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The No. 1 Seed Celtics Are Down 2–0 in the First Round — Here Are Five Reasons Why

Boston’s in a bad place right now, and its problems run much deeper than a lack of effort

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

After the 1-seeded Celtics got blown out 111–97 in Game 2 on Tuesday night by the 8-seeded Bulls, Avery Bradley said he heard former Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo say, “Yeah, they gave up. They gave up.”

Giving up is a convenient catch-all excuse for a team wetting the bed. But the reality is even worse: They didn’t give up; the Celtics’ struggles can’t be packaged that easily. There’s a list of reasons they’re stuck in a 2–0 hole. Here are five:

1. Rajon Rondo Is Clairvoyant

Rondo spent a year and a half on the Celtics while Brad Stevens was head coach, and it looks like he still remembers the playbook. Rondo had five steals and seven deflections — both game highs — and appeared to be one beat ahead of the Celtics offense. Just watch Rondo on both of these plays, probing like an NFL safety and then making an interception.

Rondo made countless plays like this in both Game 1 and Game 2, as did his teammates. Perhaps there’s an advantage to having one of the most cerebral players in the game on your side for a playoff series, particularly against his former team. “When we would play Boston back in the day, he would know all the plays,” Dwyane Wade said. “He messes up your first option and then he knows the second option. … We know we can go to him and ask anything. He’s watching film all the time.”

In Game 1, the Bulls picked up a steal while the Celtics were getting into one of their regular motion-offense sets. It was like the Bulls saw it coming. It almost happened again in Game 2:

The Celtics look like they’re going through the motions because the Bulls have been consistently one step ahead in this series. The disparity goes beyond steals and deflections. Chicago is making pinpoint defensive rotations, regardless of what the Celtics run:

There’s so much going on in this play. Robin Lopez seamlessly hedges on the pick-and-roll and rotates back to his man, while Jimmy Butler easily trails Avery Bradley through the screen. The play ends with Wade blocking Marcus Smart. The Celtics need to make some revisions, whether it’s putting more zip on passes, or installing new actions that resemble old ones, which could make Chicago’s awareness work against it. Either way, it’s clear that Rondo knows what’s coming.

2. You Can’t Play Hero Ball Without Heroes

The Bulls defense is fast, long, and active. Together, the five men on the floor look like piranhas. Stevens said the ball pressure “sped up” Boston’s offense. “We’re going to have to get the ball side-to-side in an appropriate fashion and then attack from there,” Stevens said. “And hopefully we’ll be more patient on Friday.”

Patience. That’s the key. The Celtics rushed a lot of shots. They were playing hero ball, which isn’t a winning formula unless you have a superhero on the team. There was a lot of this:

Jae Crowder, who has a bad habit of rushing shots, hoisted a heavily contested 3 one pass into the possession. Then, after a steal, Marcus Smart, a lifetime 28.5 percent 3-point shooter (per DX Blue), launched one from deep not two seconds into a new shot clock. “I just remember one time they went up [12] and I felt like we tried to get it all back in one play,” Crowder said. “You just can’t shoot for home runs.” It’s hard to take Crowder seriously when he’s taking horrific shots like this:

But the play Crowder was referring to was this one by Isaiah Thomas:

Thomas is an excellent scorer, but he’s bad at shooting off the dribble in transition. According to data derived from Synergy, he shot only 26.5 percent this season on 49 attempts like the one above. Thomas excels at shooting 3s in the half court but, for whatever reason, over the past three seasons the transition pull-up has eluded him. It’s not a shot he should be taking under normal circumstances, and certainly not when his team is desperate for points.

“A lot of times in transition, I just think we’re trying to — down 10 — trying to get the game back in one play,” Stevens said, later adding, “I just felt like we had too many empty possessions.” That’s particularly bad when you can’t prevent second chances on the boards.

3. Boston Is Still a No-show on the Glass

The Bulls were unable to match their historic rebounding performance in Game 1, but they did build their early lead thanks to their prowess on the boards. Chicago snatched five offensive rebounds and led by six points in the first 5:36 of action before the Celtics called a timeout to stop the bleeding. The Bulls never looked back.

“The defensive rebounding is an issue,” Stevens said. “I thought we started the game great for the first four possessions, and then the next 10 were not as great. … Four’s not enough.”

We went through Boston’s issues in my Monday article. It’s simple, really. The Celtics just aren’t big enough. Robin Lopez is able to move Boston’s bigs even when he’s boxed out. And the guards don’t look mentally engaged. Watch this:

It’s like the Celtics guards are ducks, idling, bobbing their heads, waiting for bread to be tossed directly at them, while Wade is a vulture, circling and then soaring in to snatch the bread away. The Celtics were better on the boards Tuesday, but lapses like the one above all add up to the situation we saw unfold.

4. The Celtics’ Depth Hasn’t Come Through

Thomas isn’t all there for the Celtics. He’s lacking focus, which has manifested into lazy turnovers, ill-advised shots, uncharacteristic missed free throws, and a sense he’s trying to do too much. You can’t blame him after the tragedy he and his family suffered last week. But with a dip in their star’s productivity, other players need to step up. They aren’t doing enough.

Kelly Olynyk and Terry Rozier had good nights off the bench, but that’s about it. Amir Johnson’s ankles are toast. He can’t rebound or defend, and he’s not impactful on offense; he didn’t play in the second half. Al Horford, who the Celtics signed to a $113 million contract, said after the game he “takes what the defense gives” him when asked about his passive play. This isn’t the same Horford who flew around the floor as an assertive leader of the Hawks in their previous nine playoff seasons. Jaylen Brown had a strong defensive season, but appears to have hit the rookie wall at the wrong time. Tyler Zeller is a zero. Their best defender, Marcus Smart, is receiving the Tony Allen treatment on offense:

Smart does just about everything well on the floor, except shoot. The Bulls know it, and they’ve routinely left him open, not bothering to close out. You can live with Smart shooting 3s if it means taking away driving lanes. “A lot of times they were really packing the paint and making us find shooters,” Horford said.

The Celtics might adjust by putting Smart into more pick-and-roll actions and putting Thomas off the ball as a shooter. That has risks, but they need to create spacing.

5. There Is a Noticeable Lack of Leadership

I was sitting close to the Celtics bench on Tuesday. The negativity was palpable. Players were bickering with each other; Thomas and Smart were arguing on the floor and in huddles; Smart flipped off someone in the crowd. Terry Rozier’s locker was recently moved away from Jae Crowder’s. I wasn’t able to confirm why, but it’s an odd adjustment to make so late in the season.

Put it this way: The Celtics look like the team that only three months ago called out its young players on the roster for not caring enough, who posted subtweets, who posted long rants on Instagram saying, “My vets would never go to the media.” That team was the full-on meltdown Bulls. Times have changed, and it appears as though roles have reversed in these playoffs. The adversity the Bulls faced throughout the season seems to have helped them grow. They’re communicating on the floor. Their bench is enthusiastic.

Look, I hate to play armchair psychologist here, but this stuff matters. Your day is influenced by your mood. A team’s performance is impacted by its chemistry. Bradley sees it too. “I don’t want to use this as an excuse, but it could have a lot to do with their leadership,” Bradley said. “You could see Rondo on the floor directing everybody around. We have to hold each other accountable and stay positive.”

The Celtics need to make a host of changes to come back in this series. Staying positive might be the most important one of all.