BOSTON – No one would have predicted back in October that the Boston Celtics would wind up where they are heading into the NBA Playoffs.
Boston, after winning its 53rd game of the season during Wednesday night’s regular-season finale, is the No. 1 seed in the East.
At the bottom of the bracket and in the eighth seed sit the Chicago Bulls, who earned a playoff bid by winning seven of their final nine games of the regular season. Chicago finished the regular season with an even 41-41 record.
These two teams split their four-game series during the regular season, and here’s how the they match up from head coaches to bench units.
Head Coaches – Brad Stevens vs. Fred Hoiberg
One of the head coaches in this matchup will earn their first career playoff series victory. That, however, doesn’t mean that one coach is not more accomplished than the other.
Brad Stevens unquestionably has the upper hand in this matchup. He has four seasons of NBA coaching experience compared to Fred Hoiberg’s two seasons. He has won 48 or more games during each of the last two seasons, while Hoiberg has won 42 or fewer during his first two NBA seasons. This will also be Stevens’ third appearance in the postseason, while Hoiberg will be coaching in his first playoff series.
Both of these coaches got their teams to the Playoffs, but both have yet to win a playoff series. That will change within the next two weeks.
Point Guards – Isaiah Thomas vs. Rajon Rondo
Boston is 2-for-2 so far. The Celtics also have the advantage at point guard.
Isaiah Thomas is the East’s leading scorer with an average of 28.9 PPG. He is one of the most explosive players in the league, as evidenced by his league-high average of 12.6 drives per game and his average of 8.5 free throw attempts per game.
Rajon Rondo is nowhere near the offensive player that Thomas is, but Celtics fans understand that Rondo’s eclectic skill set can change a series. He shot a team-best 37.6 percent from long range this season and is still an elite passer and rebounder for his position.
But will he outplay Thomas, who is entering his prime, during this series? Probably not.
Shooting Guards – Avery Bradley vs. Dwyane Wade
Avery Bradley is an All-Defensive First Team performer who has hounded Dwyane Wade in the past. Bradley also averaged career highs of 16.3 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game this season while canning 39.0 percent of his 3-pointers. He is a high-level player at both ends of the court, and he’s consistent with his effort every night.
Wade, in his first season with the Bulls, just completed arguably the worst regular season of his career. He averaged 18.3 PPG, the second-lowest mark of his career, but shot a career-worst 43.4 percent from the field.
Bradley has the upper hand based upon his performance this season, but we’ll be conservative and call this one a push due to Wade’s history of playing well in the Playoffs.
Small Forwards – Jae Crowder vs. Jimmy Butler
Jimmy Butler is an established two-way star in this league who has averaged 20 or more PPG during each of his last three seasons, maxing out with a career-high average of 23.9 PPG this season, and made the All-Defensive Second Team three times. Butler is one of the best in the league at getting to the line (8.9 free throw attempts per game) and he has also improved his 3-point shooting to 36.7 percent this season.
Jae Crowder will give him fits during this series, however. Crowder is a strong and athletic defender who narrowly missed being selected to the All-Defensive Second Team last season. He also hit 39.8 percent of 3s attempts this season.
Butler gets the nod due to his All-Star play at both ends. Crowder, however, will challenge him at both ends.
Power Forwards – Amir Johnson vs. Nikola Mirotic
This is the battle of the unsung starters. Amir Johnson and Nikola Mirotic fly under the radar.
Johnson is so consistent for Boston. He’s a versatile and effective defender, he rebounds, he moves the ball, he sets great screens, and he surprisingly led the Celtics in 3-point shooting at 40.9 percent this season.
Speaking of 3-point shooting, that’s the area with which Mirotic has made his name. He is a career 35.0 percent shooter from long distance, which isn’t elite, but every time he catches the ball on the perimeter, Boston’s coaching staff will be yelling to the defense to be in his bubble.
Mirotic has the greater potential to alter this series, but Johnson will be consistent every single game.
Centers – Al Horford vs. Robin Lopez
Al Horford is a four-time All-Star who’s been an integral part of Boston’s ascension this season. He led all NBA centers in assists with 5.0 a night while scoring 14.0 PPG on 47.3 percent shooting. Horford is also a versatile defender who will be able to defend all of Chicago’s big men, including Lopez, and he’s more than capable of stepping up on the glass if the game plan calls for it.
Lopez is a very solid player, but he’s limited compared to Horford. Lopez mainly scores around the rim and will occasionally toss in a jump hook or a 10-15-foot jumper. He has crushed the C’s on the offensive glass this season by grabbing 16 in four games. Lopez is a solid interior defender, but Horford, Johnson and Kelly Olynyk will regularly draw him away from the basket.
Horford is the better player, but Lopez has the ability to change a game with his offensive rebounding and shot-blocking.
Boston has a massive advantage when it comes to bench play. The C’s have two reserves (Marcus Smart and Kelly Olynyk) who averaged at least 9.0 PPG this season. Chicago doesn’t have a single reserve who averaged more than 6.8 PPG this season, which is Bobby Portis’ average.
Additionally, the Celtics reserves have far more playoff experience than Chicago’s incredibly young group of reserves. Smart, Olynyk, Jonas Jerebko and Tyler Zeller have all played in multiple playoff series, while Terry Rozier has participated in one. Chicago’s reserves total a mere 14 playoff game appearances.
Rotations are tightened during the postseason, so expect to see a lot of Smart, Olynyk and Jaylen Brown, and then situational minutes for Jerebko, Zeller, Gerald Green and Rozier for Boston. On Chicago’s side, you can expect to see a lot of Portis, but the rotation after that remains a mystery.