The Chicago Bulls slide into the playoffs on the last game of the season. It was not because Gar Forman or John Paxson put together an incredible rebuild-on-the-fly team. It was not because Fred Hoiberg brought together a high-octane offense that brought the Bulls into the new era. It was not because Fred Hoiberg figured out how to mash this lineup together. It certainly was not because Fred Hoiberg figured out the best rotation after summer league, preseason, and 82 games of the regular season. It was not because Dwayne Wade or Rajon Rondo reached back in time to their peak era. It was not because the role players finally took that next step. It was not because the front office traded two assets and a second-round pick for three D-league players. It was only due to the relentless talent of Jimmy Butler.
Jimmy Butler has been the only redeeming quality to a rudderless, joyless season. Which makes it difficult for fans and the front office to know if he is the player that will lead this team back to the top of the East, or be the asset that kickstarts a needed rebuild. For the next month, none of that matters. This is playoff basketball, and this one-versus-eight matchup is a lot more interesting than many in year’s past.
The Boston Celtics come in as one of the weakest top teams in the East in thirty years with 53 wins and a +2.7 point differential. The Bulls come in at the eight spot with a +0.7 point differential and a surprisingly good record against +.500 teams (2-2 against Boston). Giving Chicago better than a fighter’s chance to pull off the rare upset, but it will all come down to the matchups.
The loss of Taj Gibson really hurts this matchup for the Bulls, leaving a slower Robin Lopez to guard the stretch-five Al Horford on the perimeter. This will open up lanes for MVP-candidate Isaiah Thomas to run into wide open lanes with no one guarding the rim. (Imagine Butler’s season with a front office that built around him). Team defense will need to be tight every game, but reigning in Thomas is the key to a Bulls upset. The only way this could happen is on the back of Jimmy Butler’s first-team defense.
Butler’s role as primary defensive stopper won’t be the only thing needed to squeak out of the first round, Butler will also need to be the primary offensive facilitator, creator, and scorer for the Bulls as well. Boston’s counter to Butler is a squad of high-end defenders that they can rotate on Jimmy to wear him down. Marcus Smart, who could probably guard anyone, and Jae Crowder are certainly Boston’s best options, but Avery Bradley and Jaylen Brown could handle their share of reps against Butler as well.
If any of the role players on Chicago are missing their shots, the Celtics bench will make it tough for Chicago’s starters to make up the difference. Niko Mirotic needs to consistently hit his shots and Bobby Portis cannot pretend he has never practiced a defensive rotation. Hoiberg will need to learn how to run a play out of a timeout because he will constantly be outdone by Brad Stevens. Wade and Rondo need to find their playoff magic, but none of this matters if Jimmy Butler isn’t the best player on the court. Which he can be, and Boston knows this.