By Brian Robb, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) – The Boston Celtics may be the top seed in the Eastern Conference but that doesn’t mean they are immune from an upset in the first round against the eighth-seeded Chicago Bulls. In fact, ESPN’s Kevin Pelton wrote earlier this week about how one statistical method indicates the Green may be the team that’s most prone to an upset in the first round.
How will things shake out when a batch of familiar faces (Dwyane Wade, Rajon Rondo) return to the TD Garden on Sunday night? Here are five predictions about how the series will play out, including the end result.
1. The Rajon Rondo/Dwyane Wade backcourt pairing will be a problem for the Bulls — These two have not spent much time together on the court together for the last two months, largely due to injuries. In a related story, the Bulls were able to rally in March and April in Wade’s absence with a more perimeter oriented starting lineup that featured plenty of shooters around Rondo. Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg likely doesn’t have the guys to bench one of the former All-Stars to start the series but it should become evident fairly well quickly that Chicago is better off with the non-shooters separated. Rondo has been hot from downtown since the All-Star break (45 percent) but he isn’t reliable enough to be counted on to spread the floor when Robin Lopez and Wade are out there. Whether or not Hoiberg is willing to adjust his lineups to this reality should help determine whether this series is a real challenge or not for Boston.
2. Al Horford will neutralize Nikola Mirotic — The 26-year-old Mirotic did not even play in two of the four games against the Celtics this season, but he has shaken off an ugly first half slump to become a difference maker for the Bulls in the second half of the season. The 6-10 stretch four is hitting 41.3 percent of his shots from 3-point range since the All-Star break on nearly 6 attempts per game. That stroke has helped drag big men out of the paint and opened up the floor for Jimmy Butler and Rondo. I would not expect that trend to continue against the C’s, largely thanks to Al Horford’s defensive versatility. The big man is terrific at closing out on shooters with his 6-10 frame and Mirotic doesn’t have the dribble-drive skills to burn him on closeouts. If Mirotic doesn’t get going, there’s a good chance the Bulls offense outside of Butler will stall this series, so Horford’s defense will loom large.
3. Jimmy Butler spends a good chunk of each game guarding Isaiah Thomas — We saw glimpses of this in a couple of the team’s regular season matchups, but this may be Fred Hoiberg’s best option in attempting to slow down the league’s third-best scorer. Thomas can struggle at times against defenders with length (see: Iman Shumpert two years ago) and there are no other guard in the Bulls backcourt that can adequately handle Isaiah’s speed and not take away too much away from the Bulls offensively (i.e. Michael Carter-Williams). The problem with this strategy for Hoiberg is that it may take hurt Chicago a great deal on the offensive end, since Thomas will surely run Butler through plenty of screens on and off the ball. Still, if Butler can contain Thomas in single coverage, it will give the Bulls a shot.
4. The Celtics won’t be able to rely on their 3-point shooting — The Celtics have made some plenty of offensive strides this season, largely thanks to Isaiah Thomas, but one area that they’ve seen some slippage in lately is 3-point shooting. The team is hitting just 33 percent of their shots from beyond the arc since the All-Star Break, a number that has caused the team’s overall offense to regress in the bottom third of the league over the past two months. The Bulls are one of the stingier defenses in the league of late (top 10 for season, top 5 since ASB) so you can bet they will be aggressive in trying to push the C’s off the line. Hence, it will be important for Boston to be aggressive attacking the rim, particularly when Robin Lopez is not on the floor. Without Taj Gibson in the fold, Chicago lacks imposing interior defenders and the C’s should push the issue so they don’t become dependent on an unreliable 3-point shot.
5. The Celtics will win in 6 games — I don’t expect this series to come easy for Boston, largely on the fact that they haven’t played solid all-around basketball often for the last two months. They’ve been winning plenty of games, but they’ve also largely done it against a favorable, home-heavy schedule. The key thing that will be worth watch is whether the C’s defense can lock in against the offensively-challenged Bulls. On paper, this should be a better group on that end than last season, but we haven’t seen it yet. As rotations shorten and the starter minutes get extended, that should help Boston find their rhythm, as they hold off a experienced Bulls squad.
Brian Robb covers the Celtics for CBS Boston and contributes to NBA.com, among other media outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @CelticsHub.