It’s almost time for Chicago Bulls playoff basketball! Tomorrow, the Chicago Bulls will take on the Boston Celtics in TD Garden for Game 1 of the first round. It will be a very interesting as many are expecting the Bulls to make this a competitive series. To get ready for the series, some of the writers at Blog A Bull got together to answer some questions surrounding this series. Here are the contributors and you can follow them on Twitter by clicking their name below:
Let’s get this started.
What are your initial thoughts on this series when it was first announced?
Jacob: When the seeding became set in stone, my first thought was that the Bulls are in serious trouble. The Bulls and Celtics could not be two more different teams. In one, you have the definition of cohesion between a coach, front office, and product on the floor. On the other side of the equation, you have a poorly constructed roster that does not fit the strengths of the gameplan the coach would like to employ. Boston operates as a well oiled machine, where every player has a well defined duty to carry out, and knows damn well how to succeed at his individual task. The Bulls are still settling into a consistent rotation.
The Celtics have an identity. They play with pace, they apply immense pressure with their perimeter defenders, and they have a bonafide closer when things get tight in the fourth quarter.
The Bulls have none of that, no consistency night to night, no pillar of strength they can rely on (especially since they gave away Taj Gibson and the team's offensive rebounding numbers crashed back to average). And while Jimmy Butler is a better all-around player than Isaiah Thomas, the offensive infrastructure in place does not put him in the best position to succeed.
The Celtics are the adults in the room, and the playoffs are not a place for children.
Tyler: At least it's not LeBron. For the first time in almost a decade the Bulls will be eliminated in the playoffs by a team not led by LeBron James, so I guess that's refreshing
Jason: As the season was winding down, I was either pro-missing the playoffs or pro-playing the Celtics. I wanted zero part of another series against LeBron. The fact that there have been Jimmy Butler trade rumors with the Celtics adds more intrigue to this matchup, especially because most people believe those trade discussions will happen again at the draft. And finally, I enjoy trolling Celtics fans so if the Bulls somehow win I would have a field day.
Easy Eis: Awesome. If the Bulls had to make the Playoffs, they might as well face an opponent they have a legitimate chance of causing some problems against rather than getting squashed by yet another LeBron-led team. But further than dodging the Cavs, there are so many interesting mini-stories leading into this matchup between these two teams. The Jimmy Butler trade rumors, the Marcus Smart "phantom" elbow tap, the Bulls putting up the worst quarter/half of any NBA team all season, Rondo's return to Boston, and even the last time these two teams met resulting in perhaps the greatest first round series in the history of the NBA Playoffs. I have a hard time imagining that these two teams like each other much after all that's unfolded this season, so I think we're in for a charged series that the fans should greatly enjoy.
Anthony: Initially, I honestly had mixed feelings about the Bulls simply even making the playoffs, let alone, regarding WHO they are slated to play. Part of me preferred them to miss the playoffs, only to further verify that GarPax's (more Gar's) stupid plan isn't working. But since they did make it, the fan in me was genuinely excited. Missing the playoffs for a second straight season would've been just unbearable. Secondly I thought...I'm not sure how they will fare, but at least they aren't playing the Cavs.
Vijay: My first thoughts was that this wasn’t the worst draw Chicago couldn’t have gotten. In fact, it was probably the best draw of any of the top four teams in the East. Of all the top teams in the East, the Boston Celtics are the ones who could be given problems by the Bulls. With exception of the last game they played against each other, there were some good games between both teams and there are many storylines. Jae Crowder vs. Jimmy Butler in an Marquette alum matchup along with Rajon Rondo facing his old team. This could potentially be a fun series to watch and hopefully the Bulls can make something of it. Also the Chicago-Boston series in 2009 was the first real Bulls playoff series that I followed and I’ve been hooked on basketball ever since.
Who is Chicago’s X-Factor and how can they help the Bulls be competitive in this series?
Jacob: The X-Factor for the Bulls in this series will be Cristiano Felicio. The Celtics will try to play small and get as much shooting on the court as possible. Al Horford and Kelly Olynyk are both used as stretch centers and are difficult matchups for Robin Lopez, who hates to stray far from the basket. If the Bulls hope to have a chance in this series, they will need to rely on their most versatile defensive lineups, and that means that Felicio will be relied on to anchor the paint while also bothering Boston's shooting bigs.
Felicio could also become a matchup problem for Boston when the Bulls have the ball. He is a savvy rim roller, adept at timing his cuts to put himself in position catch alley-oops or grab offensive rebounds. Boston is one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the league, and Felicio should be able to use his size and athleticism to create several second chance opportunities per game.
Of course, Fred may opt to give all the backup center minutes to Joffrey Lauvergne, because 82 games really are not enough to settle on a big man rotation.
Tyler: I have to go with Nikola Mirotic. He finished the season on a strong note after being disappointing for the majority of the season. If Niko can continue to find some of that consistency he had at the end of the season in the playoffs, it will be huge for the Bulls. In the postseason, it's all about matchups, and defense. Boston is going to be keyed in on Jimmy and Dwyane, forcing everyone else to beat them. Niko can be that guy.
Jason: Niko is an easy answer given his inconsistency and how much better the Bulls are when he plays well. But I'm also going to throw Rondo out there. I still hate him, but he's legitimately been playing better lately. And perhaps we'll get some vintage #PlayoffRondo against his former team. Hell, maybe he even throws Marcus Smart into the scorer's table. That could make him a bit more endearing.
Easy Eis: Nikola Mirotic is going to be a popular answer, and rightfully so. When he's on, the Bulls' offense is so much deadlier and difficult to defend. But I think it's going to become very apparent very quickly that this series hinges heavily on how well Robin Lopez plays on both ends of the floor. While Lopez stands just outside of the top third of the NBA when it comes to defending the PnR roll man, he has had a considerable amount of difficulty when required to do so against stretch bigs this season. RoLo is an enforcer down low, but Al Horford and Kelly Olynyk are going to draw him out of the paint often when rolling out of screens to set themselves up for jumpshots. Lopez is going to have to be on point when it comes to moving out of the paint to pick up his man, as well as rotating back into the lane to defend open drives to the goal. That's a tall order for a seven footer that doesn't have a ton of lateral mobility. On offense, he'll need to hit the boards as hard as he can to ensure the Bulls retain their outstanding offensive rebounding, something that's dropped off a bit since management shipped Taj Gibson to OKC. Lopez will also need to have his jumper from just above the freethrow line going to provide what little additional spacing he can. Lopez has the 16th best offensive rebounding percentage among players over 6'10" on playoff teams, and he's shooting an excellent 48.2% on jumpers around/above the freethrow line, so I am confident he can at least succeed in those departments to help guide the Bulls to victory.
Anthony: The easy choice here is likely to say Niko. Niko's effectiveness (or lack thereof) often makes/breaks the Bulls. If Niko is on, doing his best to stretch the floor, the Bulls are tough to beat. But when Niko is off, he's REALLY off....usually resulting in a loss. He can help by continuing to play the way he did in March: putting the pump-faking away, shooting from the corners, and playing effective defense. A second X-factor can also be Bobby Portis. Portis had a strong March and April for his standards. His shooting and rim-running can would be useful for the Bulls in this series.
Vijay: I think I’m going to reiterate the sentiment of the group and go with Nikola Mirotic as well. He has been Chicago’s main X-Factor all season. When he is hitting shots, it does wonders for the Bulls offense in terms of spacing and gives Butler some much needed offensive help. It was honestly surprising to see him continue to stay hot from deep even after his usual outburst in March. But it seems that Mirotic is going to play a lot of minutes heading into this series and the Bulls really need him to shoot well. If we end up seeing bad Niko pop up against Boston then it could spell disaster for Chicago.
How do you think the Bulls will approach guarding Isaiah Thomas?
Jacob: I would guess that the Bulls will give Rondo the opportunity to guard Thomas to start games. This is National TV Rondo, playing against his former team, so he may play with a level of focus and attention on defense we don't often see. I don't think he's capable of maintaining that energy for an entire game, but for the first six minutes he'll get an opportunity. Michael Carter-Williams in theory is an ideal IT-stopper. He towers over Thomas and his long arms can bother Isaiah from behind on plays he gets beat off the dribble.
But in the big moments of this series, if any of these games are close in the fourth quarter, or at any true momentous moment throughout the game, I expect Jimmy Butler to defend Thomas. With the offensive load Butler is forced to carry, it is unreasonable to expect him to defend Thomas the entire game. But when it really counts, the duty will be placed on Jimmy's shoulders.
Tyler: Surprisingly enough, the Bulls finished this season with the league's sixth best defense. I know, I'm as shocked as you are. More importantly, the Bulls were the fourth best team in defending the PnR ball-handler this season, only allowing 0.81 PPP, and that's going to be huge in defending IT2. I think if you're the Bulls, you have to corral him, especially in the PnR, whether that's a trap or hard hedge, and force guys like Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder to make plays with the ball in their hands. One thing to keep in mind with this tactic, is making sure to rotate on Al Horfrod, who has consistently killed the Bulls over the years with his pick-n-pop ability. If you're going to trap or hedge on screens with IT2, you have to make sure rotations are tight.
Jason: I imagine the Bulls are going to sell out hard to contain Isaiah Thomas and make the Celtics' other players beat them as much as possible. That means being aggressive guarding him in pick-and-rolls and dribble hand-off situations and not letting him step into easy shots, although they'll have to be careful about his drives. They'll also have to be diligent when he's working off the ball and coming off screens. The Bulls will have to keep their rotations tight and not lose focus, otherwise IT2 will kill them. And late in games, I'm sure we'll see Jimmy Butler take the Thomas assignment.
Easy Eis: It's almost impossible to predict what Fred Hoiberg will do, but when thinking about how to solve this problem, I am reminded of the playoff series the Bulls played against the Milwaukee Bucks back in 2015. During that series, Bucks coach Jason Kidd made a point of absolutely abusing the defensively-absent 6'0" Aaron Brooks by having Michael Carter-Williams post him up at every given opportunity. Brooks was powerless and essentially became unplayable when forced to physically defend one of the longest point guards in the NBA, and this strategy ultimately helped the Bucks steal a game from the Bulls in a series that many expected them to get swept in. Hoiberg apparently is rolling with Jerian Grant at backup point guard (as he should), but now that MCW plays for Chicago, it might be worth putting him out on the court to defend a player he has a 9" height advantage on in the event Isaiah Thomas is wreaking havoc on the Bulls' defense. MCW could then post up Thomas feverishly until he inevitably gets into foul trouble or Brad Stevens removes him from the game. However, in crunch time, I would expect to see Jimmy Butler guarding Thomas on critical possessions, thus forcing the Celtics to try beating the Bulls with their other players down the stretch.
Anthony: Crowd him and try not to give him any clean looks. This season, Thomas is attempting (not making) 44% of his shots from 3-pt land, attempting a career high 8.5 threes per game. So he clearly wants to bomb-away. Pick him up at 3/4-court and crowd him. Rondo hasn't been his best when needing to guard smaller, quick guys, but Thomas is too quick for Wade or Butler, so I see Rondo starting off guarding Thomas. Hoiberg may use Rondo as a way to funnel Thomas to the help, and to the crowded areas of the floor. It would be disastrous to let Thomas (1) have open looks or (2) be allowed to roam where he wants. Try to use your size to your advantage in certain situations by putting Jimmy or MCW on him in some spots. Looking at Thomas' shot chart, the majority of his shots come from the right side of the floor and at the rim. Force him over to his left side and just do your best to stay in front of him
Vijay: The obvious answer to stopping IT (or at least try to) would be to have Jimmy Butler. But that would be very taxing for Butler and forcing him to guard the best player on offense on one end of the court while having to be the sole creator of offense on the other will wear him down. I think Chicago should go with Butler late in games or in danger situations when you can feel the game getting out of hand. Other than that, it will be up to Rajon Rondo and Jerian Grant (gulp) to try and stop Thomas. Chicago’s bigs have a role in this as well, especially when it comes to guarding the PnR. Boston will try and get IT matched up against a guy like Robin Lopez, who can’t stay in front of guards. So the key will be having to get the ball out of his hands, which likely means blitzing or doubling right off the pick. Force the other guys to beat you if you are the Bulls defense and make sure your defensive rotations are solid.
What do you believe is the greatest advantage the Bulls have over the Celtics heading into this series?
Jacob: The biggest advantage the Bulls have over the Celtics is the magical force that exists in the universe that allows them to play up to their competition, especially when the game is being broadcast to a wide audience on a Turner Network.
I know that the #TNTBulls are only a regular season thing, but mystical basketball spirits watch playoff games too, and if they have anything to do with this, the Bulls will put up a fight in a series that, by most measures, should not be very close.
Tyler: Jimmy Butler is clearly the best player in this series, so there's one advantage. But the biggest for them is going to be on the glass. Chicago has been a great rebounding team all year, finishing fourth in the league, while Boston has been abysmal, finishing 27th in the league. If the Bulls are to stay in this series and extend it, part of it's going to come by punishing the Celtics on the boards.
Jason: As great as Isaiah Thomas has been this season, the Bulls still have the best player in the series in Jimmy Butler. And the combo of Jimmy and Wade could be an advantage late in games when the action slows down. The other obvious advantage is on the glass. The loss of Taj Gibson mitigates this somewhat, but the Bulls still have a clear edge on the boards. The Bulls will have to batter the offensive boards and get extra opportunities to have a chance at an upset.
Easy Eis: The Celtics have tremendous depth, offensive versatility, stalwart defense at every position (other than when Isaiah Thomas is in), and an enormous edge in the coaching department from both a schematic and in-game adjustment standpoint. But the Bulls have an overwhelmingly superior amount of playoff experience throughout their roster than the Celtics do, and that is going to pay major dividends when it comes to the players maintaining composure in the face of adversity. How pronounced is this advantage? Dwyane Wade has more playoff minutes logged than the entire roster of the Boston Celtics combined. Rondo is no stranger to postseason success himself, and while this is Butler's first series as his team's leading act, fans will recall Butler originally rose to league-wide critical acclaim when he played nearly 500 minutes over 12 contests for the Bulls in the 2013 NBA Playoffs. The three alphas have all had their share of postseason success, and their steady presences during the most critical time of the basketball year cannot be understated when comparing them to a still very green Celtics squad, no pun intended
Anthony: Simple, Jimmy Butler. Butler is the Bulls' biggest strength and by far the best player between both teams. It would be most wise of Hoiberg to drain the Jimmy well until it's completely dry. This isn't to say that Jimmy should play hero-ball and ignore his teammates, but it's meant to say that the gameplan should be to put Jimmy in the best positions to take advantage and allow him to lead the charge. The Celtics will try to throw multiple bodies and the kitchen sink at Jimmy defensively, but Jimmy's passing (especially out of double-teams) has been much improved over the last several weeks. This will be a case of where you give Jimmy the ball and let him make the decision.
Vijay: Jimmy Butler is going to the best player on the court in this series, there is no doubt about it. We have seen time and time again Butler will Chicago to victory and he alone could give Boston some problems. The rebounding advantage could have been a whole lot more significant if it hadn’t fallen off during the last part of the season (we miss you Taj Gibson). But the Bulls do have some other things in their favor and that includes playoff experience with players like Rondo, Butler, and Dwyane Wade having been here before. There is also the shear randomness of this Chicago Bulls team which also could play a factor. You never know what Bulls team you are going to get. They could play like how they did when they had that abysmal first quarter against Boston or they can play like world beaters. Will be interesting to see if either of those versions of the Bulls show up in this series.
Jacob: Despite having the best player in the series, the Bulls utter lack of depth is going to prevent them from stretching this series to six or seven games. Jimmy Butler is a ferocious two-way beast and has developed into a great closer down the stretch of tight games. His clutch play is the only reason the Bulls snuck into the playoffs. He is going to lock down Isaiah Thomas in crunch time.
Unfortunately, I don't see the Bulls being able to keep games close enough over the first three quarters to provide Butler with a chance to be the playoff hero. Boston is going to execute on both ends of the floor for the entire game, and they will do everything in their power to prevent this series from coming down to a one-on-one showdown between Thomas and Butler.
Celtics in five.
Tyler: Celtics in 5. Even though the Bulls have the best player in this series, Boston is the deeper, more talented team. One area where the Bulls have struggled with this season has been getting production from their bench on a consistent basis. When the Bulls have played poorly, which has been often, one reason has been due to the fact that they aren't getting any type of positive production from their second unit. And with how little experience this bench unit has in the playoffs, I think that'll be a huge, underrated factor. But more importantly, and Jason has alluded to this as well, is Boston has several defensive anchors they can throw at Jimmy and Dwyane, from Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and possibly even Jaylen Brown. Throughout the series, Brad Stevens is going to rotate those players on the aforementioned duo, especially Butler in order to keep legs fresh and to wear them down. In the end, Chicago might squeak one out at home behind an incredible game from Butler, but Boston controls this series from the start.
Jason: I do think the Bulls can make the Celtics sweat a bit, and I relish the idea of Jimmy Butler taking down the Celtics after listening to so many Celtics fans scoff at the idea of giving up an even reasonabl hauls for him. But the Celtics are simply the better team here and should be able to take down the Bulls. Celtics in 6.
Easy Eis: I want to pick the Bulls so badly. I truly do. I expect Butler to play some of his finest ball, Wade to flip his switch for the postseason as he seemingly does every year, and Rondo to play with a chip on his shoulder in the face of ravenous boos from fans of his former team. But the Celtics are just too damn deep for a shallow Bulls roster to consistently compete against in a seven game series, and based on what we've seen all season, Brad Stevens is going to coach circles around Fred Hoiberg. I believe the Celtics will take this series in seven games, but I also want to note that if the Bulls pull off the upset, they'll have to make it happen in six.
Anthony: I do believe the Bulls will make this a somewhat competitive series. I can see them totally stealing a game in Boston (likely game 1) and maybe even 2 games. The Bulls have pulled some unbelievable games out of nowhere this season and I expect that to happen at least once this series. That being said, while I don't think the Celtics will make it to the Finals (the Cavs will trash them), they are the #1 seed for a reason (and the Bulls are #8 for a reason). I think the coaching discrepancy will come into play very soon (Stevens is heads and shoulders better than Hoiberg) and that will definitely play into the Bulls' demise in the series. I'm tempted to think this could go 7 games (or maybe I just want it to go 7) but nah...Celtics in 6.
Vijay: The Bulls can make this a competitive series but they have to take one of the first two games in Boston to do so. If they go down 2-0 early, I think this series is over in 4 or 5 games. But this Bulls team has some playoff experiences and have pulled off some great performances on National TV this season. But it still won’t be enough. I’m going to say Celtics in 6.