For the eighth time in 10 seasons, the Chicago Bulls are headed to the playoffs.
After demolishing the Brooklyn Nets in a 112-73 win, the Bulls will meet the East-leading Boston Celtics in the first round of the postseason. The question now turns to how the Bulls can stop the Celtics, even if only for one game.
Countless variables will remain key throughout this series, though several high-level themes will prove pivotal for the Bulls.
Here are some thoughts on three of the primary concerns.
How do the Bulls guard Isaiah Thomas?
Corralling a 5-foot-9 point guard should be an easy task for a league full of behemoth athletes. It would be if I was running the point for the Celtics, but I’m not. Instead, they have a guy who ranks only behind Kevin Durant in true-shooting percentage among players with a usage percentage greater than 25 percent.
That’s correct. A 5-foot-9 point guard drafted with the last pick in the second round of the 2011 draft has become one of the games’ most efficient scoring superstars.
Isaiah Thomas has had an unbelievable season, averaging 28.9 points and 5.9 assists per game. His numbers are other-worldly and in any other year he would be considered an MVP candidate.
Stopping Thomas is critical if the Bulls are to have any chance of taking games away from the Celtics. How they plan to do so, and more importantly, how they execute such a strategy is the key question in this series.
Put simply, the Bulls do not have a guard on the roster that has any chance of limiting Thomas’ impact. Despite a strong defensive rating, the Bulls a weak defensively on the perimeter, and will be starting two below league-average defenders in its backcourt.
Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade returning to the starting unit and likely playing 30 or minutes in the postseason ensures a poor perimeter defense for the Bulls. Neither are suitable defensive matchups for Thomas, nor are backup guards Jerian Grant and Michael Carter-Williams — even if they have more length, quickness and guile.
With no obvious matchup existing for Thomas, a common suggestion that will be floated is testing Boston’s over-reliance of Thomas by trapping him and forcing lesser offensive talents to create and score. While an aggressive, trapping defense which doubles Thomas at every opportunity has merit, the Bulls are not the team who should try to apply it.
Chicago have struggled mightily all season once opponents begun to move the ball. Help defense fails when communication is non-existent. If the Brooklyn Nets are capable of exposing the Bulls’ inability to talk and help on defense, what will the league’s ninth-ranked offense be able to do?
Should the Bulls decide to press hard on Thomas, two defenders will be drawn to the Boston All-Star, meaning a Celtic teammate will likely be open. That may seem like an ideal strategy, however, Boston are a fantastic passing team who thrive on three-point shooting. Allowing them to outnumber a poor Bulls help-defense risks giving up many threes. If the Bulls want to limit the amount of threes launched by the Celtics, trapping hard shouldn’t be an option.
Really, the only individual match up that makes sense is having Jimmy Butler guard Thomas. Taking a cue from the Miami Heat, who tried to check Derrick Rose with the larger LeBron James in the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals, the Bulls could use Butler’s size and nous to control Thomas.
Though that seems advantageous for the Bulls, how realistic is it to ask Butler to carry the heaviest offensive load whilst guarding one of the best scorers in the league? It’s a potential option for stretches in the fourth quarter, however, for 48 minutes over a minimum of four games, at best it’s a situational opportunity.
Perhaps the most effective way to mitigate Thomas’ influence is not on defense, but on the offensive side of the ball. Exposing his defensive limitations and trading his own made baskets for scores on the other end is likely the only way the Bulls can draw level with Thomas’ production.
In moments when Butler does guard Thomas, potential advantages on offense exist should the Bulls be able to come away with quick defensive stops that forces Thomas to guard Butler in cross-match scenarios. In traditional, half-court sets, assuming the pint-sized point guard is matched up against Rondo, Chicago can also try pick-and-roll sets between Butler and Rondo which force Thomas to switch onto Butler. Using his size on the perimeter or in the post will allow Butler and the Bulls are a favorable offensive matchup whilst draining Thomas physically on defense.
These are several basic suggestions that will prove more effective than hoping Rondo rediscovers his best defensive form. Stevens will surely counter, so Hoiberg will need to react with creativity. But with the Thomas developing into one of the league’s most credible and potent offensive weapons who will unlikely be stopped, an unorthodox approach may be best.
Limiting the influence of the three-point shot will be difficult
The three-point shot has revolutionized basketball, and the Boston Celtics are at the forefront of pushing modern offenses further away from the mid-range shot.
As a percentage of total field goals, only Houston and Cleveland attempt more threes than the Celtics — 39 percent of their field goals are three-pointers. A third of the Celtics’ offense is been generated from three-point makes.
Clearly, Celtics coach Brad Stevens has emphasized the use of the long-range shot and rarely plays any lineups without three or more shooters on the floor at all times. All five Celtics starters have a three-point percentage above 35 percent. Only four Bulls on the entire roster are above that mark.
There undoubtedly will be a deficit in three-point makes and attempts between the two teams; Boston make 12.0 three-pointers per game, Chicago only convert 7.6 threes. Unless the Bulls catch fire and match the Celtics in makes, they will need to find other avenues to even the ledger. Curbing the amount points created from three can only happen by restricting the amount of attempts.
That begins with controlling Isaiah Thomas, who launches 8.5 threes on 37.9 percent shooting in 33.8 minutes per game. The Bulls will need to decide how they will guard pick-and-rolls and whether to fight over screens or slidindg underneath. If the Bulls go under picks, Thomas will have many open looks from deep. Should they fight over screens, Thomas’ quickness will create issues in the paint, allowing his drive-and-kick game to create looks for Jae Crowder, Avery Bradley and Al Horford, who will be waiting on the wing for catch-and-shot threes.
The Bulls will need to pick their poison, but whatever the option, the only way to contain the Celtics and their three-point barrage is to communicate on defense and scramble on the perimeter. Stevens will naturally play lineups that intend to fire up a heap of threes, often running out three guards, a wing and a small center. Hoiberg cannot stay big in these scenarios. Smaller units have a chance at running shooters off the line, traditional two big man lineups will be killed. A second unit with Portis and Felicio trying to closeout shooters is a disaster waiting to happen.
Hoiberg may have settled on a rotation, but he will need to adapt. Butler or Zipser will need to see minutes at power forward, enabling another guard to take court. It’s the only possible remedy in curtailing the amount of threes attempted by the Celtics.
Do the Bulls actually have a rebounding edge?
Season-long metrics suggest the Chicago Bulls are a top-five rebounding team and the Boston Celtics are a bottom-five. As such, the simplest and most obvious advantage the Bulls stand to have over the Celtics will be on the glass. Or is it?
The offensive glass and second-choice points was supposed to be a weapon for the Bulls, but recent trends suggest otherwise. After Ranking second in the league in offensive rebounding percentage and third in total rebounding percentage prior to the All-Star Break, Chicago have reverted into a mid-tier rebounding team after the mid-season break. Conversely, Boston have improved on the glass since the Feb. 20, leaping from 27th in rebounding percentage to 14th – only two spots behind the Bulls.
Dealing Taj Gibson to the Oklahoma City Thunder has clearly impacted the team’s ability to recover their own misses. The Celtics simultaneously improving on the defensive glass may render a once assumed edge into obsolescence.
Attributing a regression in rebounding to an improved Bulls offense is partly true. A more efficient offense will lead to less available total misses for a team to board, though a reduction in rebounding rate is a product of playing with more spaced-out lineups with shooting options at power forward who don’t rebound nearly as well as the bigger, hulkier lineups from earlier in the season.
That’s the trade-off the Bulls have made by moving on from Gibson. Nikola Mirotic spreading the floor and creating easier lanes for Jimmy Butler has been a benefit for the efficiency of the offense. Bobby Portis and Joffrey Lauvergne often play away from the rim, too.
While the offense has marginally improved since the All-Star break, has it been enough to counter a previously existing dominance over the Celtics’ frontline? Definitely not. An increase of 0.6 points per 100 possessions isn’t nearly enough to make up for a lost advantage.
In order for the Bulls to steal several games from the Celtics, they will need to recapture their thirst for controlling the rebounding battle. If they don’t, very few other benefits exist.