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Defending Jimmy Butler

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Back in February, it was rumored that Jimmy Butler would cost the Celtics some combination of Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, and Marcus Smart. In a twist of fate, it’s that trio that has held the Bulls superstar in check.

NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Chicago Bulls Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

When Boston was down 0-2 after losing both games at the Garden, there was a lot of trolling on Celtics fans about how they should have traded for the man that had helped put them in that hole: Jimmy Butler. And with former Celtic Rajon Rondo torching the team on the same parquet floor that he raised a banner over, the NBA playoffs turned into some sort of dystopian version of the Dickens novel where the ghosts of Christmas past and future visit in the first round of the playoffs.

And while it’s fun to play armchair GM, consider the what if’s of the past, and plan for the future, the Celtics are dealing in the now. Jimmy Butler is a Bull and the Celtics tasked to stop him are the same Celtics that were rumored to be part of a trade package to get Butler to Boston: Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart, and Avery Bradley.

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Through four games, Butler is averaging a modest 24.8 ppg. He’s getting to the line—including a ridiculous 23 times on Sunday—and become the de facto point guard in Rondo’s absence with nine assists in Game 4. There’s no doubt that Butler is a star, but the Celtics haven’t necessarily been treating him like one.

Take for instance the Bulls’ approach to defending Isaiah Thomas. They’ve tried several defensive team schemes (packing the paint, hedging hard on pick-and-rolls, etc.) to stop IT, but they haven’t been able to hold Thomas down.

NBA: Playoffs-Chicago Bulls at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

The Celtics, on the other hand, have kept Butler in check. He’s shooting only 40.8% from the field and even though he went to the line twenty-three times in Game 4 and matched Thomas point for point with 33, the volume scorer has been stymied in single coverage by Boston’s bullpen of defenders: Crowder, Smart, and Bradley.

For the most part, the Celtics have stuck to their core defensive principles. They don’t double team a lot and they switch on everything. Unlike Fred Hoiberg’s approach of throwing multiple bodies at Thomas, Brad Stevens has mostly employed one-on-one defense on Chicago’s best scorer because, well, he can. That’s the beauty of Boston’s D.

Whether it’s Smart, Bradley, or Crowder, Stevens is confident that in the aggregate, all three players can contain Butler. And if they’re beaten off the dribble, Boston’s ICE strategy on PnR’s leaves a rim protector in the paint:

Or, they’ll recover and help in the restricted area:

Even with Thomas saddled with four fouls, the Celtics still chose to use single coverage on Butler. The Bulls forced Thomas to guard Butler in a couple of PnR switches. Even with Thomas in foul trouble and giving Butler ten inches, Boston still stuck to their guns.

In isolation plays, Butler is only scoring 0.74 points per possession. That’s not that much worse than his 0.87 PPP in the regular season. By comparison, Isaiah Thomas averaged 1.12 PPP. Analytically, Boston would rather give up a contested two rather than help and potentially give up an open spot up jumper.

If he posted, they’d live with the low percentages that he’d score there, too. In nineteen post-ups in the playoffs, Butler is only scoring 0.74 points per possession; that’s down from his 1.07 average in the regular season. Butler scored on both of those possessions above, but it does illustrate how the Celtics defend Butler and potentially other superstars down the road.

And then there’s Marcus Smart.

NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Chicago Bulls Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Unofficially, Butler is 2-for-8 with Smart defending him, but at this point, it’s less Smart’s physicality and more Marcus’ mind games that have rattled Butler. By now, you’ve either read or seen Butler’s post-game comments about Smart being a “great actor” and “not about that life.” Yes, Smart has a way of selling a call and while his numbers don’t jump off the page, he has played the part of Irritant very well. He’s blocked his shot a couple of times and drawn a pair of offensive fouls.

Pressure is already mounting on Butler to carry Chicago. He played 46 minutes in Sunday’s loss and averaging 42 minutes for the series. The supporting cast has been inconsistent and Butler has taken on the challenge of covering Isaiah Thomas, too. As the series shifts back to Boston, he may try to do everything by himself.

And the Celtics will be waiting.