In Games 1 and 2, Robin Lopez was arguably the Chicago Bulls most valuable player. It was Lopez who helped Chicago dominate the glass and generate second chance opportunities. Lopez also displayed some versatility by stepping out of the paint and knocking down some jump shots. But in Game 3 things were a little bit different. Yes, Lopez did have a good offensive game by scoring 12 points and grabbing 6 rebounds, but it was on the defensive end where he negatively impacted Chicago.
After struggling to box-out Lopez in the paint the first couple of games, the Celtics decided to take a new route of dealing with him in Game 3: take him out of the game by exposing him defensively. Credit to Brad Stevens and his coaching staff for wisely running a lot of the Celtics offensive action in front of Lopez. As good as a defender as Lopez is as a rim protector (he registered a defensive box plus/minus rating of 1.0 during the regular season), he struggles when he is moved out of the paint given his lack of foot speed.
The greatest struggle comes against speedy point guards who use that to their ability to get Lopez back tracking and sagging more into the paint, giving them more room to create a shot for themselves or their teammates. That was exactly the case against Boston on Friday night. The Celtics repeatedly put Lopez in situations where he would have to come out and try to stop a guard in space and it worked very poorly for Chicago.
Here it’s a simple 1-5 pick and roll with Al Horford acting as the roll man with Isaiah Thomas as the ball handler. The point of this play is to get the matchup of Thomas against Lopez, which obviously favors the Celtics point guard. As soon as the screen is set, Lopez doesn’t blitz the pick and try to get the ball out of his hands. Instead of that he stays in his place near the free-throw line and waits for Thomas to get to him. By the time that happens, Thomas is essentially being doubled teamed by Lopez and Dwyane Wade who was coming back into the play to help out on the Thomas drive. Everyone on the court knows that Lopez can’t stay with Thomas one on one. To counteract that, the Bulls doubled on the drive with Lopez tracking back into the paint and the guard rushing back to IT. But there is one major problem with that and is that everyone forgets about the roll man. Which is what exactly happened on this play. Nobody picked up Al Horford and it was an easy alley-oop for two points.
Boston exploited Lopez all night and it was brutal to watch. But if you did want to re-live it, Stephen Noh of the Athletic did a good job of dissecting a certain type of play the Celtics used against Lopez.
As good as Lopez has been, if Boston keeps doing this to him while he himself can’t quite reach the level of play in the first two games of the series, Fred Hoiberg can’t keep him on the court. One option is to play Cristiano Felicio more. He is much quicker than Lopez and is also a very good rebounder. Felicio’s speed can certainly help in pick and roll defense as he could possibly blitz the ball handler or not have to require that much help coming off the switch. It’s a tough choice for Hoiberg to play Lopez less, but the Bulls can’t afford to get burned like that every time they play defense.