Butler, Bulls poised to stop the dynamic Thomas

By Sam Smith

It’s the NBA playoffs, and everyone knows what that means. It’s time to see the best the game has, the biggest, strongest, fastest men in the world up against the pressure, expectations and demands of the sporting universe. So as the Bulls Friday closed their first post season practice for Sunday’s 5:30 p.m playoff opener, media questions focused on the heart of the Boston Celtics, the man who personifies their hopes for glory, their most unstoppable force.

All 5-7, 180 pounds of him?

If you can stop Isaiah Thomas you can stop the Boston Celtics?

C’mon, seriously! That’s the No. 1 seeded team in the Eastern Conference. That’s the guy you have to scheme for to pull the big upset? The twice traded—by losing teams—60th pick in the 2011 draft?

Now, no disrespect to Thomas — OK, that may be viewed as some lack of regard — who has made himself an NBA marvel, an All-Star, even a tangential MVP contender. And the Bulls hardly dismiss him. In fact, he’s almost all they were talking about. Much of their practice was supposedly devoted to how to contain and defend Thomas. And the Bulls best player, Jimmy Butler, was asked in about six different ways how and for how much of the game he’ll defend Thomas.

Other than trying to put him in his picket.

“Yeah, I look forward to that matchup,” Butler said. “Especially what he’s done this year for that team. I know it’s going to come at some point. I don’t know when, I don’t know where, but you know I’m going to make it tough for him. For anybody I’m guarding. But not just me. It’s going to be a team effort. I’m going to get beat at times, and I’m going to need guys to be there. I look forward to that challenge. I want that. He’s a big part to what they do. I think we all know that.”

Thomas averaged 28.9 points per game and led the NBA in fourth quarter scoring. The man who was a Nate Robinson wannabe has proven an inspiration for kids throughout the world. You, too, can not only play in the NBA, but be an NBA star even if you didn’t drink your milk.

But, really, that’s the best they’ve got?

Maybe it was, after all, a good Friday for the Bulls; perhaps it’s a rare chance to pass over the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

Which would be a holy experience. You know, holy cow!

Actually, “holy buckets” is a synonym, and the Bulls could also use some of those. Yes, getting away from the subject again. Sorry.

Of course, hardly anyone sees the Bulls winning, and I’m not sure I do, either. But I still haven’t made my pick yet. It’s difficult to see the Bulls winning this series the way the Celtics have been probably the hardest working team in the Eastern Conference. If the Cavaliers had cared as much they might have won 70 games. But, yes, it’s about the playoffs.

Still, You’d have to think that given Thomas is the prime offensive engine there’s a chance for a piston to blow. You know what they say about things not lasting long; dogs chasing cars and 5-7 stars.

“You can’t overlook anybody because somebody else can get hot, and now they’re playing out of their mind, out of their body,” said Butler. “That’s even worse. You know what to expect from Isaiah. But when somebody comes out of nowhere and hits you for 20 or 30 points, now what? Now they’ve got a confidence that Isaiah is going to have (his points) no matter what. So you’ve got to lock in on everybody. Not just one guy.”

Actually, the Bulls had that problem with the Celtics this season when Amir Johnson made four threes in one quarter in Boston’s win in November. Go ahead; try that again.

The Boston scoring is concentrated with Thomas, who averages almost double that of second leading scorer Avery Bradley. But the Celtics have a varied game after that with Al Horford and physical defensive guards like Bradley, Jae Crowder and Marcus Smart, maybe the best group in the league. They probably play as hard as any team in the league. They’re among the best challenging threes and forcing turnovers because of their activity. That gets them in transition to be one of the top 10 scoring teams in the league. The Bulls have not stood up well often to that pressure and presence.

“They have five guys on the floor at all times who can make a play and make a shot,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “It’s one of the more versatile rosters in the league. They put a lot of pressure on you with the way they play. They cut with purpose, they run their stuff as well as anybody in the league; their pace is terrific. So when you have front line guys like they have who can step behind the (three-point) line and make shots, it does put an unbelievable amount of pressure on your defense. You try to put a plan in place, try to slow it down, make them take difficult, tough, contested shots. But you have to understand they are going to make some of those; you can’t put your head down. You have to continue to trust the game plan and hopefully make a difference.”

The Celtics’ defense comes from their perimeter rather than size since their big men tend to step out and shoot threes. They’ll play off Thomas, sort of the inverse of the way the game was once played. So their big men aren’t big defensive threats at the basket, which is one reason why Boston is in the middle of the league in points allowed. But they’ll contest and trap and harass all over the court. The Bulls will be playing several players without any playoff experience, so they’ll be tested. Hoiberg did say Rajon Rondo came through practice well and will start despite some pain in his injured wrist.

“For the young guys, the great thing about it is they do have veterans they can lean on, that they can talk to, who have a lot of experience, specifically with Rajon, with Dwyane (Wade), with Jimmy, who have played in a lot of playoff series, a lot of high pressure games over the course of their careers. We do have a lot of young players and this is their first experience in the playoff situation. So just have to go out there again and it starts with effort; get out and play your role.”

Coach Fred Hoiberg

Cristiano Felicio and/or Joffrey Lauvergne should see ample playing time since Robin Lopez tends to be a center who isn’t best coming out on shooters. Plus, with the challenge of Thomas, defensive-oriented Michael Carter-Williams could be vital to help with the elusive Thomas.

“You can’t just take him (Thomas) out of the game and think you’re going to win,” said Butler. “Because they’ve got a lot of other really good players, role players, that make shots, that create for others, that guard, that rebound, pass the ball. They’ve got a really good team and they’re really good at what they do. (But) nobody is backing down from anybody on our side, and I’m sure they feel the same way on their side. So whoever is locked in on guarding him, guarding Jae [Crowder], guarding whoever it may be, like I always say, you win your matchup, you win the game.”

While the Celtics have been stable, eschewing big trades as many lobbied for at the February deadline, the Bulls did change. They traded Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott. It hasn’t hurt the Bulls three-point shooting, which has been at a franchise record rate the last month. But the Bulls dominated the Celtics on the boards in taking a 2-1 lead in the series. The Celtics erased that in the 100-80 March win over the Bulls. Can the Bulls overcome the rebounding loss with more offense?

“That’s kind of the dynamic of our team now,” Hoiberg conceded. “It’s a completely different style of how we’re playing now than what we were doing earlier in the year. That was the strength of our team when we had Taj and Robin in there together. We could beat teams up on the boards. Now it’s a little bit more of a spread dynamic. We’re not in as good rebounding position. But it is opening up things for our playmakers to get into the paint and open up shots for everybody.

“I like both (styles),” insisted Hoiberg. “It depends on the way your roster is built. We had to make an adjustment after the trade. Our guys have played unselfishly. Our pace has picked up. We’ve done a good job spraying the ball out. They’re a very good, active defensive team. It’s imperative that we take care of the basketball. We can’t give them points off our turnovers that gets them going downhill and gives them confidence and their crowd going. We have to value each possession and get a shot up on the board every time. If we turn it over, the series won’t last very long.”

Considering those famously boisterous Boston patrons, the Bulls had loud, arena-type music playing during their practice.

But the biggest annoyance likely still will be the smallest man on the court with the biggest responsibilities for the Celtics, Thomas. Butler is the Bulls best defender. The history of the Bulls, at least when they were winning titles, was to make the secondary guy make the play, to take the ball out of the hands of the primary ballhandler. The Bulls did it successfully against the likes of Magic Johnson, Mark Price, Kevin Johnson, John Stockton. Of course, this Bulls team doesn’t quite have that defensive roster. But it does have Butler, who in the 2013 playoffs for the Bulls played all 48 minutes five of the last seven playoff games. The following season in the five-game series, Butler played at least 40 minutes in four of the five games, and 53 minutes in one. He’s still just 27, but now the Bulls rely on him for so much more offense. Can he defend Thomas all game? Part? Just at the close? At all?

“I’m in a different place now,” admitted Butler. “So I guess we’ll find out whenever the time presents itself. I’m ready. I’m going to have my drinks, electrolytes, get my carbs before the game, fuel up, and be ready to go. Whatever Fred, whatever these guys ask of me, I’ll give it my all to them.

“Yeah, I could do it,” Butler said of shadowing Thomas all 48 (he won’t). “I’m a physical player, so that’s all I know. He is a quick little guy. But I’m not slow, either. I can keep up with a lot of them. But yeah, be physical. That’s how I play defense anyway. How many fouls do I get, six? I get six fouls, so I think I’ll be all right. However tall he is, he’s been that height for a long time now. So he’s mastered it. He’s good at what he does, coming off, pulling up, shooting shots, getting to the rim, getting to the free throw line. Five-eight, 6-8, whatever he is, the guy knows how to put the ball in the basket. Don’t turn the ball over and rebound. Simple as that.”

Jimmy Butler on guarding Isaiah Thomas

“I don’t think our backs are against the wall,” said Butler. “Nobody’s picking us to win, which is even better. These guys want it, man. If you could have seen the way we were out there competing today; we’re locked in. I can say that. Everybody knows how important this first game is.”

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