Game 1 Preview: Chicago Bulls at Boston Celtics

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The last time Chicago and Boston met in the first round was 2009, and before that series was all said and done, the two teams had gone a full seven games, five of which were determined by three points or fewer and four of which were determined following many, many overtimes. There were 65 ties in the series and 120 lead changes. Players knocked down improbable shots at the buzzer, forcing a total of seven overtime periods and helping establish Joakim Noah, Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo as future stars.

It was awesome:

A lot has changed since then, obviously. Rose and Noah are neither healthy nor in the playoffs, while Rondo, once a hated Chicago adversary, is now one of the Bulls’ best hopes in toppling an entirely new batch of formidable high-seeded C’s.

There are some who called the 2009 Bulls/Celtics series the most entertaining first-round series in the history of basketball, and while that certainly is debatable, we’ll all be lucky if we get 15 percent of the excitement that series provided.

#1 – Boston Celtics

This year’s Celtics are a lot different from the group of defending champions that fell short of a title repeat in 2009. First and foremost, this iteration of Boston players is completely healthy. Led by all-star Isaiah Thomas, who was among the league leaders in scoring this year with 28.9 PPG, as well as big offseason acquisition Al Horford, the Celtics muscled their way to the top of the Eastern Conference this season, relegating this year’s defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers to the 2-seed.

Thomas sees this achievement as a harbinger of things to come in this year’s playoffs, but he’ll have to find ways to stay relevant in what always is a much tighter defensive atmosphere in the postseason. A year ago, the Celtics were booted out of the first round of the playoffs by Horford’s Atlanta Hawks, something they accomplished by holding Thomas to just 75 points in Boston’s four losses, and it is almost certain Chicago will focus their defensive attention on doing something similar this spring.

Horford and Avery Bradley, the team’s next two highest scorers after Thomas, will be key players in this series, especially offensively. Celtics players also need to smash the glass, as Chicago has, by the numbers, been a much, much better rebounding team than Boston this season. Where Chicago finished the regular season third in total rebounds per game with 46.3 (and tied for first overall in offensive rebounds per game with 12.2), Boston finished 26th in overall rebounds (42.0 RPG) and 22nd in offensive boards (9.1 RPG).

Even though the Bulls don’t have Taj Gibson to clean up the glass anymore, the Celtics still need to keep Chicago’s young, hungry rebounders off of the offensive glass. If they can limit second-chance points, the Bulls will have a hard time winning this series.

Chicago and Boston split their regular season series 2-2, and they’re much more evenly-matched than the seeding may represent. The first two games are in Boston, and winning both of those would go a long way toward squashing any criticisms that may suggest the Bulls are better off facing them than they would have been against Cleveland.

#8 – Chicago Bulls

Put delicately, the Bulls are an inconsistent team. That leaves out a lot of the rich narrative that was the 2016-2017 Chicago Bulls season, but there you have it. After jumping off to a hot start, the Bulls were a sad, frustrating 34-39 through the season’s middle portion, only to charge back in the year’s final moments to win 7 of 9, most of which came in the absence of Dwyane Wade.

In theory, this is a team that could give the Celtics some massive headaches in the first round. Is Jimmy Butler capable of stringing together five or six of his world-beater games where no man (and certainly no Boston Celtics defender) can stop him? He is. Could Wade, who proved a year ago that he can still get up for the postseason, string together a series’ worth of vintage performances? He could. Can Rajon Rondo continue his surprising unselfish renaissance against his first NBA team, the one for which he won his lone NBA championship? He can.

And it’s going to take all of those things coming together for Chicago have much of a shot against the Celtics, not only in Game 1 but in the series as a whole.

The rest of this team’s core is incredibly young, with most of the roster never having played any sort of meaningful postseason minutes. And while the experience this spring may be good for their continued growth, an 8-seed doesn’t really have the benefit of waiting for them to adapt to the more intense setting. If Chicago’s going to have a shot, the Three Alphas are going to have to carry them, and that almost assuredly is the team’s plan. That and locking down Thomas.

Head coach Fred Hoiberg is playing for his job, but it’s hard to see him saving himself at the expense of a Celtics team this good. Butler willed this team to a playoff berth—the team’s 8th in nine years—but it’s very difficult to Chicago outlasting Boston.

Who Wins the Series?

As the deeper and more consistent team, the Celtics would be hard-pressed to drop this series. The ol’ 8-seed upset is incredibly rare, but Chicago still can pull together a couple of wins, particularly when they get back to the Madhouse on Madison. Expect this one to go six games, which Boston clinching in Beantown for Game 6.