8:00 PM EST, TNT – Line: Celtics -7, Over/Under: 205.5
After the race for the First Seed in the Eastern Conference Playoffs ran all the way to the final day of the Regular Season, it seems awfully ironic that the Boston Celtics relinquished their home court advantage the first chance they had, but they’ll nonetheless look to square things away with the Chicago Bulls in tonight’s meeting at TD Bank Garden, before this series transitions to the Windy City. Before we get into Boston’s wasteful ways, let’s give some credit to the Bulls (41-41, 8th in Eastern Conference), who needed all eighty-two games and a little luck to return to the Postseason after a one-year hiatus. Let’s all be honest; two months ago this team was left for dead, as they sent both Doug McDermott and Taj Gibson packing in a trade with Oklahoma City, while shutting down future Hall of Famer Dwayne Wade (or so we thought), who suffered a fractured elbow in early March. Telltale signs of a team waving the white flag, right? Not so fast, folks… Fred Hoiberg’s charges got it together down the stretch, winning nine of their final thirteen contests, which prompted Wade’s premature return from injury with four games to go, allowing them to sneak into the Playoffs thanks to a tiebreaker over the Miami Heat. Now, you would have to think that a team that labored throughout the campaign only to barely get into the Postseason would be rather easy pickings for the No. One Seed in the Conference, right? Again, with the assumptions… Chicago stormed into Beantown and physically imposed their will on top-seeded Boston, manhandling them on the glass, and owning the Fourth Quarter; the visiting side trailed by one point with 5:33 remaining in the affair, then promptly went on a 14-4 run before the hosts made one final push. Indeed, the Bulls looked every bit the veteran-laden unit, as they provided an answer for every run that the home side was able to put together en route to a hard-fought 106-102 victory. As mentioned earlier, Hoiberg’s troops bludgeoned their counterparts on the boards, outrebounding them 53-36 (32-16 in the First Half), in large part to their twenty offensive rebounds, leading to a solid 44-38 advantage in Points in the Paint. Furthermore, they harassed Celtics all over the court, forcing fifteen turnovers, fifteen of which were steals, while also blocking seven shots. Jimmy Butler (23.9 PTS, 45.5% FG, 36.7% 3FG, 6.2 REB, 5.5 AST, 1.9 STL) was fabulous, scoring fifteen of his thirty points in the final stanza, shooting 9-of-19 from the field (47.4%), including 3-of-5 from downtown (60.0%), while also knocking down 9-of-12 free-throws (75.0%). The do-it-all Swingman filled up the stat sheet as usual, adding another nine rebounds, three assists, one steal, and one block to boot, but proved his weight in gold when he took up defensive responsibilities against Isaiah Thomas after Rajon Rondo fouled out late in the Fourth Quarter. While, Hoiberg has stated that he would prefer not to place his primary offensive weapon on the diminutive dynamo, it must be comforting that the option is out there if needed. However, the Bull that may have made the biggest impression was second-year Forward Bobby Portis (6.8 PTS, 48.8% FG, 4.6 REB), who put forth a career night off the Bench, scoring nineteen points on 8-of-10 shooting (80.0%), including 3-of-4 from three (75.0%), along with nine rebounds, three assists, and a pair of blocks in his first Playoff outing. If Chicago can keep getting games like this from the young big man, then their outlook looks vastly improved. Fans in the Windy City must be pulling their hair out, for this must be exactly how they envisioned this team would play for the majority of the season, though they rarely saw it throughout the past six months, but then again, it’s better late than never, right?
Meanwhile, it’s safe to say that this simply is NOT the way that the Celtics (53-29, 1st in Eastern Conference) envisioned starting the Playoffs. This young team has improved in each of Brad Stevens’ four years at the helm, fending off the Cleveland Cavaliers for the No. One Seed in the East, which in hindsight was clearly a bigger deal for the former than it was for the latter. However, after Sunday’s 106-102 defeat at the hands of the Bulls, it became painfully obvious that this team needs to take it’s collective play to another level, lest they run the risk of getting eliminated in the First Round for the third consecutive year. Things got off to a somber start the day before, as All-Star Point Guard Isaiah Thomas (28.9 PTS, 46.3% FG, 37.9% 3FG, 2.7 REB, 5.9 AST, 0.9 STL), learned that his younger sister had passed away in a car accident in their home state of Washington, which would no doubt weigh heavily on the young floor general. Extremely emotional before the contest, and at times appearing lost in thought during the affair, IT4 put forth an inspired performance, scoring a game-high thirty-three points on 10-of-18 shooting from the field (55.6%), including 3-of-7 from beyond the arc (42.9%), along with five rebounds, six assists, and a steal, though he also committed six turnovers. However, if Game One was any indication, he’s going to need more help from his supporting cast; Al Horford (14.0 PTS, 47.3% FG, 35.5% 3FG, 6.8 REB, 5.0 AST, 1.3 BLK) added nineteen points on 8-of-13 shooting (61.5%), seven rebounds, and eight assists, but the rest of the team struggled to put the ball in the basket, shooting a dismal 19-of-55 overall (34.5%), with only Avery Bradley (16.3 PTS, 46.3% FG, 39.0% 3FG, 6.1 REB, 2.2 AST, 1.2 STL) scoring in double-figures. And then there’s the rebounding issue. Boston wasn’t a good rebounding team during the Regular Season, and they’re getting absolutely exposed in the Playoffs, as the Chicago accumulated sixteen of their twenty offensive boards in the first Half alone. They ranked twenty-seventh in the league this season in total rebounding (42.0), getting bested by 2.5 boards a night, while their Defensive Rebounding Percentage (75.4%) ranked fourth-worst in the NBA. This is something that’s going to have to be a team effort from Stevens’ charges, who must help out the often outmatched Horford out against their extremely active counterparts. The issue is that Stevens doesn’t really have anyone on the roster that’s really big. Granted, we know how that sounds, but the majority of the Celtics big men are rather slight in comparison to the likes of the Bulls’ Robin Lopez, who accounted for eight of his team’s twenty offensive rebounds. Kelly Olynyk (7-0, 238 lbs.), Jonas Jerebko (6-10, 231 lbs.), and Amir Johnson (6-9, 240 lbs.) are far from the most physically imposing cadre of bigs, while at this stage of his career, Horford is far more integral on the offensive end of the floor than on the other. With all that said, there were a number of things that they did get right Sunday Night, which should provide Stevens and his Staff some building blocks moving forward in this series. First, the Celtics were prone to fouling their opponents far too often during the campaign (22.3% FT/FGA Allowed, 23rd Overall), and they kept the Bulls to a moderate twenty-three attempts, which was below their average. Second, they did a great job of harassing Chicago on the perimeter, forcing nineteen turnovers, which in turn led to eighteen points. Lastly, Thomas and Co. still managed to move the ball very fluidly, racking up twenty-seven assists despite only scoring fourteen points via the Fast Break. If these guys can simply limit the crowd of Bulls around the rim, then they have a great chance of turning this series around, otherwise they’re likely to be staring at a 0-2 hole come Wednesday.