How They Got Here
• Boston: The Celtics still don’t feel like a No. 1 seed, but here we are, four years removed from the franchise trading Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to rebuild from the wreckage, and they’ve got home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs. Nobody outside Boston believes the C’s are the East’s best team — that distinction belongs to the Cleveland Cavaliers, so long as LeBron James is plying his trade — but that’s actually the perfect commentary on these under-appreciated Celtics.
They added Al Horford, whose stat-line (14 points, seven rebounds, five assists and 2.1 combined blocks/steals) isn’t reflective of the max contract he signed this summer, but whose all-around contributions as a reliable anchor on both ends of the floor was a much-needed upgrade. And they brought in No. 3 overall pick Jaylen Brown, courtesy of the Brooklyn Nets in that Truth and Ticket trade of 2013, who’s quietly been one of the league’s best rookies since his minutes increased in February.
The rest of the roster is the same old Celtics. Or same new Celtics, rather. They’re still led by Isaiah Thomas, the diminutive dynamo who’s run into playoff trouble the past two years, only he took a giant leap toward superstardom in 2016-17 with his season-long dominance of fourth quarters. Two-way brutes Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and Marcus Smart bring a scrappiness that keeps the C’s in almost any game, and they roll 12 deep down to Gerald Green and Tyler Zeller on the end of the bench.
Coach Brad Stevens is the steady hand who ensures nobody’s burdened with heavy minutes and scripts buckets when the Celtics need them most, like signature wins over the Cavaliers, Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets. They’re rarely dominant and rarely dominated, rattling off stretches of six wins in seven games at Christmas, seven in eight around New Year’s, 11 in 12 entering the All-Star break and another seven in eight down the stretch. You can set your watch to a Stevens team.
They’re deep, they’re fundamental, and they play with a chip on their shoulder, which, in a season when the Cavs didn’t seem to care about the No. 1 seed, was enough to win the East by two games.
• Chicago: When the Bulls agreed to terms with Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade in a span of 48 hours during 2016 free agency, just about everyone wondered how they could coexist with incumbent star Jimmy Butler. While the outside world pondered the absurdity of putting three ball-dominant guys with no discernible shooting expertise in the same backcourt, the self-proclaimed “Three Alphas” swore it was all good. Then, the Bulls traded for Michael Carter-Williams and went full wacko.
This was a team built to bicker, ill-suited for coach Fred Hoiberg’s motion offense, and they proved both all season. Butler, Wade and Rondo were all publicly critical of each other, their teammates, the coaching staff and/or upper management at points during the year, and they were all benched at times as a result. And while those three were actually better shooting than we expected (35 percent on 526 combined 3-pointers), the Bulls still owned the league’s worst effective field goal percentage (48.7) while ranking 21st in points per 100 possessions (104.6) — right between the Kings and Phoenix Suns.
A post shared by Ball Don't Lie (@yahooballdontlie) on Jan 27, 2017 at 2:40pm PST
Butler’s All-Defensive work on the perimeter and the rim protection of new center Robin Lopez, acquired along with Jerian Grant in the deal that sent Derrick Rose to New York, masks enough defensive gambles by Wade, Rondo and the young Bulls to produce a well above-average defense.
So, when they’re engaged, they can turn a net rating that’s hovered around zero in their favor on sheer talent. See their 20-game win streak in contests broadcast on TNT or wins against six of the league’s seven top teams (save for the Houston Rockets). That’s what makes them dangerous. Despite Chicago’s strange swap of beloved role player Taj Gibson and recent lottery pick Doug McDermott for oft-injured Oklahoma City Thunder backup point guard Cam Payne, the Bulls scrapped their way to a top-three defensive rating since the trade deadline while fighting off the Miami Heat for the final playoff spot.
It all evens out in the end, though, and the Bulls finished with a perfectly mediocre 41-41 record.
This is what should make the Celtics nervous. The Bulls were just as Jekyll-and-Hyde against Boston, splitting the four-game season series and taking a third game down to the final minute. That’s the bad news for the C’s. The good news: In their fourth and most recent meeting, Boston suffocated Chicago and beat the Bulls so badly they were completely comfortable performing the wave on the bench:
When the fans start the wave and the bench wants in… pic.twitter.com/6EALw2kaAx
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) March 12, 2017
As expected, Butler keyed Chicago’s success against Boston. The All-Star wing averaged 26.5 points and five assists in the two wins, and 14 points and 2.5 assists in the two losses. The only Bulls lineups that played more than seven minutes against the Celtics this season featured the departed Gibson, so we’re not quite sure how an increased reliance on Bobby Portis will affect this matchup. But Chicago can take comfort in knowing if Butler plays well, they’ve got a shot, because Butler plays well. A lot.
On the other side, Thomas has been sublime against the Bulls this season, averaging 24.8 points (on blistering 53.8 percent shooting) and 5.8 assists in the four meetings, win or lose. The Bulls don’t have anybody who can check the All-Star point guard, unless they want to try Butler on him, but it’s more likely Chicago will throw double-teams at Thomas — as the Cavs and Atlanta Hawks did in first-round victories against the C’s the past two years — and dare his supporting cast to make the difference.
In the players behind Butler and Thomas lies the difference. If you’re comfortable with the mercurial Rondo, a hobbled Wade, the lesser Lopez, a streaky Nikola Mirotic and the playoff unproven quartet of Portis, Grant, Paul Zipser and Denzel Valentine, then you’re probably giving Chicago a shot in this series. If you’d rather rely on the more reliable septet of Horford, Crowder, Bradley, Smart, Brown, Amir Johnson and Kelly Olynyk — most of whom will give you something every night — it’s Boston’s to lose.
We should point out two of their head-to-head meetings came in the season’s first four games, including a seven-point Boston win sans Horford on Nov. 2, and the Celtics were without Bradley’s All-Defensive skills when Marcus Smart was whistled for a controversial foul that handed Butler the game-winning free throws in mid-February. In their only meeting after the Bulls tinkered with their roster, when both teams were at full strength last month, Boston absolutely embarrassed Chicago.
Likely starting lineups
For Boston: When healthy, the Celtics roll out Thomas, Bradley, Crowder, Johnson and Horford as their starting unit, and that group has enjoyed tremendous success, winning 72.2 percent of their 36 games together this season — the near-equivalent of a 60-win team. And they’re healthy entering the series.
When all five shared the floor, that Celtics group shot a combined 42 percent from 3-point range — just a hair worse than Golden State’s starting five on roughly the same number of attempts. Boston’s starters can spread you five wide, work you inside-out with Horford finding cutters from the post, or pick-and-roll you to pieces with Thomas fluttering among the trees. And they’re always moving.
You’d think the Celtics would be better defensively, what with four plus-defenders starting around Thomas and another two — Smart and Brown — laying in wait on the bench. That’s the conundrum Stevens so often finds himself in. He’s got lineups that would rank as the NBA’s best defense without Thomas, but those same groups would conversely rank as the NBA worst’s offense sans their All-Star.
It’s a balancing act. Boston’s starters have been among the league’s most reliable all year, and Stevens has come under some criticism for leaving Thomas on the bench too long as the offense sputters, so you wonder if that was a deliberate attempt to unleash this group for heavy minutes in the playoffs.
For Chicago: Hoiberg has tinkered with his starting five all season. He started the year with Butler, Wade and Rondo working alongside Gibson and Lopez. For the most part, that lineup stayed the same through December, until the Bulls benched Rondo in favor of Carter-Williams and then Grant for more than three months. Meanwhile, they dealt Gibson and replaced him first with Portis and then Mirotic.
Rondo found his way back into the starting group, just as Wade suffered an apparent season-ending elbow injury. Enter 23-year-old German import Zipser, and the Bulls found a starting lineup that would finish the season with a startling net rating of plus-20.4 per 100 possessions in 136 minutes together. Seriously, the Rondo-Butler-Zipser-Mirotic-Lopez lineup operated at obscene levels on both ends.
Then, as the Bulls were on the precipice of the playoffs, Wade made a surprise return with three games remaining. It appears Hoiberg has settled on a starting lineup of Rondo, Wade, Butler, Mirotic and Lopez, a group that started all of one game — a 112-73 win over the Brooklyn Nets in the season finale — and finished a plus-9 in a grand total of 34 minutes on the court together this season.
It’ll be interesting to see how long Hoiberg’s leash is with Wade, Rondo and Mirotic, whether for injury, stubbornness or inconsistency. We’ll see if he’s willing to ride with the guys who got him here, for better or worse, but you can already hear the United Center crowd pining for Zipser to start Game 3.
Matchups to Watch
• Isaiah Thomas vs. Rajon Rondo. Ostensibly, Boston’s prodigal point guard is coming home to do battle with the city’s new favorite son. Only two months passed between Rondo’s December 2014 trade from Boston and the deal that brought Thomas to the Celtics at the 2015 trade deadline. Between them, they’ve given the green six All-Star appearances at the position in the past eight seasons.
Thomas’ playoff struggles are well-known. He shot 37.6 percent in 2015 and 2016, and the Celtics are a combined 2-8 in those two appearances. That isn’t to say he’s been all bad. He’s just been the singular focus of opposing defenses designed to stop him. So, while he’s an entirely different player this season, questions remain about whether a 5-foot-9 point guard can steer the C’s to playoff success.
Likewise, Rondo’s playoff heroics are the stuff of legend. He averaged 14.5 points, 9.2 assists, six rebounds and two steals in five playoff trips with the Celtics, helping Boston to three conference finals, two NBA Finals and the 2008 title. By 2012, Playoff Rondo was sublime — averaging a 17-12-7 while go toe-to-toe with LeBron James — and then it all went to hell with his 2013 knee injury. Since then, he’s played only two playoff games for the Dallas Mavericks, who benched him and withheld his playoff share for conduct detrimental during a 2015 first-round loss to the Houston Rockets.
We have no idea what to expect from Rondo, which is extremely Rondo. He’s been downright frisky since reentering the starting lineup, averaging 12 points, eight assists, 6.2 rebounds and 1.7 steals while shooting 48.7 percent from 3-point range over his last 13 games. Knowing him as they do, the Celtics have to be concerned about the tornado that could be Playoff Rondo, National TV Rondo and Vengeance Rondo all rolled into one in a first-round series against the team that traded him.
• Jimmy Butler vs. Jae Crowder. The former Marquette teammates have a mutual respect for one another, since they’ve both used their late first-round/early second-round draft selections as fuel for their fiery two-way play. That fire, though, also sparks a heated rivalry whenever they meet on the court, as we saw during a late-October scuffle between the two. There’s no doubt Butler’s the better player, but how much Crowder can neutralize his friendly foe will go a long way in deciding this series.
• Brad Stevens vs. Fred Hoiberg. The two Midwestern college coaches have been on opposite ends of the NBA appreciation scale. Stevens has built a reputation as a tactical genius, one of the game’s best in-game managers and a positive influence on an overachieving team. That’s all been reflected by the C’s win total climbing from 25 in his debut campaign to 40 the next, 48 last season and 53 this year.
Meanwhile, Hoiberg came to the NBA after years of running an uptempo NBA-style motion offense with great success at Iowa State. The Bulls mostly saddled the former NBA sharpshooter with ball-dominant guards and old school bigs, few of who could shoot, and the partnership has been predictably uninspiring. After Tom Thibodeau won better than 60 percent of his games in the five years prior to Hoiberg’s arrival, the Bulls are two games above .500 under the new regime. It hasn’t helped that Butler, Wade and Rondo all seem comfortable walking all over their 44-year-old coach.
On paper, this meeting of the minds seems like a mismatch in Boston’s favor, and if these games — or this series — gets tight, whichever coach can keep his team composed could mean the difference.
• Dwyane Wade vs. Father Time. Raise your hand if you ever thought Wade vs. Zipser would be a question in anybody’s minds. The 35-year-old’s first season in Chicago has been a strange one, as he’s at times seemed disinterested in playing for his hometown team, which is strange for a guy who made such a dramatic move from the only franchise he ever knew. It seemed inevitable Wade would exercise his player option this summer and leave the Bulls behind when he suffered the elbow injury.
Then, he came back. And while he’ll still likely leave sweet home Chicago, there’s this business of a 12th career playoff appearance. Like Rondo, Playoff Wade has been something of a phenomenon. His experience includes three titles, a 23-5-5 career average and, even in his advanced age, a throwback 21-6-4 line (with a makes-no-sense 52.2 3-point percentage) that nearly carried Miami to the 2016 conference finals. He will have Bradley hounding him in a matchup that’s dated back to the 2012 playoffs, so it won’t be easy, but few know better than Wade nothing comes easy in the playoffs.
How Boston can win: The Celtics get contributions up and down the roster and avoid multiple guys freezing in the face of suddenly high expectations for a No. 1 overall seed, they knock down their 3’s, lock down their defense, and let Thomas take them home in the fourth quarter. Just stay the course. If not, they better hope that home-court advantage works in their favor if it ever gets to a Game 7.
How Chicago can win: The Bulls ride Butler and hope Playoff Rondo and Wade show up as supporting cast members rather than aging stars stealing the spotlight. Chicago slipped in the rebound rankings since trading Gibson, and while Boston has improved in that department after the All-Star break, Lopez & Co. must win that battle against one of the league’s worst rebounding teams. If Mirotic gets hot and the young Bulls don’t wilt under the playoff pressure, we could be in for a long series.
Best Reason to Watch: Considering Boston doesn’t feel like a No. 1 seed, there’s the very real chance of this being only the sixth eight-seed upset in the league’s history, so that’s one reason to keep your eye on a series that’s normally more lopsided. In a number of ways, Thomas, Horford, Rondo and Wade are all seeking a bit of playoff redemption, and that’s always fun, especially when stars are in play.
And there’s also the possibility that, by barnstorming the Bulls in Round 1, the Celtics could convince Chicago it’s time to get serious about trading Butler and focusing on building for the future. In which case, you know who’d be the first team lining up to trade for the three-time All-Star? The Celtics. So, in a weird way, both Chicago and Boston need to win this series to prove their value to Jimmy Butler.
Prediction: Celtics in 6.
– – – – – – –