It was a weird Game 3 for the Chicago Bulls from the jump. Because of the 6:00 p.m. local start time in Chicago, half of the arena was still empty at tipoff as thousands of commuters couldn’t find their way through the horrific weekend traffic to the United Center in time for the start of the game.
The dead air in the arena didn’t help the Bulls’ energy in the first quarter, especially considering the gut-punch news of Rajon Rondo’s hand injury earlier in the day. Chicago only scored 15 points in that quarter, and the Celtics jumped out to a massive lead early without ever really looking back. The Bulls made surges, but Boston weathered all of them.
The issues for Chicago were really two-fold. First and foremost, Avery Bradley was all over Jimmy Butler like carbon dioxide smothering a grease fire for most of Game 3. Boston also brought double-teams a lot, daring someone other than Butler to pick up Rondo’s slack in Game 3, and it worked. Butler was atrocious, scoring only 2 points in the game’s first 34 minutes.
As for picking up the slack at point guard, Chicago’s tandem of Jerian Grant and Michael Carter-Williams was bad. They were so bad, in fact, that by the end of the game, Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg was playing a roster with zero point guards. That will happen when the two you’ve got finish the game shooting a combined 3-for-10 with three assists and seven turnovers. That qualifies as bad.
Regardless of point guard play, Chicago is not winning the game if Butler isn’t the best player on the floor. It doesn’t matter how many offensive rebounds the Bulls get or how well they play defense. Butler can’t be ice cold for three quarters of any game in this series and still hope to come away with a win.
Wade helped pick up some of the slack, leading all Bulls with 18 points in Game 3. But Boston’s shut-down of Butler was something the Celtics needed and has to be a big part of the game plan moving forward. Without Rondo to shred Boston’s defense and defend Isaiah Thomas, this is a different series.
Of course, it helps that the Celtics knocked down a ton of three-pointers in Game 3. With Thomas shut down for good chunks of the first two games, the rest of the Celtics failed to pick up the slack, but they were the reason the Celtics earned their first win of this series. Boston finished 17-for-37 from deep on Friday night, and a lot of those deep shots seemed to come every single time Chicago mounted any sort of comeback.
Boston’s defense was good and the players hit shots. The Celtics still gave up 15 offensive rebounds, but it didn’t matter in this one. There are, apparently, other ways to win.
In Game 4, expect Chicago to run a lot more actions for Jimmy to get him going early. While Wade had a good game, they’re going to need both guys contributing to have any shot in this series. The Bulls also will have to make adjustments considering how thoroughly they got owned by Boston at the point guard position, so expect a lot more of Butler and Wade acting as playmakers. These Bulls point guards, Carter-Williams especially, can’t see big minutes in Game 4. It’s just not going to work.
As for Boston, now is the time to press on the gas. Even though they’re still down 1-2, they could head back to Boston with homecourt advantage if they steal Game 4 in Chicago on Sunday. Thomas still hasn’t played entirely like himself in this series (even his 33-point Game 1 felt off), and a big game from him seems inevitable. Add that to the improved play of the supporting Boston cast, and it’s easier than ever to see a path for the Celtics to still win this series.
That didn’t feel possible as recently as Friday morning, but the loss of Rondo clearly hurts the Bulls exactly as much as every intelligent basketball person thought it would. Unless he rips off his short-sleeved purple suit and makes a return this series, the Bulls are going to continue to struggle.
Who wins Game 4?
Boston, probably. Thomas’ explosion is coming, and the Bulls just don’t have enough at point guard to keep up. This series should head back to Boston tied up at two games apiece, with no team having won a game at home. Game 3 showed us that this is still anybody’s series.
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