It was a long and adventurous season for the No. 8 seed Chicago Bulls (41-41), but they managed to sneak into the playoffs on the very last day of the regular season by beating the Brooklyn Nets. Overall the team has been inconsistent, to say the least. Against the top teams in the NBA, the Bulls actually had an above .500 record of 12-9 and played like one of the top teams in the association. However, when faced against the bottom teams in the NBA, the Bulls struggled and often played down to their competition resulting in multiple head-scratching losses.
The Boston Celtics (53-29) come into the playoffs as the No. 1 seed in the East and have legitimate championship hopes. By and large, Isaiah Thomas has been the focal point of the Celtics offense. Throughout the regular season, he finished third in PPG with 28.9 points, trailing only MVP candidates Russell Westbrook (31.6 PPG) and James Harden ( 29.1 PPG). The Celtics have spent most of the season beating up on inferior opponents, and have struggled with teams of equal talent. If Boston hopes to finally win a playoff series it will take everything Thomas has and more.
That being said I believe this series will be a lot closer than people think. Here are five factors that I believe could tilt the series in favor of Chicago.
Advantage on the Boards
Against the Celtics, the Bulls have flat out dominated the Celtics. In their four games against during the regular season, the Bulls averaged a league-best 55.4 in rebound percentage. They really shined on the offensive glass, where they averaged an impressive 15 offensive rebounds per game. In Chicago’s two wins, they outscored Boston 40-9 in second chance opportunities. If the Bulls can maintain their rebounding dominance it will go a long way in slowing down the Celtics offense.
Slowing Down Isaiah Thomas
Isaiah Thomas is far and away the best player on the Celtics and one of the top offensive threats in the NBA. The Bulls will undoubtedly make Thomas the focus of their defensive game planning.
Luckily for the Bulls, they have done a pretty good job of slowing down Thomas so far this season. Against Chicago, Thomas only averaged 24.8 points which is 4.1 points less than his average. More than likely Jimmy Butler will draw Thomas as his defensive assignment, which is great news for Bulls fans. Butler is one of the perimeter defenders in the league, and if anyone can frustrate Thomas it’s Jimmy.
A Healthy Dwayne Wade
On March 15th Dwayne Wade suffered a sprain and minor fracture in his elbow against the Memphis Grizzlies. It was announced he would miss the remainder of the season, and many fans were left wondering if that was the last time they would see Wade in a Bulls uniform.
Instead of being without one of their most experienced post-season players, the Bulls get Wade back with three weeks of rest. Despite getting up there in years, Wade still has plenty of veteran savvy and a career 22.8 point per game playoff average. With plenty of attention being directed towards Butler, Wade should have plenty of opportunities to light up the Celtics defense.
The Pressure is on Boston
If you’re a Bulls fan the fact that they made the playoffs is in itself a victory. After an up-and-down season, there is really no pressure on a team that is the No. 8 seed in the East. If they win it’ll be nothing more than a pleasant surprise, but if they lose it’ll confirm that they are just a mediocre team that was lucky enough to make it to the playoffs.
However, if the Celtics are the team to lose, there will be much bigger ramifications for the franchise. The media and fan base will question the Celtics off-season moves, and lack of progress on acquiring a true superstar to lead the team. Coach Brad Stevens has been great for the Celtics, but if his team loses, some will question if he has what it takes to take the Celtics to the next level.
The Best Player in the Series
While some may argue that Isaiah Thomas is the top player in the series, his aversion to defense is what places him as the second best player in the series. Jimmy Butler holds the title of the best player due to his equal talents on both ends of the floor.
The Celtics will do everything they can to slow down Jimmy “Buckets”, from throwing double teams to a variety of defenders his way. However, Butler has a plethora of offensive moves in his scoring arsenal. If the Celtics put a smaller player on him, he’ll have no problem backing down the defender for a quick turnaround jumper. With bigger defenders, Butler has no problem using his athleticism to quickly blow by and draw the foul, which plays right into his hands as he’s one of the better free throw shooters in the NBA.
The Bulls are no doubt the underdog of this series, but make no mistake they won’t go down without a fight. They have the veteran presence in Rondo and Wade to help right the ship when things go south. Jimmy Butler is a bonafide superstar who has more than enough talent to win a game or two on his own. If the Bulls can play disciplined basketball and execute, this series has all the makings of going six or seven games, and who knows maybe they can even pull off the upset.