Jimmy Butler is used to carrying the load. This season, Butler posted career high marks in usage rate, assist rate and total minutes played. The offense only went as far as Jimmy could carry it, and on most nights, he was up to the task. But as the postseason begins Sunday evening, Butler and the Bulls are going to be faced with a uniquely challenging opponent.
The Boston Celtics are built to harass scoring threats on the wing. Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and Marcus Smart make up the most fearsome trio of perimeter defenders in the NBA. Brad Stevens will not let a minute go by where none are on the floor matched up against Butler.
Boston’s defense overall this season grew stingier as the season went along. While they finished a middling 12th in defensive efficiency, allowing 105.5 points per 100 possessions, they improved from 18th the 7th in defense after the All-Star break. Some of that improvement can be attributed to Boston’s much improved defensive rebound rate, but Boston certainly benefited from having all three of their perimeter stoppers healthy after an injury plagued start of the season.
I expect Avery Bradley will get the bulk of the one-on-one responsibilities in the series. Bradley, an All-Defensive First Team member last season, will defend Butler all 94 feet of the court and constantly test Jimmy’s handle. Bradley’s quick hands and excellent footwork will make driving to the basket an immense challenge.
Bradley stands at just 6’2”, and one way the much larger Butler could create some easy offense would be to take the Texas product into the post. But should that become the consistent strategy for the Bulls, the Celtics can easily counter by switching Crowder or Smart onto Jimmy. Both players have the strength and girth to to battle with Butler down low, and can handle the assignment without needing much help from their teammates. Smart is a shameless flopper, and is guaranteed to draw a couple of cheap charges when things turn physical.
If Chicago’s last game against the Celtics is any indication, this could be an ugly series for Butler. On a Sunday afternoon on national television, Butler shot a woeful 2/11 in 31 minutes in a game the Celtics dominated for the entire four quarters. Boston consistently committed multiple defenders to Butler, refusing to let him beat them and daring his teammates to hit open shots.
It just wasn’t Jimmy’s day. After making a good defensive play of his own, Butler was the victim of a vicious chase down block from behind.
When Jimmy ran pick and roll, rather than trying to trap Butler, the Celtics had their big man drop back and attempt to coral Butler in a more conventional style. What was unorthodox in their coverage was the aggressiveness with with the man defending the weak-side corner charged into the paint to deter Butler from driving. Employing this strategy against the Rockets will result in death by corner three. Against the Bulls, it’s a pretty smart decision.
This is a better alternative to hard trapping Butler above the break. Jimmy has gotten much more comfortable passing out of double teams, and would adjust to Boston’s traps over the course of the series. Even with an inept set of teammates, Jimmy would put the offense into very favorable 4-on-3 situations any time he made the right pass out of a double team.
In order for the Bulls to have any chance in this series, they are going to need Nikola Mirotic to play the best basketball of his life. The Bulls should use Mirotic as the screener for Butler as often as possible. Mirotic is dangerous in pick and pop situations, and if he gets hot from three, suddenly Boston will have to alter the geometry of their defense. The big man will be hesitant to drop deep into the paint, opening up a few extra inches of driving space for Butler.
Mirotic also needs to showcase some of the playmaking ability he occasionally flashes in games. Reduced to a stand-still shooter on this bizarre roster outside of the time Wade was injured, Niko should be given the opportunity to expand his game. When defenders fly past him as he performs his patented pump fakes, Mirotic should put the ball on the floor and head to the hoop. He’s excellent at reading where the help is coming from and finding his open teammates for uncontested layups.
There will probably be one game in this series when all of Boston’s plethora of stoppers defenders and well designed system just don’t matter. Jimmy Butler is a premier scorer in this league, and in one of these games he is just going to be feeling it. But it’s nearly impossible to sustain a hot streak through a seven game series, especially against such a talented defensive unit.