If the Celtics hope to escape a 2-0 hole against the Bulls and avoid a third straight first-round ouster, it's going to come down to one man.
No, not Isaiah Thomas.
Head coach Brad Stevens.
Stevens has lived a charmed existence since arriving in Boston and overseeing a transformation from 25 wins three years ago to 53 victories this year. Along the way, he has faced pretty much zero criticism, because his team keeps wildly exceeding expectations, first simply by making the playoffs, then by challenging for a top-three seed, and then by racing to this improbable No. 1 seed.
But that lengthy honeymoon is finally over.
The Celtics not only trail the eighth-seeded Bulls with the action returning to Chicago, they've been embarrassed. The Bulls manhandled them in a close Game 1 victory that exposed their soft underbelly. They were then humiliated in Tuesday's 111-97 Game 2 loss that puts the bullseye squarely between Stevens' unflappable, expressionless eyes.
The coach has cracked the code when it comes to winning over the course of 82 games. The question is what happens when the season condenses to a series of seven-game encounters and the rules change. So far he has come up empty.
Those open shots Isaiah Thomas nailed while becoming the King in the Fourth? They're swallowed up by constant double teams. The free-flowing rotation that often left the second unit indistinguishable from the first? Say buh-bye. Benches shorten in the playoffs for a reason. The Give-It-To-Whoever's-Open egalitarian offensive ethos? It works better when sphincters aren't slammed shut like United's armored flight deck.
Stevens currently owns the worst postseason record (2-10) in NBA history, a couple of spots ahead of his boss, Danny Ainge, who went 3-9 with the Suns in the late-90s.
If you want to give him a pass on the Cleveland sweep of 2015, that's fine by me. The Celtics never had a prayer.
If you want to say they lost to the better team in six games last year against the Hawks, no argument there, either, especially with Avery Bradley missing and Jae Crowder playing on one leg.
But now? Not even Thomas's tragic personal loss explains this, and the first finger should be pointed at the coach. There's no excuse for losing to the aging Bulls, who nearly blew the whole thing to pieces at the trade deadline and snuck into the playoffs at 41-41 with a win on the last day.
Chicago features players with pedigree, but other than emerging star Jimmy Butler, they're past their prime. Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo are on the downside, though neither looked like it on Tuesday night, with Wade calmly ripping 3's and even throwing down the dunk that eluded him in Game 1, while National TV Rondo reappeared by recording 14 assists and falling one rebound shy of a triple-double.
As colleague Rich Keefe noted the other day, Robin Lopez isn't even the best player in his family. Bobby Portis is an underachieving bust against everyone but the Celtics. What's the difference between a Nikola Mirotic and Paul Zipser again?
And yet against this uninspiring group, the Celtics look completely lost. Guard Avery Bradley heard Rondo yelling, "They gave up!" and who could argue? Thomas berated Marcus Smart for failing to stop the ball after a turnover, allowing Rondo a clear lane to the hoop. Rookie Jaylen Brown let Butler disdainfully rip a rebound from his hands, and then trudged back upcourt with his head bowed. The C's committed 16 turnovers and most of them felt unforced, the result of an offense that Breaking Bad's Tuco Salamanca would describe as, "Tight. Tight, tight."
They're wilting. Ever since stealing the No. 1 seed became a legitimate possibility, Celtics shooters have short-armed jump shots as if their elbows were bungeed to midcourt. Their regular season offense -- move the ball for open 3-pointers, wait for Isaiah to bail them out in the fourth -- doesn't work in the playoffs, which will always be about a minimum of two stars. Interchangeable supporting casts tend to depart en masse.
The Bulls took a page from the Cleveland and Atlanta playbooks on Tuesday and overwhelmed Thomas, daring someone else to beat him. The C's became stagnant and predictable, jacking up 33 3-pointers and making only 10. Their best offensive rhythm came when they were patient enough to develop some semblance of an inside game with Al Horford, who drew a double-team during one sequence that ended with Bradley draining an open 3. But inside-out opportunities have been few and far between, making every Celtics possession feel like a scramble on the deck of an aircraft carrier.
Meanwhile, the Bulls scored with ease, aided in part by the turnover-prone Celtics handing them fast-break opportunities, and also by the C's extending their defense as if they were facing the Warriors. Chicago made 10-of-25 3-pointers after ranking only 24th in 3-point percentage during the season. Perhaps it would've made more sense to put a body on Lopez (18 points, 8 rebounds) and make the Bulls work for their baskets.
"We've made them a transition team with our errors," Jae Crowder lamented to reporters.
So what's Stevens going to do? Benching the immobile Amir Johnson for Tyler Zeller would be a start. Perhaps Zeller can put a body on Lopez. We know he'll at least run the floor and fill lanes in transition, and he's got a deft touch around the basket. Something > nothing.
Offensively, the C's must become less predictable. They're too perimeter oriented, treating the lane like the deep end of the pool. If they want to start inside to finish outside, that's OK. At least the Bulls won't be able to station their infantry at the 3-point line.
Whatever they do, it must start with Stevens, because the Celtics look discombobulated, and that's a reflection on their coach.
It's his job to figure out how to convince everyone to take a deep breath, relax, and play like a top seed, because despite the first two games, this series remains eminently winnable. Otherwise, not only will the summer start early, but so will the questions about Stevens' viability as a coach in the playoffs.