NBA Playoff Preview: Celtics vs. Bulls
After probably the best regular season of basketball I can remember in recent times, the playoffs are finally set to tip off on Saturday afternoon. The Boston Celtics find themselves in a position they haven’t been in since the 2007-2008 season, and that’s 1st place in the Eastern Conference. Led by MVP-candidate Isaiah Thomas and prize free agent acquisition Al Horford, the C’s have been able to improve upon their 48 win campaign last year to become head of the class. Make no mistake; Cleveland is still the team to beat in the conference and everyone in the world knows that. But to even be in this position just 4 years removed from hitting rock bottom is an impressive feat in its own right. So on Sunday at 6:30, the Celtics will take on the 8-seeded Chicago Bulls at TD Garden in Boston.
Now let me start off by saying that the Chicago Bulls are not your typical 8 seed. Not only are they led by veterans with a ton of playoff and championship experience, but they’re also one of the best defensive teams in the league since the All Star break. Dwayne Wade and Jimmy Butler can take over a game on any night, and National TV/Playoff Rondo will be chomping at the bit to face his former team. I say all of that to say this: don’t believe everything you hear on TV. If you turn on ESPN, NBATV, or any other network covering the playoffs, EVERYONE points to this series as the series most likely to result in an upset. There’s not one single person out there that thinks we deserve a top 2 seed, let alone the number one seed.
The thing about that though is that numbers don’t lie, and the Bulls are the 8 seed for a reason. Aside from Butler, and to a lesser extent Wade and Rondo, there really isn’t much else on this team to be able to compete in a 7 game series. Mirotic has been hot from 3 as of late, but other than him the Bulls literally have no depth at all. Are they going to be able to count on Butler and an old D Wade coming off of an injured elbow to be able to produce enough offense night in and night out? Yes the Bulls have had some impressive victories, most notably against the Warriors and Spurs, but then they turn around and lose to some of the worst teams in the league the next night. With such few shooting threats on the floor, the C’s can afford to pack the paint to stop Butler and Wade’s mid-range game. It’s also a huge help that we can hide our worst defender, IT, on a Rajon Rondo that you basically have to beg to shoot the ball.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Bulls are probably going to do what every other team does to us in the playoffs and that’s trap IT out beyond the 3-point arc in pick and roll situations. They better find some way to contain him, because Thomas is the engine that makes that offense go and if he gets started it could be a short series. I fully expect Butler to take the challenge of guarding Isaiah in the 4th quarter much like he did during regular season games. The key to this series could be rebounding though, as Chicago is at the top of the league in second chance points and Boston is terrible on both the offensive and defensive glass. Boston will need to use its depth to try to wear out the Bulls’ short rotation, and the guards will have to make an effort to keep Butler, Wade, and Rondo off the glass because all 3 of them excel in that area. The edge in coaching is easy, and it’s Brad Stevens by a long shot. Fred Hoiberg is still wet behind the ears and could get outmatched in this one badly if he’s unable to make in series adjustments.
I expect every game in this series to be close and for Chicago to make it interesting. But I’m not buying the popular narrative of the Bulls potentially pulling an upset. People must not have watched this team play all season long. The one thing they have going for them is that 3 out of the first 4 games are on TNT, and for reason Chicago is unstoppable when they play on TNT. I also feel like we’ll come out flat in Game 1 because after a few days of rest we’re definitely sloppy, but I think in the end we pull it together.
My prediction: Celtics in 6.