By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — There usually isn’t too much intrigue surrounding a first-round series between the 1-seed and the 8-seed, and minus a few exceptions, it’s a series that has essentially been a formality of the NBA’s lengthy playoff schedule.
But that doesn’t seem to be the case with the Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls.
No, the Celtics are not your typical one-seed. In years past, those top dogs have been a team led by a bonafide superstar or two, or three, who usually ran away with the regular season (the 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks being one of the exceptions). They’re usually always a cut ahead of the rest of the pack, especially in the watered down Eastern Conference. But here we are, with the 53-win Celtics holding home court advantage until the NBA Finals. Their lone star player is shorter than most fans, their big-money player doesn’t fill up the stat sheet like others making north of $30 million a season, and the supporting cast is made up of good-but-not-great players who each have their own unique role.
After first-round exits in each of the last two postseasons, and with that No. 1 seed attached to their name, anything short of a run to the Eastern Conference Finals would be a failure for this Celtics squad. They know this. And they’re not going to let the Bulls end their quest before it can really get started.
Basketball fans have only seen five 8-seeds beat the 1-seed since the playoffs expanded in 1984: Nuggets over Sonics in 1994, Knicks over Heat in 1999, Warriors over Mavericks in 2007, Grizzlies over Spurs in 2011 and 76ers over Bulls in 2012. While some radio hosts are salivating at the idea of Boston joining that group of disappointing losers, which would be a devastating failure after a promising regular season, it shouldn’t happen.
The Bulls were a mess for most of the regular season (that’s what you get when you put Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo on the same team) and backed into the playoffs. For much of the year, they looked disinterested and basically refused to play for Fred Hoiberg. Jimmy Butler is a threat to take over any game, and he’ll be the best player on the floor throughout the series, but the Celtics remain the better team.
Boston is a group hungry to prove they belong in the small group of title contenders, and not the large collection of pretenders. A first-round win over the Bulls wouldn’t put them there, but it’s the first step. Here’s what we’ll be watching for when the Celtics’ postseason tips off on Sunday evening:
IT’s Supporting Cast
As great as he is (and he was really great during the regular season) Isaiah Thomas can’t do it all. At 5-foot-9, he just can’t. The Bulls, and any team the Celtics match up against this postseason, will throw a pair of taller gentlemen on him to try to throw him off, or at least give him pause before driving to the hoop. The Hawks had success doing that in five games last postseason, and the Celtics were home early because of it.
Someone else on the Celtics needs to provide another scoring punch. The beauty, and occasionally frustrating part, of this team is it can come from a number of guys and it could be a different guy on any given night. Will it? That is the big question.
Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder have to knock down shots. Al Horford has to keep stuffing the stat sheet the way he does, but he also has to get occasionally selfish and hit some shots on his own. Marcus Smart needs to stop hauling up lollipops and attack the basket. Someone else needs to rise up off the bench, potentially rookie Jaylen Brown. Essentially anyone but Jonas Jerebko (please, Brad, please).
Thomas’ scoring prowess was up there with the best of them during the regular season, but things are going to get a lot tougher on the league’s smallest MVP candidate. If no one else can step up and help him on the offensive end, the Celtics are in for more postseason disappointment.
Crowder Vs. Butler
As previously stated, Butler has the potential to take over the series. He’s essentially the only reason Chicago is still playing basketball, averaging 23 points on 46 percent shooting (including 44 percent from distance), six rebounds and 6.6 assists in the second half of the season. His offense has been even better in April, averaging 27.4 points while hitting 50 percent of his shots, though it should be noted that he did most of that damage against the likes of the Knicks, Pelicans, Magic, 76ers and Nets (twice).
But it wasn’t easy when Butler suited up against the C’s, shooting just 36 percent from the floor in his four games against Boston (so he should probably push for a trade to the Celtics, right?). Most of that had to do with his former college teammate, Jae Crowder.
The pair of former Golden Eagles will be tussling again over the course of series (Crowder will get help from Bradley and Smart, too), and holding Butler in check will be the key to the Celtics taking care of business. Butler will get his points, but if Boston can keep him from going wild on the offensive end, the series shouldn’t last more than five games.
Just be sure not to tickle his elbow on any last-second bids.
Battle On The Glass
One of the Celtics’ deficiencies this season (and the last decade) has been their lackluster ability to grab rebounds. Against the Bulls this season, they were downright atrocious on the glass.
Chicago was one of the NBA’s best rebounding teams, pulling down 46.3 boards per game — third in the league and first in the East. They tied with the Thunder for the most offensive rebounds per game at 12.2 per game.
Against Boston, they averaged 58 rebounds per game. They out-rebounded the C’s 195-157 overall and by at least 20 on two different occasions, holding a 67-44 edge on their opening night and 58-38 back in a one-point win on February 16 (the tickle game). On the offensive glass, Chicago held a 60-29 advantage over Boston.
The Celtics getting out-rebounded was a common occurrence throughout the year, as they finished with a minus-2.5 rebounding differential to rank 27th in the league, so they proved that they don’t need to out-rebound their opponents to win. But it would make life a whole lot easier if they could at least make Chicago work for some of those boards.
It should help that Taj Gibson (who averaged nine rebounds in his three games against Boston) is no longer in a Bulls uniform after being dealt to the Thunder at the trade deadline, but the C’s have to put forth a much better effort on the glass this series.
Dwyane Wade was a great basketball player, and is still pretty good as he hits the ripe old age of 35. He brings more playoff experience to this series than the entire Boston roster combined, even if you add assistant coach Walter McCarty to that mix. Even though he just had his worst shooting year as a pro, he’s still a threat to drop 20-25 points a night if the Celtics give him the old man treatment (they won’t).
But he’s also a threat to do something … dirty. Just ask his current teammate Rajon Rondo, whose elbow was nearly broken off by Wade back in the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals. You don’t need to see Rondo’s elbow bending the wrong way again (unless you really want to, you sick puppies); instead just look at Big Baby’s reaction:
It’s not that Wade necessarily looks to hurt anyone on every play, but he’ll certainly take advantage of the chance to give someone a little extra push, a stray elbow or the casual toss to the ground. It’s something the C’s should be aware of, because the last thing they need is to lose any one of their pieces, however big or small, in the first round.
Things could get a bit testy during this series, because the 8-seeded Bulls have nothing to lose. Hopefully, we don’t see a repeat of the 2011 horror show at the hands of one Mr. Dwyane Wade.