The Celtics learned to rebound, but the Bulls learned to shoot.
The Celtics and Bulls split their season series 2-2, although is it worth noting that Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott were traded from the Bulls mid-season while the Celtics made no roster changes. While Boston is 2-8 over their last two playoff bouts, they enter the postseason with the top seed and the all-important home court advantage. While the Celtics didn’t prove themselves to be able to easily dispatch Chicago in the regular season, I would argue that those games aren’t indicative of what to expect from this series. Not because of that ticky-tacky foul called on Marcus Smart that handed one of the games over (although I couldn’t resist mentioning it), but because of the inverse improvements, each time made as the season progressed that could make for a different kind of matchup and one that I think benefits the Celtics.
What changed? First, Chicago’s outside shooting. The Bulls have the sixth best three-point percentage in the league since the All-Star break, which is spectacular given their expectations in that area (per nba.com). This shift in Chicago’s offense could play right into Boston’s defense, as Boston gives up the second least amount of points per possession when defending three points attempts at 0.971 PPP, behind only Golden State’s 0.958 PPP. Not only is Boston about to harass guards with great on-ball defenders in Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley, but players like Jae Crowder, Jaylen Brown, and Al Horford allow for a lot of flexible defensive lineups to easily defend any area outside the paint.
Speaking of painted areas, the Celtics were statistically terrible at defensive rebounding for most of the season. Since the All-Star break, the Celtics have grabbed the sixth most contested defensive rebounds with 191 over 25 games. Chicago is 21st with 166 in 25 games. On one hand, I’m glad to see some indication that the Celtics may have found a way to patch up such a vital weakness. On the other hand, Philadelphia grabbed the most contested defensive rebounds and posted a 7-19 record since the break. Perhaps the rebounding ‘problem’ is overblown? At any rate, the Celtics have fortified their rebounding efforts by sending Jae Crowder (6.9 rebounds per game since March 1st) to box out, someone who could prove to be the best option to put a body on players with a nose for the ball, whether it be Dwyane Wade or Jimmy Butler. Avery Bradley was a revelation on the boards early in the season but has averaged 4.8 per game since coming back from injury.
With those things in mind, Boston is still the most likely team to be upset, by virtue of the fact that they’re viewed as the weakest one seed in a long, long time. Even with so much momentum going in their favor, there are still two things in particular that scare me.
1) The Bulls are an unstoppable force at home when game is shown on TNT
It’s a pretty narrow circumstance, but it’s a very real advantage for Chicago. I don’t know why or how, but the Bulls have won 20 straight home games that were shown on TNT. Luckily for Boston, the first game in Chicago for the series will be on ESPN, while game two is a dreaded TNT game.
2) Playoff Rondo
Is Rajon Rondo still the same Rajon Rondo in the playoffs? I haven’t been able to tell for a while if Rondo has been held back by injuries or arrogance over the past couple seasons, but I think we’ll have an answer soon. Rondo nearly averaged a triple-double last time the Celtics and Bulls played a playoff series, which was unbelievable at the time. Not only does Rondo tend to step it up in the playoffs, but he could have that chip-on-his-shoulder edge as well, as he may feel like Boston gave up on him since they decided to go for a full-blown rebuild with him still on the team, and then went on to nearly complete said rebuild by trading him.
Outside of those two strange but very real challenges, I think the Celtics will advance as far as their bench will take them. You can bank on the starters scoring around 70 points, but the bench has sometimes struggled to pull their weight due to Smart struggling, Olynyk hesitating, and Brown just being young.
My prediction: Celtics in 5. Bulls' TNT streak remains intact.