Bulls vs. Celtics First Round Preview
Saturday, April 18, 2009
TD Banknorth Garden, 12:30 p.m.
TV: Comcast Sports Net HD
RADIO: WEEI 850 AM
It's about that time -- playoff time. Teams work for 10 months of the year in anticipation of this. A 4 1/2-month offseason is followed by 82 steps of the regular season and all of it leads up to this. It's time for 16 NBA teams to begin their quest for gold; a quest the Boston Celtics completed just one year ago.
This time around, things are a little different. As the playoffs have approached, it's been mostly bad news coming out of Boston. Doc Rivers announced Thursday morning that their defensive stalwart, Kevin Garnett, is more than likely going to miss the entire playoffs. Just minutes apart from that decision being made, Executive Director of Basketball Operations and General Manager Danny Ainge suffered a minor heart attack.
That kind of morning would toss any normal team into a tailspin. But this team is far from normal. The C's won 62 games this season with a bull's eye on their back and have won 18 of the 25 games this season that Garnett did not play in, good for a .720 winning percentage.
To put that in perspective, only two teams in the entire NBA, the Cavs at .805 and the Lakers at .793, had a better winning percentage this season than what the Celtics accomplished without Garnett.
How many 62-win, defending champion teams are considered a massive underdog heading into the playoffs? The 2008-09 Celtics may be the first, and they've got no problem with that.
To kick off this year's playoff season, the C's will welcome in the Chicago Bulls on Saturday afternoon for a first round playoff matchup. Boston is 2-1 against the Bulls this season and lost the only meeting that didn't include Kevin Garnett, 127-121. In that game, newly-acquired John Salmons lit up the Celtics' defense with 38 points on 14-of-20 shooting from the field. In each of the other games, though, no Bull has managed to score 20 or more points.
The Celtics have been nothing short of dominant in their two wins over Chicago this season. Their average margin of victory over the Bulls is 17 points and they shot the ball at a 52.6% clip in those meetings.
Much of those numbers can be attributed to their performance on December 19 in a 126-108 victory. In that game, the Celtics shot the ball at an astonishing 59.5% rate and racked up 40 assists with only 13 turnovers.
But since that game, the Bulls' play has drastically changed. Since acquiring John Salmons and Brad Miller on February 18, Chicago has gone 18-11 and have been considered one of the most dangerous lower-seeded teams in the league heading into the playoffs.
The wins in the Windy City have brought a new level of confidence to the Bulls' squad and, heading into the playoffs, they feel like they can knock off anyone in the league.
On the Celtics side of the ball, they feel the exact same way, even without Garnett in the lineup. Boston has won both with and without KG on the floor, and the fact that his presence will be felt from the sideline during these playoffs should help the team even more.
Now, let's take a look at the matchups between the No. 2 seed Boston Celtics and the No. 7 seed Chicago Bulls.
Overall team statistics: Although Boston shoots much better from the floor (48.6% to 45.7%), the Bulls actually score more points a night (102.2 PPG to 100.9 PPG). It's an odd occurrence, but it gives you a general idea that Boston works harder for better looks, while Chicago will settle for difficult shots. The two teams finished the season both averaging 42.1 RPG, so with that in mind, rebounding could become a critical statistic in this series. Both teams are strong shooting from the outside but have a limited inside presence, especially with Garnett not on the court. With that in mind, keep an eye on the points in the paint battle as well as free throw attempts.
Coaches: The Celtics have an obvious advantage here with their World-Championship-winning coach, Doc Rivers, roaming the sidelines during this series. You simply don't win a Larry O'Brien Trophy without superior coaching abilities. His advantage in this series is made even stronger when one realizes that the Bulls' head coach, Vinny Del Negro, is in his first season ever as a head coach, at any level. Chicago struggled mightily to begin the season and many questioned Del Negro's coaching abilities, but since the team has come on strong in the second half of the season, those doubters have been largely silenced. Still, with a championship under his belt and nine more years of head coaching experience, Rivers have an unquestioned advantage over Del Negro.
Point Guard: This could be the most pivotal battle in the series. A quick, athletic and speedy point guard leads both teams on offense, with the assist-minded Rajon Rondo heading the C's and rookie sensation Derrcik Rose running the show for the Bulls. Both guards have an uncanny ability to get by their defender and force the issue on the defense, but both also struggle in shooting from the perimeter. Rondo has shown at times this season that he can hit the outside shot, but he has failed to do it consistently. Rose, however, has developed that shot since the beginning of the season and that is a big reason why he was able to average 16.8 PPG this year. Rose has more of a burden on his back to score, while Rondo must press the opposition and get open looks for his teammates. Rondo dominated the last matchup between these two, scoring 26 points and dishing out 10 assists. He has averaged 10.3 APG during the three games against Chicago this season, compared to 4.7 by Rose.
Shooting Guard: Boston tosses out one of the most effective outside shooters in NBA history, Ray Allen, while Chicago will counter with the streaky Ben Gordon. These two players are very similar in numbers but very different in offensive skill set. Allen will hoist up the three-ball with an inch worth of space, while Gordon will look to create space off the dribble and with his movement without the ball. Gordon averaged 2.5 more PPG this season, but Allen outshot him overall. Gordon is known as one of the streakiest shooters in the NBA, and if he can get hot, the Bulls are tough to beat. When Allen is hot for the Celtics, which is often, the same can be said from them. His outside shooting opens up the floor for Boston and will allow the Celtics' interior players to go to work in the paint.
Small Forward: Mid-season acquisition John Salmons has stepped into the starting small forward role and provided the Bulls organization with a shot in the arm. His offensive repertoire has added a dimension to Chicago's offensive sets and, according to their record since acquiring him, has certainly played a large part in their turnaround. Boston won't fret with this matchup, though, as they will counter with the third all-time leading scorer in Celtics history and captain of the team. Paul Pierce is Boston's leading scorer at 20.5 PPG and will be their leader both on and off the court. Pierce and Salmons battled it out on March 17 when they scored 37 and 38 points, respectively, in a game Chicago pulled out at home. Pierce will be the Celtics' main offensive threat, so his play will be much more important to his team than Salmons' is to the Bulls. If Pierce struggles offensively, the C's will too. If Salmons struggles offensively, he can defer to the team's leading scorer, Ben Gordon.
Power Forward: College teammates will collide in this battle of the power forwards, when LSU alumni Glen "Big Baby" Davis and Tyrus Thomas battle it out on the blocks. In stepping into a starting role with the absence of Kevin Garnett, Davis has developed into a solid role player that is reliable at both ends of the court. He has pushed himself to be as similar to Garnett as possible, and that piece of his play is most important at the defensive end. His teammates consider him one of the most talkative players on the court, and that should bode well for them in the playoffs. He has also emerged as a solid mid-range shooter and has made a habit of raking up scrappy points on offense. For the Bulls, Thomas will try to impose his freakish athletic ability on the slower-footed Davis. Thomas is one of the most athletic players in the entire NBA and has yet to reach his full potential. He has been known to settle for the outside jumper, which is far from consistent considering his 45.1% field goal percentage as a power forward, but can get hot from that distance. He is streaky as well, but should be good for close to a double-double in each game during this series. If Davis can move his feet well on defense and continue to be effective for the C's on offense, Doc Rivers should be pleasantly surprised.
Center: The center position will boast one of the most interesting matchups of this series, pitting two "glue" players against each other, two guys whom nearly never look for their offense. Kendrick Perkins has been praised by his teammates for his defensive prowess this season and has never tried to impose his will at the offensive end of the court. He is often the guy that will get putback points from the offensive glass and every now and them make a smooth hook shot in the paint. The same can be said for Joakim Noah, who will start at center for the Bulls. Noah is an atrocious shooter on offense but has a knack for being around the ball. He is the prototypical hustle player who will lay his body on the line if it will help his team win. He is the team's leading rebounder at 7.6 boards a night but should have a handful with the 280-pound Perkins down low.