Get excited folks, the NBA Playoffs are here! That part about getting excited bears repeating, because it’s far too easy for numerous fans (including myself) to be upset with the fact that the Chicago Bulls snuck into the playoffs thanks to every team in the NBA waving a white flag on the last day of the regular season. Sure, it’s easy to get upset with the fact that the Bulls are now out of the draft lottery and Fred Hoiberg is essentially guaranteed at least another year in Chicago, but complaining about it at this point is just going to fall on deaf ears.
Rather than roam in the sea of pessimism that Bulls fans habitually find themselves drowning in year after year, I wanted to take the limited time available before the first game versus the Boston Celtics to remind myself why this team has a fighting chance. I do not believe the Bulls will win this series, but I do anticipate this being a much more competitive engagement than many would expect. Thus, here are ten factors that I believe give the Bulls an excellent opportunity to knock off the top seed in the East:
1. Jimmy Butler is unquestionably the best player in this series
This one’s pretty straightforward. Jimmy G. Buckets is one of the best two-way players in the entire NBA, and though Isaiah Thomas has him beat offensively, his extreme shortcomings on the other end (more on that later) force him to forfeit the title of “best player in this series” to Butler. In a five man sport, the team with the top player is always a threat, no matter how deep their opponent may be.
After all, twenty of Chicago’s forty-one wins this season came against teams that made the playoffs, so it’s not unreasonable to think Butler is going to keep the Bulls competitive with the Celtics throughout this series. For what it’s worth, Boston—as the number one seed—had the same amount of wins against playoff opponents. Yes, the Celtics have a ton of defensive options to throw at Butler, but assuming the other Bulls can make the Celtics pay for doubling Officer Buckets, he should be able to do more than his fair share of scoring to ensure games remain interesting.
2. A healthy/rested Dwyane Wade is a dangerous Dwyane Wade
Perhaps Dwyane Wade’s “season-ending” injury was a blessing in disguise after all! Wade’s already made it very clear that he’s been saving his best play for the postseason, and as one of the most accomplished active playoff players in the entire NBA, he certainly has a resume that indicates he can “flip the switch” when the time comes. One area in particular where Wade steps up his game is his perimeter shooting, as he’s shot above league-average from deep in six of the eleven postseasons he’s played in. Just last year, he engulfed the nets in flames to the tune of 52.2% from deep:
But getting back to Wade’s injury, Father Prime receiving essentially the last three weeks of the season off (other than three garbage games against Orlando and Brooklyn) ensures that he’s entering the postseason healthy and ready to go the distance. That’s excellent news for Chicago, because Wade’s best basketball this year has come when he’s had adequate rest. In the twenty-one games Wade has played with at least two days of rest this season, he’s averaging 19.2 points via 45.6% shooting alongside a 37.3% mark from distance. Wade is more aggressive, more efficient, and therefore more offensively lethal when he’s gifted more rest. That means fans can expect him to play very well in not only Games 1 and 3 of this series; but also Games 5, 6, and 7 should the series extend that far.
3. Rajon Rondo is red hot and his former team should fear him
In case you haven’t noticed, Rajon Rondo is suddenly in the midst of his best stretch of basketball for the entire season dating back to the start of last month. Since March 1st, Rondo is averaging a line of 10.4 points, 7.2 assists, and 5.4 rebounds per game while shooting 46.2% from the field. But the most shocking revelation of all has been his perimeter jumper, as the historically-anemic Rondo has shot 50% from 3-PT range over the last month and a half on 2.7 attempts per game! Rondo’s sudden marksmanship from distance improves the Bulls’ offensive spacing tremendously, and if it holds up in the playoffs, the Celtics’ defense will have a lot more trouble guarding the Bulls than they perhaps previously anticipated.
Furthermore, Rondo (arguably the Bulls’ glue guy since the Taj Gibson trade based on comments from his teammates) absolutely thrives on adversity. I hated the guy’s guts when he played for Boston (for obvious reasons), but I always respected the fact that the guy stepped up when faced with a seemingly insurmountable task, such as when Dwyane Wade broke Rondo’s elbow and he still returned to the game to dunk the ball off a steal. I have to imagine that the Celtics fans will be none too happy to see Rondo roaming their court again, and I also have to imagine he won’t be thrilled to see them either. Once the downpour of boos begins upon his announcement in the starting lineup, I expect him to lock in and deliver a massive metaphorical middle-finger to the entire TD Garden.
4. March Mirotic is still going strong in April
Two late stinkers against the Brooklyn Nets not withstanding, Nikola Mirotic has once again followed his seasonal narrative of playing his best basketball over the final full month of the season and into April. During that stretch, Mirotic has scored 14.3 points on 11.2 attempts per game, and he’s shooting a blistering 40.6% from 3-PT range on a whopping 6.7 attempts per game. This season, the Bulls are 14-7 in games where Mirotic scores at least 14 points, and his newfound status as a slightly-impoverished man’s Ryan Anderson completely forces an additional defender out of the paint while opening up lanes for the Bulls’ ball handlers to drive through. Mirotic’s playoff debut two years ago against the Milwaukee Bucks was quite a forgetful one after a late push for Rookie of the Year (though he also got hurt), but if he can retain the offensive momentum he had for the final month and a half of the regular season, the Bulls become exponentially more dangerous.
5. Isaiah Thomas has nowhere to hide on defense
Suddenly, four of the Bulls’ five starters are legitimate offensive threats with the ball in their hands. That then begs the question, how can Brad Stevens hide the liability that is Isaiah Thomas—the very worst defensive player in the NBA? Yes, if you clicked the link, you read that correctly: Isaiah Thomas’ defensive RPM is dead last in the association behind even the likes of Doug McDermott. He is predictably abhorrent on that end, but his teammates are all stellar enough perimeter and help defenders that they’ve been able to mask this issue for the entirety of the season.
But again, if you’re Brad Stevens, which Bull do you have Thomas guard when he’s in the game? Putting him on Rajon Rondo gives arguably Chicago’s best floor general free range to roam around the court and hit guys for open looks when their defenders inevitably have to help off. Forcing Thomas to guard Dwyane Wade matches him up against the Bulls’ most proven playoff veteran with an absolutely lethal post game. Jimmy Butler has almost a full foot height advantage on Thomas and is more than capable of posting up weaker/smaller players for easy turnaround jumpers or quick finishes under the basket. All 6’10” of Nikola Mirotic will just shoot the ball over Thomas from any distance. I just don’t see a scenario where the Celtics are going to get away with consistently hiding Thomas on defense, because the Bulls have shown at various points during the season that they are more than comfortable with running their offense through any of these guys. Just put the ball in the hands of whichever player has Thomas in front of them, and then make the Celtics pay.
6. Fred Hoiberg’s sporadic rotations make Bulls tough to predict
Everyone and their grandmother chastised Fred Hoiberg during the regular season for his “random minutes generator” approach to setting rotations (hell, I did it earlier this week), but his unpredictability could actually pay dividends now that the Bulls are in the Playoffs. Brad Stevens is clearly the superior coach in this series, but even he is going to have a difficult time anticipating what Hoiberg will throw out in a given game at any given moment. Jerian Grant may be the backup point guard now, but what happens two games from now if Hoiberg throws all 6’6” of Michael Carter-Williams Isaiah Thomas’ way? I could spitball potentially crazy but completely plausible lineups for the rest of this article—and most of them would be bad—but the point is that the Bulls are not going to be an easy scouting project both entering the series and on a game-to-game basis. I expect Stevens to make appropriate in-game adjustments depending on what transpires, and I can’t say I anticipate Hoiberg doing the same successfully, but this element of Hoiball at least makes the coaching gap perhaps a little less pronounced than it actually may be.
7. Hoiberg appears to have come to his senses about the bench
Somewhat contradictory to the last point I made, but it’s possible Fred Hoiberg has elected to go with all of the correct players in the Bulls’ bench rotation heading into this series. Jerian Grant is an infinitely better offensive player than Michael Carter-Williams, and thus deserves to back-up Rondo, but I do think MCW’s enormous size advantage over Boston’s guards is going to be too much for Fred to resist passing up attempting to utilize at some point in this series. Elsewhere, Paul Zipser as the first wing off the bench over Denzel Valentine is a no-brainer given the latter’s complete lack of athletic ability and defensive prowess, and Zipser’s been shooting 37.7% from distance over the last month and a half.
Of course, perhaps the biggest win for the Bulls in this department (other than no Cameron Payne) is that Cristiano Felicio is firmly back as the reserve center over Joffrey Lauvergne. While King Joffrey’s range will perhaps be missed, it doesn’t merit pushing Felicio out of a role in which he’s managed to post the Bulls’ third highest PER all season. Big Cris’ rebounding and PnR play off the bench are going to be critical components for the Bulls’ success when Robin Lopez needs a rest, and I have a feeling that Felicio—finally on a national stage—will make everyone aware of all the talent the Bulls’ faithful knows he has. Regardless, now that humoring the young players/traded-for assets is out of the question and winning games is the only thing left that matters, we should see only the best of what the Bulls have to offer.
8. The Bulls have a far greater amount of playoff experience
Dwyane Wade has more playoff minutes logged than the entire Boston Celtics roster combined. Experience is a critical component when it comes to maintaining composure in the playoffs, and while the Bulls have their fair share of young guys that are fairly unfamiliar with the postseason themselves, the Celtics haven’t gotten out of the first round since the lockout shortened season of 2011-12 (back when Doc Rivers was still the head coach). All three of the alphas for the Bulls have enjoyed their fair share of postseason success during their careers already, including Butler despite him not yet having an opportunity to lead a team in the playoffs. Because of that, it’s not too far-fetched to believe that the Bulls’ best players will have a better shot at righting the ship when things go sour than those of the Celtics do.
(Coaches righting the ship is certainly another story, however).
9. The Celtics are an historically unimpressive No. 1 seed
This has been touched on a lot by national media, but the Celtics just aren’t all that intimidating of a number one overall seed when examined alongside their historical counterparts. Their point differential of +2.7 is the worst for a number one seed in either conference in almost 40 years and their best offensive player is also the worst defender in the NBA. They also don’t have a single player that averages greater than six assists per game, and only two of their players average more than six rebounds per game (and one of them is Avery Bradley). As previously mentioned, they have the same number of wins against playoff teams this season as the Bulls do, lack a considerable amount of postseason experience, and—as Ricky noted in his brilliant prediction post yesterday—their 53 total wins are the least for a number one seed in the last decade. Any way you slice it, the Celtics are just not nearly as intimidating as you would expect the top seed in a given conference to be, and the Bulls shouldn’t carry any sort of fear with them into this series as a result.
10. All the pressure is on Boston to win this series
Eight seeds aren’t ever expected to win anything in the NBA Playoffs. Hell, CelticsBlog predicts the Bulls will drop both of their home games and lose this series in five. Whatever. If the Bulls lose, it will merely be a vindication of everything that Bulls fans have known all season: a team with no concrete direction adrift in NBA purgatory had no chance of making any relevant postseason noise, anyway.
But if the Celtics somehow lose this series?
Danny Ainge will be vilified for not flipping the Nets picks for Jimmy Butler (and that will almost certainly reopen the whole trade dialogue between the two teams as the draft approaches). The national media will all question if Isaiah Thomas’ scoring is worth having at the expense of his anti-all-world defense. Al Horford will vault to the front of the conversation for, “who is the most overpaid player in the NBA?” Everyone will scratch their heads wondering why wunderkind Brad Stevens can’t get out of the first round. Basketball fans will once again ask why the hell Boston didn’t trade the 3rd overall pick in the draft last season and opted to reach for Jaylen Brown instead. “The Great Terry Rozier” will be ironically plastered all over BlogaBull. The sky will fall in Boston, and even though their future still looks undoubtedly bright, it will be a massive embarrassment that stalls the opening of a potential championship window.
The Bulls have nothing to lose and everything to gain, and whatever happens, I just hope they play a watchable brand of basketball in what will no doubt be a highly contested series. I believe they will ultimately lose in seven games, but if I’m fully taking the reigns of the optimist here, they’ll take one of the first two contests in Boston and then win all three of their next games at the United Center. As Ricky said yesterday: Bulls in six. In Jimmy we trust.