The last time the Bulls played the Boston Celtics in the playoffs, the Bulls were a 41-41 No. 7 seed against a Celtics team, yes, missing the injured Kevin Garnett, but which had won 62 games that season. The Bulls stretched Boston to seven games in one of the most exciting playoff series in NBA history.
Watch out, here come the Bulls again, and as Dwyane Wade said, it’s not your typical No. 1 vs No. 8.
The Bulls have the experience with Wade, former Celtics champion Rajon Rondo and Jimmy Butler with a combined four championships and 292 games of playoff experience. Only three Celtics, Avery Bradley, Amir Johnson and Al Horford, have played on teams that got out of the first round of the playoffs.
And this series is much closer according to the stat masters. The Celtics winning percentage for a No. 1 seed with 53 wins is the lowest in a decade. Their margin of victory of less than three per game is one of the lowest ever for a No. 1 seed, and in the first round, the margin between teams is closer only in the Clippers/Jazz series. Statistically, this looks more like a three/six or four/five series.
Sure, Boston has played better this season. They are a hard working, tough team that takes advantage of mistakes and doesn’t quit, coming at your relentlessly down the stretch behind high scorer Isaiah Thomas.
Thomas and the NBA got horribly tragic news Saturday with the report of the death of his sister in a car accident. The tragedy will hover over the series and no one can understand the impact. It’s a sad time for Thomas, who reportedly will play.
The Celtics, of course, are the gold standard of the NBA. OK, maybe the green standard with a record number of championships. But the last time they got there with their Big Three of Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce (Rondo makes four), the Celtics were pushed to a seventh game in the first round by the Atlanta Hawks. The pressure will be on this Celtics team that never has won a playoff series with this group and this coach. Their owner, Wyc Grousbeck, said on the eve of the playoffs this Celtics team was ahead of schedule and not quite championship ready. And they do have the rights to the Brooklyn draft picks the next two seasons. So the future looks very good. But the games start now.
Of course, how can we ever figure this Bulls team that swept the defending NBA champion Cavaliers and were swept by the Knicks. Boston has remained stable and strong while the Bulls traded two of their top six players who started the season, Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott, and start three players who weren’t with the team last season. The Bulls rotation is the youngest by average age in the East playoffs and third in the NBA among playoff teams after the Trailblazer and Thunder.
When the Bulls won two of three earlier in the season over Boston, it was through domination on the boards with Robin Lopez and Gibson. The Bulls were a league leader in offensive rebounding all season. That has diminished with the trade of Gibson. But the Bulls have been a much improved three-point shooting team, actually one of the league’s best since the All-Star break. The Bulls are sixth best in the league on threes since the break led by Nikola Mirotic. He is shooting 47 percent on threes since getting back in the lineup after the March 12 destructive loss in Boston. Rondo, Butler and Jerian Grant all are shooting above 40 percent on threes since the All-Star break as the Bulls have increased their scoring more than five per game.
Thomas is third in the league in scoring and while averaging a bit less than his season average against the Bulls, he shot almost 50 percent on threes against the Bulls. The Celtics’ alternative strength is their defensive perimeter with Bradley, Marcus Smart and Jae Crowder. In the Bulls two wins against Boston, they committed 10 turnovers. In the losses, that was doubled. You have to withstand the pressure against Boston. Of course, as the East’s No. 1 seed they have their own brand of pressure. Let the games begin.
Here’s a look at the matchups:
Point Guard: Rajon Rondo vs Isaiah Thomas
Thomas is the East’s leading scorer and the league’s best fourth quarter scorer, also averaging almost nine free throws per game. No one knows the immediate impact of his family tragedy. Thomas has been a marvel this season, entering the conversation for league MVP with the Celtics’ success. Much of the media conversation going into the playoffs was whether Jimmy Butler would defend him and how often. Do the Bulls trap to take the ball out of his hands? The Celtics lately have had Smart bringing up the ball when he’s in the game and Thomas playing off for a so called UCLA cut. That gives Thomas a wing move toward the lane. The Bulls biggest concern is keeping Thomas out of the lane, which no one basically can do forever. So do you trap and make someone else make shots? Boston has adequate three-point shooting. The Bulls were revived with Rondo’s return to the starting lineup after the March 12 loss in Boston. Rondo averaged about 12 points and eight assists since and got the Bulls their best run of three-point shooting in franchise history. His defense never has been truly elite, more concerned with steals from the side and behind. But he has a reputation in Boston of rising to big occasions.
Shooting Guard: Dwyane Wade vs Avery Bradley
Bradley the younger is one of the league’s better defenders; some say maybe the best perimeter defender. He helped reinvent himself as an offensive player, averaging 16.3 points this season on 39 percent three-point shooting. He missed 27 games with Achilles injuries. But at barely 6-2 in one of the league’s smallest backcourts, the Bulls likely will continue to use Wade to post Bradley and then try to draw help and move the ball. Wade is adept passing from the post and in the half court. This is what Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said about Wade vs Bradley: “They’re so physical with their guards. Avery Bradley is one of the toughest defenders in the league as far as getting into the ball. He does a great job of fronting. You can’t stall your offense trying to jam the ball in if it’s not there. If the opportunity presents itself, that’s something we’ve gone to all year.” Wade was a marvel leading the Heat to the seventh game of the conference semifinals last season and is one of the more prideful players. Plus, he also should be rested with most of the last month out injured.
Small Forward: Jimmy Butler vs Jae Crowder
The Bulls in Butler have the best player in the series, an All-Star starter who has been brilliant in carrying the Bulls when Wade was out. Butler is a power going to the basket averaging about nine free throws per game and a career high 23.9 points per game. He’s also one of the league’s top defenders and will spend probably some fourth quarters on Thomas. Butler and Crowder were college teammates at Marquette and there’s an unusual vibe between them. They’ve engaged in some pushing things this season, though Butler demurs about reasons. Crowder is a limited scorer, but a good three-point shooter and a rough, relentless defender, another of the league’s best that is the secret success for the Celtics.
Power Forward: Nikola Mirotic vs Amir Johnson
This is the X-factor position for the Bulls with the trade of Gibson. The Bulls had a huge edge against Boston on the boards with Gibson, but have exchanged that for open court, three-point shooting with Mirotic. Mirotic was renewed after that turning point March 100-80 loss in Boston and has been one of the best three-point shooters since. Bulls fans will remember the November Boston win and Johnson making four threes in one quarter. Guard him after two? You have to live with those. He’s adapted to the modern NBA power forward position averaging about 40 percent on threes this season, though he doesn’t take many. He’s always been more your role playing, garbage man around the basket, but hard working. Mirotic’s shooting could change the series.
Center: Robin Lopez vs Al Horford
Horford has been one of the toughest players for years against the Bulls. His ability to pull opposing centers away from the basket and shoot has bothered the Bulls, flummoxing Pau Gasol and Lopez this season. Horford also is a good passer out of the high post to Boston’s constant cutters. Lopez is a dynamic offensive rebounder, who has been effective against the Celtics there. He also has improved on a rolling hook shot and has an excellent mid range jump shot. But with the Celtics’ big men mostly shooting outside and Lopez tending to sink on pick and roll, the Bulls will use some active center backups, like Cristiano Felicio and Joffrey Lauvergne.
The Celtics have a deep group with Smart averaging about 30 minutes and four other reserves averaging at least 15. The Celtics can bring in players with defensive and offensive skills, a shooting big man like Kelly Olynyk, an athletic rookie like Jaylen Brown and an improving Terry Rozier or veteran Jonas Jerebko. The Bulls rely more on youth with few reserves having been in playoff games. Paul Zipser played professionally in Europe. Michael Carter-Williams likely will be called upon for his defensive abilities at point guard and the big men will need to aid Lopez playing the perimeter. Bobby Portis and Grant have shot well recently, but the rotations have varied.
Coaching: Fred Hoiberg vs Brad Stevens
They are tied in the number of first round playoff series wins: Zero. Stevens has had more chances since this is Hoiberg’s second season and first in the playoffs. It’s difficult to measure coaches with such little post season success since Boston has lost eight of 10 playoff games under Stevens. Stevens did coach the All-Star team this season with Boston’s emergence and has gotten several coach of the month awards. He’s regarded as one of the game’s brighter young coaches. Hoiberg has had a mixture of rosters in his two seasons with a near complete turnover and a major midseason trade. He stuck with it and guided his team back to a strong close with seven wins in the last nine games.
Conclusion: It could be a series that changes on a last shot, late call or injury or absence. Can the Celtics overcome the pressure of the demands of being top seed? Can the Bulls raise the spirit of playoff Rondo and Wade? It could be a good one.