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Celtics Force Turnovers Early and Adjust Defense Late to Beat Bulls 129-112

CHICAGO — The Celtics ripped off four steals, stuffed seven shots and looked like the 2022 Boston defense as they rocketed up the floor on the way to a 16-point lead late in the first quarter on Thursday. Then, the Bulls moved away from the Nikola Vucevic pocket passes that Boston predicted and picked off repeatedly. Joe Mazzulla, making a decision he often leaves to the players, adjusted how the Celtics guarded the pick-and-roll and though it slowed the droves of turnovers the team forced early, it called back to how Mazzulla described the Celtics succeeding in spite of their relatively low number of forced turnovers earlier this month.

“It just goes back to there are multiple ways to skin a cat,” Mazzulla said then.”You can be a great defensive team in many ways … not being able to force turnovers is not something that I like, but I think we’re really good in a lot of other areas. It’s a catch-22. If you try to force more turnovers, then you’ll be un-solid in other situations and you’ll give up other stuff. At the end of the day, we’re top two or three in shot selection defense and as long as we can control the rebounding and we can control our turnovers, I think those two things fit the mold and the personality of our team than trying to force turnovers, and I still think we play relatively aggressive at times.”

Derrick White alone blocked three shots midway through the first while pouring in a pair of threes to match a feat only he pulled off earlier this season. Boston stuffed three on one possession after shooting ahead 13-5 on a pair of steals by Kristaps Porzingis and Jaylen Brown in the lane that allowed Brown and the team to get out in transition. Tatum missed a layup on the break to set up White’s first rejection, a heroic back line recovery defending Vucevic, then Porzingis blocked Chicago’s second and third-chance tries, sending White the other way for a layup.

The Bulls answered, and took a halftime lead on a 47-28 run that forced the Celtics to adjust on their way to 129-112 win. White credited Mazzulla with squarely making the call this time.

“Early, they were doing a good job of trying to get Vooch the ball in the seam,” White said. “We changed the coverage a little bit and tried to make it more difficult. More active fans, I think Jrue got his hand on it a couple times for that little seam pass. You see what they’re trying to do, what they like to do and try to make an adjustment to make it a little more difficult. It was Joe (tonight), but he could’ve talked to Jrue, he could’ve talked to J.T … J.B., K.P, whatever, or Al, he talks to everybody. He’s got a lot of trust in us. We’re the ones out there, we tell him what we see out there and he makes a call.”

Boston led by 16  after White stole Coby White’s pass and dunked in transition, following up with a pull up three in what became a 12-point opening quarter to his second half. The Celtics squandered that advantage between quarters, allowing a 16-2 run to the Bulls’ bench that started with Andre Drummond scoring six straight inside, then expanded to the perimeter for Alex Caruso and Ayo Dosunmu threes. Boston went scoreless on six out of seven possessions, setting bad screens, rushing shots and turning the ball over. Payton Pritchard halted the run short of a tie with a corner three, then Luke Kornet stole a Caruso pass in the lane to send Sam Hauser out for two — the Celtics’ sixth steal over that stretch.

That defensive forcefulness waned completely in a 39-point Bulls quarter, which they capped by turning their extended run into a lead before halftime. Chicago forced turnovers, attacked the offensive glass, posted Vucevic and swung multiple pass efforts to free the Bulls’ lanes to the baskets. The Celtics tried to pre-switch Kornet closer to the basket on one possession, but Vucevic beat him to the rim downhill by rolling away from Jrue Holiday, who covered him at the level of the screen at the top of the defense. Chicago shot 14-for-20 in the second, including 7-for-8 inside, and capped the half with a stellar possession where every Bull touched the ball, Caruso saved a pass from going out of bounds and hit White, who side-stepped Brown for three.

“We changed our pick-and-roll coverage a little bit to start the third,” Mazzulla said. “Which I thought allowed us to be a little more physical at the point of attack, and I thought our shift activity was a little more active in that third quarter. I thought we had a great first quarter, great third, great most of the fourth and that second quarter came down to defensive execution and some lulls on the offensive end.”

The Celtics returned for the second half with a more concerted offensive effort, involving Porzingis early with a post-up finish after he disappeared for the final five minutes of the second. Boston worked mismatches to get Tatum to the line twice, and when DeMar DeRozan tried to front Porzingis in the high post, Brown worked the ball to his left for White to make the entry pass for another Porzingis score. Brown’s chase down block blew the game open, turning a potential Dosunmu layup on the break to pull within three into a 10-0 Celtics run. Tatum spun past Drummond slipping into the post and Porzingis drew free throws posting White before Tatum hit a bailout step-back three at the end of the shot clock and a loose ball bounced away from Drummond on offense and into Hauser’s hands for a transition three. The Celtics led 86-72.

Hauser went down shortly after, colliding with Kornet and stumbling out of the game to the sideline. Kornet thought he knocked him out, and though Hauser did not return, Pritchard replaced him and drained a pair of shots from deep that kept the Bulls at arm’s length despite their 10-for-17 tear extending late into the fourth. Hauser came away fine, other than a cut, Kornet said.

Mazzulla called timeout with two extra in hand midway through the quarter after a string of defensive letdowns, but White’s pull-up three and a pair of put-backs by Kornet spoiled the Bulls’ hope by building a 21-point Boston lead. Kornet — after the first dunk — dabbed all the way up the floor.

“I believe it’s referred to as the spaz-dab,” Kornet corrected. “Middle-schoolers from like six years ago. I think it was big then. That’s what that was.”



Bobby Manning

Boston Celtics beat reporter for CLNS Media and host of the Garden Report Celtics Post Game Show. NBA national columnist for Boston Sports Journal. Contributor to SB Nation's CelticsBlog. Host of the Dome Theory Sports and Culture Podcast on CLNS. Syracuse University 2020.

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