Somewhere around the 87th Robin Lopez jump shot on Tuesday night, I wondered if the Celtics would have been better off trading the Nets pick for him at the trade deadline instead of Jimmy Butler or Paul George. The Bulls took a commanding 2–0 lead over the Celtics in their first-round series Tuesday, and Chicago’s supporting cast has been the difference maker in what’s been the most surprising matchup of the playoffs.
I have to start with Lopez. After his big night on the boards in Game 1, RoLo picked up where he left off in Game 2. He recorded five offensive rebounds, and his activity in the paint created numerous second-chance opportunities for the Bulls. And it wasn’t only the offensive rebounds. Lopez consistently found himself utilized as a release valve on pick-and-pops, and he buried Boston with jumper after jumper, particularly in the first half. Lopez finished with 18 points on 8-of-11 shooting in 32 minutes, and he was the best big man on the floor in Game 2. Boston simply can’t keep giving him the open elbow J, or else the C’s will get midranged to a first-round exit.
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Lopez outplaying guys like Kelly Olynyk or Amir Johnson isn’t completely shocking, but Al Horford has no excuse for his no-show Tuesday. The Celtics’ splashy free-agent acquisition was mostly invisible, with his 11 rebounds and five assists rendered useless by his paltry scoring output of seven points. Boston’s bigs will simply need to fight harder in the paint, or Brad Stevens needs to commit to a small lineup and hope the increase in pace eventually catches up with the Bulls.
Chicago found other heroes outside of Lopez. Bobby Portis struggled after a huge Game 1, but Paul Zipser stepped up with an outstanding performance in his stead. Zipser scored 16 points in 29 minutes, hitting a couple threes and slithering his way into open spaces. Nikola Mirotic also bounced back from a rough opening game with 13 points and some timely threes. Ultimately, big games from guys like Lopez and Zipser are found money for the Bulls, who are also getting clutch shot-making from Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade, as well as a resurgent effort from Rajon Rondo.
The Celtics, for all their precious depth, can’t find the right combination to counter Chicago. Isaiah Thomas scored 20 in Game 2, but the Bulls were able to hold him to an inefficient night from the field by hounding him with length. Marcus Smart’s moments of energy were offset by his offensive limitations. And guys like Johnson, Jaylen Brown and Tyler Zeller couldn’t provide answers for the Celtics, while the starters could never really keep up with Thomas.
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All is not lost for Boston, of course. The Bulls were No. 24 in the league in three-point percentage during the regular season, and they shot 40% from deep on Tuesday. Thomas, a 91% free-throw shooter, missed six freebies in Game 2. Those little oddities can add up in a single game, and some regression in those areas will help the Celtics.
The alchemy for winning a playoff series can change as often as possession to possession. Does it help the Bulls that Jimmy Butler is the best all-around player in this series? Undoubtedly. But after two games, it’s the players who have stepped up from the margins who have made the biggest difference for Chicago. If the Celtics can’t find ways to contain guys like Portis, Zipser or Lopez as the series shifts to the Midwest, their season is very much in danger of ending in the Windy City.