Isaiah Thomas and the top-seeded Celtics look to avoid getting upset by the Bulls in the first round
The fact that the two most historically successful Eastern Conference teams are meeting in the NBA playoffs this year shouldn’t exactly come as a big surprise but the fact that the Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls are matching up in the first round as the No. 1 and No. 8 seed, respectively, might cause the average basketball fan to do a bit of a double take. Each team arrived in the postseason by taking two very different paths but the end result is one compelling matchup for the right to advance into the semifinals.
The Celtics arrive as the East’s top dog thanks in part to their MVP candidate, Isaiah Thomas. The guard has flourished this season under the tutelage of terrific head coach Brad Stevens and picked up All-Star honors on his way to finishing second in the league in scoring at 29 points per game. Thomas’ play really shines through in the fourth quarter and he’s proven to be a very effective combo with both Jae Crowder and offseason addition Al Horford. That trio helped power the team to their first division title in five years but Boston wants a lot more than just that given the limited amount of space up in the rafters of TD Garden.
Standing in their way is a Bulls team that needed plenty of late help to make the push into the final spot in the East. Hardly anything has come easy for Chicago in the second season under head coach Fred Hoiberg but here the Bulls are and they’re hoping to avoid a one-and-done entry to this year’s dance. The team is not surprisingly led by their trio of guards, with Rajon Rondo distributing, Jimmy Butler contributing on both ends and Dwyane Wade chipping in as needed across the board. Lingering injuries after such a grinder of a season could be the thing to keep an eye on in particular with this squad as Wade recently returned from an elbow fracture and Rondo did the same after a wrist injury.
The two teams split their regular season series at two games apiece, with three of the four contests turning out to be extremely competitive, back-and-forth affairs. Boston ran away with the final meeting last month however and enters the series on quite the upswing. Consistency has been an issue with Chicago but the Bulls have a quality starting five and should benefit quite a bit from a shortened rotation in the playoffs.
This won’t be a walk in the park for either team given some of the star power on the two benches and could very well wind up as one of the most competitive first-round series in the Eastern Conference. It doesn’t feel like a meeting of the top and bottom seeds when you look at things from a lot of angles and the product on the court could turn into must-see TV as a result.
No. 8 Chicago Bulls (41-41) vs. No. 1 Boston Celtics (53-29)
Game 1 — Sunday, April 16 at 6:30 p.m. ET (TNT)
Game 2 — Tuesday, April 18 at 8 p.m. ET (TNT)
Game 3 — Friday, April 21 at 7 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Game 4 — Sunday, April 23 at 6:30 p.m. ET (TNT)
Game 5 (if necessary) — Wednesday, April 26
Game 6 (if necessary) — Friday, April 28
Game 7 (if necessary) — Sunday, April 30
Note: Games 1, 2, 5 and 7 will be played at TD Garden in Boston while Games 3, 4, 6 will be at the United Center in Chicago.
Keys for Chicago
Some in the Windy City probably wouldn’t have minded if the Bulls faded down the stretch and made the lottery instead of grabbing that No. 8 seed, leaving more time to watch the Chicago Blackhawks’ postseason run. While it hasn’t always been pretty, this is still a veteran roster that knows what it’s like to be in the playoffs and just as importantly what it takes to win games in the final few minutes. Given how closely contested most of the regular season meetings have been with Boston that could be a factor at some point over a potential seven games.
The health of Rajon Rondo and Dwayne Wade will be something to watch as each could be limited early on in the series as they continue to make their return back from injuries. Their stint in suits could have been a blessing in disguise though as the former’s absence in particular allowed Jerian Grant to really step up his play heading into this series. While he may have been an odd-man out before in playing the Celtics, now he could wind up seeing some quality minutes. Fellow backup Michael Carter-Williams is a bit more defensive-minded on the court and head coach Fred Hoiberg will likely need to insert him when Isaiah Thomas starts to heat up. In short, the Bulls certainly won’t lack options on the perimeter no matter how the game is trending and it will be up to their head coach to figure out the right matchups for the moment.
Few players will play a more pivotal role than Nikola Mirotic however. This team has really thrived during games when he’s been hot from the field and it’s likewise been difficult to overcome an off night from him. He’s tough to guard on pick-and-rolls so staying on the court will be a big deal offensively for a team that can play off him in so many different ways.
Keys for Boston
While many see the Celtics holding home-court advantage until the NBA Finals as the product of issues in Cleveland, this is still a dangerous team that is a threat to emerge out of the East thanks to the play of Isaiah Thomas. What he lacks in stature is more than made up for in scoring ability and it’s all come together for him in his best year in the league. That he’s been able to score so well despite playing fewer minutes (34 per game) than you’d expect should be a bonus for head coach Brad Stevens heading into the first round as the point guard will be able to contribute even more offensively with his playing time increased quite a bit against the Bulls.
Thomas is a defensive liability but that could be canceled out somewhat by matching him up on Rajon Rondo and rotating help around when needed. That’s not the only defensive matchup that could keep Stevens up at night however, as dealing with Chicago’s frontcourt of Robin Lopez and Nikola Mirotic could also pose some big problems if either Al Horford or Amir Johnson get into foul trouble. Boston is lucky to have quality options off the bench in Kelly Olynyk and Jaylen Brown and, in the case of the latter, it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see the rookie play quite a bit in this series given how he can defend the wing and contribute in spots offensively.
Likewise, given the guards that the Bulls are trotting out in the starting lineup, Marcus Smart could play a key role as a reserve in certain stretches where he’ll need to be his pesky self defensively. Boston’s depth is an asset to use in this series and forcing its opponents to extend rotations — especially in pressure situations that happen nightly in the playoffs — will be key for Stevens and company.
The league office and their television partners might have jumped for joy this year at landing a first-round series matching up Boston and Chicago, even if it does open the door to one of the bigger upsets in recent memory. No. 8 seeds have made a run at the top teams time-after-time in the NBA playoffs but only five times have the lower-seeded team actually completed the process and advanced into the second round. Given the makeup of both of these rosters, it wouldn’t be shocking to see it happen a sixth time at some point and many around the Bulls are thinking the time is now.
The reason for that thinking starts with the big names in the backcourt that the team can trot out onto the court. Jimmy Butler has developed into a star in his own right the past few years and makes his presence felt on both ends of the court night after night. Teammates Rajon Rondo and Dwayne Wade are no strangers to having big postseason performances and are certainly looking to do so one more time even if both are a little banged up. The former’s return to Boston on the big stage of the postseason will certainly enhance the appeal of this series and should make things even more interesting come tip-off.
Despite all that, the Celtics ascent to the top seed in the East has been one of the most intriguing storylines of the year in the NBA and a great credit to All-Star Isiah Thomas. His supporting cast has certainly filled out in impressive fashion as the year has gone on and few coaches in the league are as good at game planning as Brad Stevens has proven to be since he arrived in Beantown.
So don’t be surprised if this is a back-and-forth type series with each seizing momentum before giving it right back. The Celtics do have the edge in most areas coming into this one but the Bulls are such a tricky team to face in the opening round. Boston may wind up advancing in the end but this certainly won’t be a walk in the park over the next few weeks.
Prediction: Celtics in six
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.
(Isaiah Thomas photo courtesy of @celtics)