Good news: the Celtics are 2-0 in games without Kyrie Irving (yes we’re counting the last 43 minutes in a win at Charolotte). Bad news: with Boston also light Marcus Morris, and Al Horford at less than 100 percent (if he plays), there’s always a danger.
The Celtics face a back-to-back against a young team with nothing to lose, the Chicago Bulls. The Bulls, according to a source close to Adam Silver, remain part of the NBA. (“They practice too,” as someone put it. The well-managed Celtics are 24-15 on back-to-backs, well above the league average.)
In a previous Kyrieless win against Toronto, the Celtics gritted their way to a 95-94 win. The game that ended on a just-missed mid-range jumper by DeMar DeRozan — over the outstretched arm of Jaylen Brown.
The Celtics also got past the Charlotte Hornets, 90-87, while Irving was getting fitted for his signature mask. (Boston played Kyrieless for 46 minutes and 10 seconds of that one — and trailed by 6 points when he was injured. So, yes, we’re counting it.)
Defense and… defense
As both those scores suggest, the Celtics will have to rely on defense, defense, a little offense, and probably some more defense against Chicago.
Happily, the Bulls rank 22nd in the league in field goal percentage (.422), and 25th from 3-point range (.340). They don’t turn the ball over a lot: 14.4 times a game to the Celtics’ 14.2.
But, like some teams that have given the Celtics trouble, they hit the offensive glass. (C.f., San Antonio, Detroit in first matchup, Milwaukee, Dallas, and a few others.) The Bulls rank second in the league in offensive rebounds. (Though lower in offensive rebounding percentage. Miss a lot of shots, get a lot of opportunities.)
“Beautiful basketball” without the mask
Yep, you still have to score to win. Against Toronto, “Point Horford” scored 21 points on 9 shots (not a typo), and found Jaylen Brown on some beautiful cuts and open-3 looks. Brown scored 18 points on 8 of 15 shooting to hold his own against DeRozan, at least efficiency-wise. (DeRozan shot 8 for 22.) Marcus Smart didn’t shoot the lights out but dished out 9 assists. He also led the Celtics in +/-, at +9, in that mystical way Smart has of helping to win games while shooting 3 of 10.
Charlotte’s bigs (especially Dwight Howard) and their bench struggled to cover the floor against Celtic sharp-shooters. The result? Five Celtics scored in double figures: Brown, Tatum, Marcus Morris, Shane Larkin, and Scary Terry Rozier. What about Horford? The Celtics were also “Al-less” against Charlotte.)
It’s a get-or-miss the loose ball league
We always like to take a look at the hustle stats. In a close game, a clanking shot can cost you — but so can 2-3 extra posessions… the things that give you a chance to “make or miss.”
So while many observers zeroe in in Marcus Smart’s shooting percentage, or Jaylen Brown’s handles, were’ slightly cheered to see that the Bulls average only 5.6 loose ball recoveries per game; the Celtics, 6.6. (“If only the Bulls would play as angry as they practice,” some wonk joked on the Bulls subreddit.)
That said, with Boston’s young roster and ubuntu mentality, and people fighting for playing time, there’s no reason the team shouldn’t be near the top of the NBA in that category. And on a night like tonight, the game may well just come down to an old-school floorburn or two.