Our normal Celtics writer (who predicted the Celtics would win the East) is afraid of putting a voodoo curse on the team, so I’m stepping in to write up the round 1 playoff preview. The negative: my analysis will be based on stats, since I’ve only seen a handful of Celtics games this year. The positive: my pick for the winner of the series will contain no biases.
At some point you’d think that the streak Boston sports team are on would run out, right? The Patriots just won their 5th Super Bowl in the past 16 years and a little over two months later, both the Boston Bruins and Boston Celtics are in the playoffs. While the only New England team I root for are the Red Sox (and the Bruins by default), it’s tough to write a playoff preview for your favorite team(s) when they’re not in the playoffs. 49ers and Mavericks, I’m looking at YOU. As a Mavs fan, the only good news we’ve gotten in 2017 is that Dirk Nowitzki is returning for his 20th season next year. Celtics fans have a little more reason to celebrate, as they enter the 2017 NBA playoffs as the #1 seed in the Eastern conference where they’ll take on the #8 seeded Chicago Bulls in the first round. Let’s see how the two teams match up.
First, the schedule:
Game 1 – at Celtics, Sunday, April 16, 6:30 p.m. ET, TNT
Game 2 – at Celtics, Tuesday, April 18, 8 p.m. ET, TNT
Game 3 – at Bulls, Friday, April 21, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN
Game 4 – at Bulls, Sunday, April 23, 6:30 p.m. ET, TNT
Game 5 (if necessary) – at Celtics, Wednesday, April 26 (TBD)
Game 6 (if necessary) – at Bulls, Friday, April 28 (TBD)
Game 7 (if necessary) – at Celtics, Sunday, April 30 (TBD)
On paper, you’d have a hard time believing that this was a 1 vs. 8 matchup. Unless you’re an avid Celtics fan, most of the guys on their team, including some in the starting lineup, won’t stand out to you. Isiah Thomas took the league by storm this year averaging 29.1 PPG, but even their big offseason signee Al Horford can be considered a role player rather than a star. As any fan who has watched the C’s under Brad Stevens knows, you can’t judge them by how they look on paper. Stevens and GM Danny Ainge have relied on building a squad that buys into the team philosophy, and instead of trading scrappy, young guys like Avery Bradley & Marcus Smart for household names, they held onto their core team and the players that remained have rewarded them with a #1 seed.
The Celtics have a deeper team and one of the best coaches in the league, but at times depend a little to much on Isiah Thomas to carry them on the offensive end. While you want IT to get his shots, you have to imagine the Bulls are going to do everything possible (similar to the Hawks last year) to limit his opportunities. The difference this year for the C’s is that their number two scorer Avery Bradley is healthy, and I think he’ll provide some breathing room for Thomas in this series. The keys to this series for the C’s are going to be spreading the wealth around on offense and refusing to let the Bulls play a fast paced game. With Butler, Wade & Rondo, that’s going to be easier said than done.
The Bulls have more star power, but it remains to be seen if that star power is in name only. Jimmy Butler is a bonafide all star, averaging 23.9 PPP, 5.5 APG, 6.2 RPG but the other two big names in the starting lineup are more of a question mark. Every basketball fan will know the names Dwayne Wade and Rajon Rondo, and Chicago is going to need them to play great basketball if they want to upset the Celtics. Rondo and Wade both know what it takes to win a ring, and Wade in particular shines this time of year, as he averages just under 23 PPG. Rondo has been a career long head case, but the positive for him in this series is that he knows how to handle a raucous Boston crowd.
The key for the Bulls will be rebounding, as they dominated the Celtics during their four game series this year. Chicago outrebounded Boston 195-157 overall, including a 60-29 edge on the offensive glass. If Amir Johnson, Al Horford and other Celtic big men can’t get control of the glass, that means more opportunities for Butler and Wade to score. I think Butler is too talented to be completely contained, so the Celtics might focus on slowing down Wade and limiting Rondo’s ability to get to the basket.
Prediction: The Celtics were 30-11 at home as opposed to 23-18 on the road, so holding home court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs is a huge asset for them. To make matters worse for the Bulls, the Celtics have been incredible at home over the last 20 games, going 17-3 in that stretch. The Bulls were pretty pathetic on the road this year, going 16-25, and as someone who has been to the TD Garden during a Celtics playoff game I can tell you that the fans have the ability to severely affect the momentum of the game. I’ve seen this prediction on most posts, but it makes the a lot of sense to me: Celtics in 6.
H/T USA Today, NESN, ESPN