WALTHAM — The Bulls tenure in their first round NBA playoffs series against the Boston Celtics will last as long as Jimmy Butler can keep it afloat. Unfortunately for Fred Hoiberg, they face a Celtics team uniquely staffed to handle Butler in a variety of ways.
The track record for the Celtics this year is that they can mitigate Jimmy Butler’s impact with a variety of Jae Crowder, Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart. However, you cannot stop him, but only hope to contain him.
“Those guys are going to give a tremendous effort, they’re going to study, they’re going to be as locked in as you can be,” Stevens said Friday when CelticsBlog asked how confident he was in his three defensive alphas on Butler. “Jimmy Butler is still going to make a shot, right? He’s still going to find a spot and raise up and make a really tough shot that you have to tip your hat and run down the court and try to score, then come back and try to do it again.”
Bradley has been gearing up in the past few weeks for this kind of assignment. The dancing shadow boxer will see a ton of minutes on Butler and will often be the crunch time defender. His active feet, ability to read body language like brail and surprising athleticism make him an ideal cover.
Bradley can handle Butler on the perimeter better than anyone on the roster and is strong enough to handle his post-ups and contest in the paint. But there will be lineups during the series that will dictate Crowder or Smart Cover Butler too, which has its pros and cons.
Butler typically bulldozes through the perimeter, but has been force to get pretty crafty against Boston this year. The Bulls use a variety of HORNS actions to screen through Butler and free him up near the three-point elbow. Once Butler gets space to work, his momentum and strength are dangerous. This year, his improved permitter shooting and skill on and off the ball have made him a near-impossible cover everywhere.
The Bulls have been crafty getting Butler into unconventional attack angles. He loves to use the mid range as a decoy area of operation, often flaring back to the perimeter off Robin Lopez screens to either shoot or set up another screen. But the Celtics can pick which defender they want to use based on the personnel and style Hoiberg is using.
“It’s difficult, but Lopez does a great job of getting him open on screening,” Crowder said. “As much film as I watched the last few days, him coming off his right hand in pick-and-rolls, he’s very dangerous. We’re aware of it.”
Butler relies on the side pick-and-roll to create space, being one of just four players (Lou Williams, Bradley Beal, and Jeff Teague) to rank in the top 10 in points per possession (PPP) from both sides of the floor in that action per Synergy. While most players thrive on the side where their shooting hand is on the inside, allowing for easier step-backs, Butler can work from anywhere.
“We’ve just got to make it as difficult as possible and not let him get a rhythm going in a mid-range game. He has a great mid-range game; we all know. We’ve just got to stay connected as much as possible and fight over the screens and make it tough for him.”
This is a different approach than the Celtics used in the past, as they would usually defend HORNS actions with Butler by going under the screen. This strategy often failed primarily because the Bulls set their screens low and Butler breaks his routes like a young Andre Johnson.
Butler initially makes it look like he’s cutting toward the top of the key, then slips back toward his elbow once the defender commits to going under the screen. Bradley slips through screens better than any two guard in the league, so it’s going to take a lot of creativity for Butler to catch him out of position like this on a frequent basis.
Going over screens is a dangerous game with Butler, who gets to the line like his contract is contingent on hitting 10 free throws a night. Crowder says they will fight over screens, but Butler’s hesitation dribbles and Lopez’s disruptive, if not borderline moving screens, tend to open up a sliver of lane or space for a step back.
But these are the few examples of Butler scoring against Boston this year. He shot 25 of 69 (36.3%) in four games, but did go 22 of 26 from the line. Butler usually can bully his defenders, and that doesn’t work often against Smart, Bradley and especially Crowder. When they lose Butler going over a screen, especially on a dribble hand off (DHO), they can call a switch for Horford.
Regardless of Butler hitting the three there, the switching strategy can work against him as a fallback on blown pick-and-roll coverage. The Celtics will try to avoid that so they don’t lose personnel on the defensive glass with Horford out on the perimeter, but it’s a viable option to limit Butler’s free throws. While the Celtics often switch everything, the Bulls would have to continue their hot three-point shooting as of late to necessitate that gameplan.
“We plan on making him earn everything he takes and stuff like that,” Smart said. “It’s going to take a full team effort for that.”
The biggest question is which Bulls offense will they see this series? Since the Celtics thrashed them on March 12, the Bulls found some great offense without Dwyane Wade by running a lineup of Rajon Rondo, Jimmy Butler, Paul Zipser, Nicola Mirotic, and Robin Lopez. Butler had an elite 1.35 PPP in 125 minutes with that lineup per NBAWowy, but it fell to 1.05 in a similar lineup with Wade on the floor.
So will the Bulls go back to starting Wade? It appears so. Rondo has been shooting well lately and Wade has approached this entire season as a warmup for this series. The Bulls have won 20 straight games on TNT, so the Basketball Gods [aka Adam Silver] scheduling game one on Turner will only increase the intensity.
Wade is likely starting and that means the Celtics can continue to sag in on the weak side to contain Butler’s penetration. That puts a lot of pressure on Wade and Mirotic to make them pay, a pretty reasonable risk to assume to avoid Butler getting to the line.
The track record this season indicates the Celtics have the upper hand against Butler and the Bulls, but Chicago may be the biggest unknown in the East this playoffs. The Celtics are being widely pegged as one of the weakest number one seeds in recent memory. It’s not a farfetched claim, but it’s certainly not going unnoticed by the Celtics.
“I wake up every day feeling like an underdog, so it’s nothing new to me, nothing new to the guys in the locker room,” said Crowder.
For Crowder, his friendship with Butler will take a back seat, as they are in for a blood bath.
“It’s kind of put on hold [for this series],” Crowder said. “We’ll have a lot of time to reminisce and do all that stuff, but right now we’re on opposing teams battling for one thing and that’s to win a series.”
The One That Got Away
Despite their overall success against Butler, there is still one play that is stuck in the raging volcano Smart and Crowder call their minds: The reach foul called on Smart on Butler’s game-winning attempt in their third matchup on February 16. The highly controversial call was just as polarizing in the locker room as anywhere else.
“That was a tough one to swallow right before the All-Star break,” Crowder said. “We were going in, playing well, and I feel like we did everything in our power to win our game. But it came down to the referee’s hands and it came down to that shot. I mean, we got them back Game 4 I feel like. We for sure took care of business and did what we had to do. But that was a tough one. That was a tough one especially with how well we were playing leading up to that game.”
Smart reflects on that call as a symptom of a pattern of calls that have hurt the Celtics throughout the season.
“This isn’t the first time this has happened. After we played them a couple times, we went back and looked at the film with some other teams. So we have to just be really cognizant not to foul in that situation.”
They can try, but Jimmy Butler isn’t going to stop drawing fouls in crunch time any time soon. Butler finished fifth in the NBA in clutch free throws made per game per NBA Stats, finishing behind just James Harden, Isaiah Thomas, Russell Westbrook, and Damian Lillard respectively. His 95.2% from the line in clutch situations was the best in the NBA and was a crucial reason why the Bulls squeaked into the playoffs.
“We have to try to limit dumb fouls helping him get to the free throw line because those get those guys easy points and get them going,” Bradley said.
Limiting dumb fouls is doable, but Wade and Butler manufacture fouls for a living.
“It’s a veteran type team that knows how to win games,” Crowder said. “It’s no coincidence that they’ve made it to the playoffs. Those guys play very, very hard and know how to get it done. So we know we’ve got our hands cut out.”