How competitive will the Celtics and Bulls playoff series be?
The Celtics finished with the best regular season record in the Eastern Conference for the first time since 2009-10. Boston made the NBA Finals that year but lost to the Lakers in seven games. Brad Stevens and company hope to make it back this season and prevent LeBron James from making his seventh consecutive Finals appearance. First up is a matchup with the Chicago Bulls, who managed to squeak into the playoff field despite a drama-filled campaign.
Celtics Keys To Win The Series
Boston has improved dramatically since Stevens took over as head coach thanks to major changes in play style. This season the Celtics averaged the third-most threes attempted per game (33.4) of any team in the league, all while allowing the third-lowest three-point field goal percentage (33.2%) defensively. This attention to detail on shots behind the arc is what allowed Boston to make another leap up the standings, along with the maturation and domination of Isaiah Thomas.
Making threes at a high rate is the biggest key for the Celtics in this series. It was the biggest difference in wins and losses for them all year. Boston shot only 32.6% from deep in losses compared to 37.7% in wins. If the Celtics keep a high differential in this area, they’ll hold a big advantage in the series. Stopping Chicago from an efficient perimeter game shouldn’t be an issue –– the Bulls attempted the second-fewest threes in the league and shot only 34%.
Celtics X-factor: Al Horford
Al Horford has been the glue of Boston’s offense all year and will continue to be the team’s X-factor in the first round. His ability to stretch the floor as a center while also being the team’s defensive anchor has changed the way the Celtics function. Working on his deficiencies will be vital against Chicago, the third-best rebounding team in the league. Horford led Boston with 6.8 rebounds per game this season, but the team will need him to produce some 20-10 double-doubles to hang around with the strength and size of the Bulls.
Horford has made major improvements in March and April that will likely carry over into the playoffs. He’s only shot two threes per game over the last 20 contests of the season and made them at a 43% clip. The 10-year veteran also raised his rebounding average to 7.3 in the final two months.
Bulls Keys To Win The Series
Rebounding has been Chicago’s biggest strength this season and is the biggest factor for them against Boston in the playoffs. The Bulls averaged the third most rebounds per game (46.3), which often made up for their struggles on offense. Chicago split this year’s season series with the Celtics but averaged a plus-11.5 rebound differential in those games. Boston will shoot a lot of threes, so keeping them away from long rebounds will play a huge factor in which team comes out on top.
Then of course there’s Jimmy Butler. Butler’s offense in late-game situations will ultimately lift or sink the Bulls in the playoffs. According to NBA Miner, Butler scored the seventh most points of any player in the clutch this season. That’s under five minutes left in regulation or overtime, with neither team ahead by more than five points. If Wade continues to let Butler shoot in crucial situations, Chicago will hope more games end like their win over Boston on Feb. 16.
Bulls X-factor: Rajon Rondo
The same player that was completely removed from Fred Hoiberg’s rotation earlier this season is the biggest X-factor for the Bulls going into the first round of the playoffs. Rajon Rondo showed flashes of his old self in the most important stretch of the season for Chicago. The Bulls rattled off four wins in a row from March 26 to April 2 to help secure the eighth seed. Three of those victories came against playoff teams. Rondo averaged 15 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 9.5 assists in that span, coming close to putting together his own Westbrook-esque triple-double run.
Whether Rondo can continue that level of play is remained to be seen. All four of those games came without teammate Dwyane Wade, who returned from an elbow injury in time for the postseason. Despite team chemistry struggles early this season, there’s still hope for camaraderie. This is Rondo’s first playoff appearance since the debacle in Dallas two years ago, and it comes against the team he started his career with. If Rondo is to ever gets his emotions together, now is the time to do it.
Projected Outcome: Celtics Win In Six
The one vs. eight-seed matchup in the East has resulted in a sweep only twice in the past six seasons, both coming from teams led by LeBron James. Based on the lack of a dominant team in the East, and the way these two teams match up, expectations should point towards a competitive series. The Philadelphia 76ers were the last eight seed to advance, upsetting the 2011-12 Bulls after Derrick Rose was sidelined due to injury. Unless the Celtics suffer a similar injury to one of their stars, Boston will likely advance to the next round.
Edited by Jeremy Losak.
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