like this, though:
Paul Zipser and Bobby Portis did a nice job spacing the floor for Wade. Zipser nailed a couple big triples while Portis and Cristiano Felicio were also excellent defensively and on the glass to help the Bulls get back in the game. Felicio finished with 11 boards and two blocks as both he and Portis have proven worthy of their playoff minutes.
The 24-7 run to end the half brought the Bulls within three, but Isaiah Thomas came out strong to retake control in the second half. Thomas drilled two pull up threes to quickly push the lead back to nine. No one on the Bulls could stay in front of the All-Star as he consistently found crafty routes to the rim or open shooters.
While Grant got the start, Michael Carter-Williams ended up usurping the back-up point guard role with 23 minutes to Grant’s 15. He did an okay job corralling Thomas into tougher spots, but Carter-Williams is an absolute zero everywhere else. He made just one of five shots and is a complete non-threat from three. He was certainly not at fault for tonight’s loss, but the Bulls can’t afford to play Carter-Williams more than a few minutes going forward.
With only a couple minutes left in the third quarter, Butler was still just 1/12 with two points. At that point, eight of his 12 shots had come from outside the paint. He seemed to wake up finally, scoring six straight points for the Bulls to end the quarter, but Boston’s 76-63 deficit was too much to overcome. Butler finished with 14 points on 7/21 shooting and failed to record an assist or a free throw attempt.
While Boston’s adjustment of putting Bradley on Butler was certainly key, Jimmy has to be more aggressive from the start for the Bulls to have a chance in Game 4. Rondo’s absence was painfully felt as the Bulls’ passing collapsed completely without the starting point guard. Butler has shown a strong ability and willingness to run the offense and distribute; the Bulls badly need #PGJimmy without Rondo. They finished with only 14 assists.
Early in the final quarter, Chicago was unable to convert several layups and other close shots in the paint, allowing Boston to push the pace and continue the shooting onslaught. Fred Hoiberg understandably pulled the plug on the rotation players with four minutes remaining and the Bulls trailing 97-77.
Nikola Mirotic and Robin Lopez played well enough but neither came close to being the kind of x-factor the Bulls needed to win tonight. They combined for 23 points and 12 boards on 8/14 shooting (2/4 from three for Niko). Lopez grabbed four offensive boards as the Bulls again dominated the glass, 52-37, but couldn’t capitalize. It’s a good sign going forward though, as the Celtics aren’t likely to shoot 17/37 from deep again. They made 10/33 in Game 1 and 14/38 in Game 2.
The Bulls can almost certainly count on a little regression there, but it won’t matter if they can’t move the ball. Jimmy Butler is a fantastic isolation player, but the Celtics had him completely out of sorts tonight with no exit valves. And Butler can’t iso his way to wins by himself. He and Wade both need to pick up the slack in Rondo’s absence, an admittedly absurd sentence to write after the 2016-17 regular season. We’ll see how Fred Hoiberg and the #TwoRemainingAlphas adjust on Sunday.