Keys to the Game: Bulls at Celtics - Round 1, Game 1 (04.16.17)

And so it begins …

Tonight the 8th seeded Chicago Bulls (41-41) tip-off against the East’s top dog, the No. 1 seed Boston Celtics (53-29) in the middle of Beantown at the TD Garden in Game 1 of a best-of-seven opening round series.

The two conference rivals split four contests during the regular season, each winning twice on their home hardwood.

In Chicago’s two victories the Bulls employed a physical, brawling style, thoroughly dominating the backboard by out-rebounding Boston 106-67 (+39) and out-gassing Gang Green 40-9 in second chance scoring. However, in Boston’s two wins, the Cs stood tall and held their own on the glass, finishing a plus-one on the boards while also matching Chicago point-for-point in second-chance posts.

With regards to turnovers, in their two victories the Bulls took good care of the ball, committing only 20 turnovers, however in the two Boston wins, Chicago almost doubled that rate, tallying 38 miscues to which the C’s capitalized by amassing a whopping 46 points in transition. Thus clearly an important key for the Bulls has to be keeping turnovers to a minimum, just as it will be for Boston.

The last time the Bulls and Celtics met happened on March 12th in Boston, where Chicago got pounded 100-80 on national TV. At the time it was the Bulls’ fifth straight loss, and afterwards they found themselves mired in controversy and stuck in 10th place in the East.

Just how ugly was that game for Chicago?

Well, the Bulls missed their first 12 shots and committed three turnovers before finally scoring their first points of the day halfway through the opening quarter, a painful 12-minute stretch in which they mustered just nine points in total and an equally horrid 26 by halftime.

After some serious soul searching by both players and coaches, the Bulls began to turn their season around the next day, shortening the rotation and reinserting Nikola Mirotic and Rajon Rondo into key roles. Chicago then went on to win 10 of 16 despite Dwyane Wade having to miss 11 games due to a fractured elbow.

During this stretch, Mirotic’s confidence returned as he got hot from the arc, averaging 15.8 points on 43.1% 3-point shooting. But like Wade, Rondo was later forced to the sidelines with an injury, but unlike Wade, he missed just three games before returning to close the season against Brooklyn this past Wednesday. Over Rondo’s last 13 games, the heady veteran floor general produced averages of 12 points, 6.2 rebounds and eight assists.

In order to get a handle on this opening round battle, a few questions will need to be answered. So let’s get to it —

Which team shows up the most in this series?

Listed at 5’9” and 185-pounds, Boston’s Isaiah Thomas, an undrafted two-time NBA All-Star in his sixth-year is like no other player in the NBA.

This season Thomas directed Boston to its best year since the days of the famed Big 3 of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce of almost a decade ago. Not only did the Cs recapture the Atlantic Division crown, but Thomas enjoyed a career-year averaging 28.9 points per game (including 9.8 points scored during the fourth quarter, second only to likely NBA MVP Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder), establishing one of the best single-season scoring marks in franchise history. The great Hall of Famer, Larry Bird, is the only other Bostonian to have recorded more points in a single season, and Larry Legend’s mark of 29.9 points per game from 1987-88 is only one-point better than Thomas’ tally this season.

Thus an important question Boston will need to answer is who scores for them when Thomas heads to the bench to catch his breath?

In the 25 games the C’s played after the All-Star break, Boston’s offensive rating with Thomas on the floor was a very Golden State-esq 113.6. However, whenever he sat down, that remarkable score bottomed out to a very Philadelphia 76ers-like 99.0, which is the worst in the league.

The most likely candidates to pick up the slack whenever Thomas takes a rest is shooting guard Avery Bradley, known primarily as a lockdown defender, but who this season became the C’s No. 2 scoring threat (16.3 points) and 30-year old big man, Al Horford, a free-agent pickup last July who put up 14 points and 6.8 rebounds and 5.0 assists over 68 games this season.

Small forward Jae Crowder (13.9 points and 39.8% 3FG), another strong and athletic defender, is one more Celtic to keep an eye on.

As for Chicago, without question the Bulls’ top gun is three-time All-Star Jimmy Butler, who like Thomas, is also in his sixth season in the league and is someone who enjoyed a breakout year, establishing a number of career-bests including averages of 23.9 points, 5.5 assists, 6.2 rebounds and 1.9 steals while shooting 45.5% from the field and 36.7% from behind the arc and 86.5% from the charity stripe. Butler also posted his second career 50-point game (52 points vs. Charlotte on January 2, 2017) and two triple-doubles (double-digit points, rebounds and assists) while earning three Eastern Conference Player of the Week awards.

Future Hall-of-Famer Dwyane Wade, who recently returned from an elbow injury faster than expected, is one who will most certainly be heard from before this series ends. The 35-year guard is living out a life-long dream by playing for his hometown team after spending 13 seasons with the Miami Heat.

Wade signed with Chicago as a free agent last summer and went on to average 18.3 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.4 steals in almost 30 minutes a game. Just last season, he was able to deliver a strong playoff performance for Miami, averaging 23.9 points during a seven-game, second-round series against Toronto.

Nikola Mirotic will also play a critical role in the series, as the Bulls desperately need his shooting stroke to be consistent in order to space the floor, as well as his willingness to pound the glass on the defensive end of the floor.

Robin Lopez has been the true unsung hero of the Bulls this season, as he has the ability to change the outcome of any game with offensive rebounding and shot-blocking. Lopez’s low maintenance, high energy, physical style helped Chicago lead the league in second-chance scoring. The seven-footer out of Stanford mainly scores around the rim, but he will occasionally knock-down a jump-hook or a 15-footer at the top of the key if his defender is slow to leave the paint.       

How valuable is postseason experience?

Combined, Chicago’s power trio of Butler, Rondo and Wade come in with 292 playoff games and four NBA Championships under their belts, while Boston’s core of Thomas (10), Marcus Smart (10), Bradley (21) and Crowder (17) collectively have played in 48 playoff games and not one of them have ever been on a team that won a postseason game on the road.

So what do the Bulls need to do in order to upset Boston and make it to the second round?

Well, now that’s a good question.

Over their four games, Chicago out-rebounded Boston 195-157, including 60-29 on the offensive glass. Boston was the fourth worst rebounding team in the league this season, so the Bulls will need to exploit that weakness as much as possible by relentlessly crashing the glass at both ends of the floor.

Another important key for Chicago will be to do whatever is legally allowable under the law to keep Thomas under control. He is the player the Cs count on the most, and if Thomas has a good game, it’ll just fire up the Boston home crowd and the frenzied emotion that will arise from that will only inspire his teammates to play harder.

The Bulls will need to get the ball out of Thomas’ hands as much as possible, trapping him all over the floor and deny him opportunities to attack the basket. Look for Rondo, Wade and Butler to tag-team him by getting physical with Thomas whenever he drifts into their area in an effort to throw him off his game. If the Bulls’ experienced triad can frustrate and distract Thomas, the Cs will inevitably have trouble.     

Chicago has been consistently inconsistent all season long, however the Bulls did close the year winning seven of their last nine games, and for the most part when the lights shined the brightest Chicago played at a high level. This season the Bulls defeated a litany of quality playoff teams including the Celtics twice as well as Cleveland four times, Toronto twice, Utah twice, Indiana twice, Washington, Atlanta, Milwaukee, Golden State, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Memphis and Portland once each.

In the last playoff series between the Bulls and Celtics in 2009, Boston came in as the top seed in the East and Chicago the 8th and final seed, just like today. That series turned out to be one of the most memorable in league history, with four games going into overtime and a total of seven extra periods being played. And although Boston eventually survived, winning in seven games, the heavy toll cost the Cs the next round, as they were eliminated by Orlando, also in seven games.

When it comes to star power, Chicago wins hands down, for as great as Thomas has played this season, he hasn’t come close to accomplishing what Wade and Rondo have over their careers. However, basketball is a team game, and the Celtics are deep, talented, unselfish and well coached. Without question, Boston’s long-term upside dwarfs the Bulls’ present state. However, the NBA playoffs are unique, in that the Celtics might be the No. 1 seed today, but it would be foolish of anyone to dismiss Chicago’s chances of advancing simply because they come in at No. 8.

Anybody can beat anybody in a seven game series. All the ups and downs they experienced this year can soon be forgotten if the Bulls can win just four more games over the next two weeks.

—   Anthony Hyde