Celtics coach Brad Stevens made a big adjustment after his team fell behind two games to none. Gerald Green was inserted into the starting lineup to replace Amir Johnson, who did not play a single minute of Game 4. After getting destroyed on the glass in the first two games, the Celtics didn’t try to match bigs, but instead doubled-down on the trusted identity they established over the regular season: with shooting and space, they could scrap their way back into the series.
With Green in the starting lineup, the Celtics made a complete commitment to playing small that has flummoxed the Bulls. Before, when facing the Celtics’ conventional starting lineup with Johnson and Al Horford on the floor, the Bulls used Nikola Mirotic to both chase Horford on the perimeter and trusted he would be strong enough to battle the Florida product inside. Doing this allowed them to have Robin Lopez defend Amir Johnson, who is not a player who requires much defensive attention. Lopez was able to clog the paint and clean the glass, without having to worry much about actually guarding his assignment.
There are two ways to beat a team that goes small. You can either match the opponent with extra shooters on the floor, or you can beef up the front line and truly punish the other team for their decision to sacrifice size. The Bulls do not have the ability to attempt either strategy, and it brought to light the Bulls complete lack of identity since the February trade deadline.
Chicago can’t expect to win if they go small. For small-ball to succeed, a team needs to have multiple three point threats on the floor, and depth in their wing rotation. Shooting is far from a strength of this roster, and the front office has sacrificed wing depth to stockpile incompetent point guards (the true market inefficiency of the modern NBA!). They also sacrificed Taj Gibson, who not only when with Lopez helped the Bulls become an imposing, physical team that led the league in rebounding the first half of the season, but is also a solid option as a small-ball center.
With no team identity to fall back on, Fred Hoiberg has been forced to tinker with the roster all season long, and he hasn’t stopped in the playoffs. Isaiah Canaan played 34 minutes in Game 86 of the season, his first non-garbage time stint since his early hot streak back in November.
But among the poor choices available to Hoiberg in Game 4, his decision to go all-in with their own small lineups in the fourth quarter may have been the worst. Choosing to use Bobby Portis and Joffrey Lauvergne at center, the Bulls punted on their only true advantage in the series and gained nothing. Chicago was out-rebounded over the final 12 minutes, 11-9, and they lost the offensive rebound battle 3-1. The small fourth quarter lineups attempted just six three point shots, and made just one. They surrendered ten attempts to the Celtics in the fourth quarter.
Hoiberg essentially played right into the hands of the Celtics with this decision. He caved to the pressure of trying to match Boston’s speed and athleticism with players who are not up to task. He also sacrificed the one true advantage the Bulls have in this series, removing any concerns that the Celtics have in going all-in with their lineup adjustments.
While Hoiberg has not played his hand particularly well, he was not exactly dealt good cards by his bosses. The stated goals of trying to compete while also trying to rebuild at the same time create contradictions that doom this franchise for the foreseeable future. It is impossible to straddle the line between youth movement and contention without failing miserably at both.
This is postseason basketball, not a time for giving a long leash to the young guys. Boston has effectively removed their promising rookie from the rotation. But for the Bulls, they are ill-equipped to truly compete with their roster trapped in limbo. There simply aren’t enough reliable veterans on the team to compete in a playoff series, and too many inexperienced players to cobble together 48 minutes of competent basketball.
For the Bulls to recover from blowing a 2-0 series lead, they need to maximize their advantages. Robin Lopez needs to be on the court down the stretch. The Bulls should experiment with lineups where there is no true point guard so they can squeeze an extra big body on the court.
It won’t be the prettiest option; the Celtics will have a lot of open three point attempts and create uncomfortable mismatches for Chicago. But it’s not as if going small will produce any better results.