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by: John Tomase on Fri, 04/14/2017 - 11:58am
Let's just get this out of the way -- the Celtics should *easily* dispatch the eighth-seeded Bulls in the first round of the playoffs.
Whatever issues the Celtics have against top-flight competition, or on the glass, or in their never-ending search for a secondary scorer to take some heat off of All-Star Isaiah Thomas, none of it should matter against Chicago.
The Bulls finished strong and boast a decent on-paper pedigree led by former champs Dwyane Wade and old friend Rajon Rondo, but in reality, they've been a squabbling, dysfunctional unit for most of the season, and are only a couple of months removed from nearly trading their best player, swingman Jimmy Butler, in an acknowledgement that the entire thing needed the TNT treatment, and not of the Ernie, Chuck and Kenny variety.
The Bulls squeaked into the playoffs on the final day of the season by beating the woeful Nets, who took their woefulness to new levels by sitting six starters. The Celtics, conversely, shocked the NBA by outlasting the Cavs to claim the No. 1 seed in the East, a borderline miraculous -- and more than a little misleading -- accomplishment that gives them homecourt advantage until the NBA Finals.
The Celtics aren't built to get that far, but they're certainly constructed to handle the Bulls, and here are a few of the reasons why, as well as storylines to ponder, with the series kicking off on Easter Sunday.
1. Celtics vs. good teams
This may seem like a weird place to start, but bear with me. The C's went just 5-10 vs. the four teams following them in the Eastern Conference standings (Cavaliers, Raptors, Wizards, Hawks). They went 29-8 vs. teams with losing records and 7-3 vs. .500 clubs, which means there finished only 17-18 vs. teams with winning records. They did most of their damage against the dregs.
The Bulls, fortunately, barely qualify as a good team. They finished .500, including a 2-2 split vs. the C's. They won seven of their last nine to reach the postseason.
Why do the Celtics struggle against elite teams? Possibly because their own roster lacks high-end talent. Outside of Thomas, it's hard to even name their second-best player. Is it Avery Bradley? Jae Crowder? Al Horford?
The Celtics outlast inferior competition on effort level, depth, and by playing to the strengths of their system. When playoff games inevitably slow down and become a battle of stars, however, they can be exposed.
The Bulls aren't one of those teams, which is why we can revisit this subject in the conference semis.
2. Chicago's supposed rebounding advantage
The Celtics ranked 27th in defensive rebounding percentage, and one of the few things the Bulls did consistently well this season was pound the offensive glass, where they ranked fourth in rebounding percentage.
In the Bulls' two wins over the C's, they outrebounded them 104-67. In the two losses, the C's prevailed 90-89.
The difference in part traced to active forward Taj Gibson, who averaged 9.3 rebounds per game against the C's before being traded away at the deadline. In the one game the squads played without him, the C's won the battle of the boards, 51-40.
Minus Gibson, the Bulls aren't nearly as scary a rebounding team, which negates one of the advantages they owned in their two victories.
3. National TV Rondo
Like everything else having to do with old No. 9, Celtics fans were split on Rondo's penchant for rising to the occasion on the biggest stage. Some (like me) saw it as a player elevating his game when it mattered most. Others took it as a sign that he didn't care the rest of the time.
Either way, even if the 31-year-old is a ghost of his former self, there's still the potential for a playoff explosion, especially in the Garden. Rondo's seasons highs in assists (15) and points (25) came in the final two weeks of the regular season, in wins over Cleveland and Atlanta, respectively.
He shot a career-best .376 on 3-pointers and even reached .600 on free throws for the first time in three years. He no longer dominates the flow of a game like he did at his best (and worst) in Boston, but he's Rondo. There's probably a big game in there somewhere.
4. The D-Wade renaissance
One need only look back a year for an example of Wade defying Father Time -- not to mention a lackluster regular season -- to turn it on in the playoffs.
On that crazy final day of playoff seedings in 2016, the Heat ended up finishing third. Wade had averaged just 19 points a game, his lowest total since his rookie season in 2003. His .159 shooting percentage on 3-pointers was by far the worst of his life.
But then the bell rang and Wade found his game. The Heat beat the Hornets in the first round and took the Raptors to seven games in the second. Wade averaged over 21 points a game while shooting .522 from 3-point land.
He's a 12-time All-Star and three-time champion. At age 35, he's nearing the end, but he shouldn't be underestimated.
5. IT has help this time
The Celtics lost to the Hawks in six games last year, but a fair accounting of that series makes it hard to classify as a choke. The C's basically played without Bradley, who was injured in Game 1 and did not return. They may as well have left Crowder at home, because playing on a badly sprained ankle, he shot just .278 from the field. And they obviously played without Horford, who was suited up for the opposition.
Those three players will be healthy and on the floor this time around. Bradley gives the C's a defensive stopper on Wade, as well as a spot-up jump shooter. Horford has a knack for making the players around him better, especially Thomas, who benefits from his screens and effective inside-out passing. Crowder very quietly shot .398 from 3-point land and provides the C's their edge.
Put those three guys alongside Thomas, and the C's have the pieces to take care of the Bulls. Who knows what the later rounds will bring, but the Celtics didn't come this far to be upset by a flawed eighth seed.
Prediction: Celtics in five.