With just a handful of games remaining in the regular season, the Eastern Conference still has a lot of sorting out to do when it comes to the playoff picture. Just two games separate the six through nine seeds and there’s even less wiggle room at the top.
The Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers, who will meet for the final time tonight, are tied atop the Eastern Conference and it’s likely that the winner wraps up the No. 1 seed for good. But regardless of whether or not Boston takes that game, there’s a good chance it meets the Chicago Bulls in the first round of the postseason.
Chicago is currently tied for the No. 7 seed with the Indiana Pacers, making a possible 1 versus 8 or 2 versus 7 matchup between the Celtics and Bulls—depending on how the last handful of games shake out—something to keep in mind.
What would that potential series look like?
The two sides split their four-game season series, but it’s been hard to know which Bulls team you’re going to get on any given night: the one that swept the Cavaliers in the regular season or the one that went a combined 0-7 against the Dallas Mavericks, Minnesota Timberwolves and New York Knicks.
If anything is certain, it’s that Chicago struggles mightily from beyond the arc. The Bulls rank 26th in the league in three-point percentage this season where they convert just 33.7% of their looks. Instead, the Bulls rely on both the inside and mid-range games where they shoot 58.8% and 39%, respectively.
That type of offense isn’t usually conducive to success in today’s NBA, especially when their mark from the midrange is mediocre at best, but that’s what happens when your primary scorers are guys like Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade, who both make their living in the midrange, post and driving to the rim.
Here you see Jerian Grant deliver the ball to Robin Lopez in the high post before setting a pin down screen in the corner for Dwyane Wade. Wade uses the screen to lose Avery Bradley and, with Lopez’s positioning acting as a sort of secondary screen, Wade is able to get an open look from about 20 feet out.
This is a common action. Except, for most teams, they run this to get a shooter an open look from three. Where Wade pulls up from just below the arc, others usually are launching from downtown.
Here Dwyane Wade takes the ball from under the hoop and decides to post Bradley up where he’ll use his size to get a fade away jumper over the top of Bradley.
And finally, Jimmy Butler receives a screen from Joffrey Lauvergne and is forced to stop short and pull up for a contested jumper. The reason being is the paint is packed.
A player has three ideal options in this situation: hit the roll man, take the ball to the rim or kick out to an open shooter. Having all five Celtics around the paint eliminates the first two options and since Rajon Rondo and Paul Zipser aren’t exactly snipers, Butler decides to take the contested two rather than pass out to the corners.
The result is obviously a made basket. But this isn’t efficient offense. The Celtics can live with surrendering contested twos. What they can’t afford to do is allow Chicago to bully them on the glass, which they have done in three of the four games.
The Bulls are the top team in the league in offensive rebounds per game at 12.2 and in their season series with the Celtics they out-rebounded Boston 60 to 29 on the offensive boards. This is part of the reason why Chicago is able to get a lot of its offense from inside the restricted area.
A guy like Lopez isn’t going to kill you as a post-up guy, but he’s a terrific offensive rebounder. Of players with at least 70 games played this season, Lopez ranks 12th in offensive rebound percentage with an 11.5% clip. He also scores 0.969 points per possession on put backs this season, per Synergy, an average, but effective, number.
Things like this are too easy and part of it has to do with Kelly Olynyk’s poor defense on this particular play. Because Lauvergne blows by Olynyk off the dribble, Amir Johnson is forced to step up in help, leaving Lopez completely unbothered on his way to the board and the jam.
Here Lopez doesn’t score. But with Johnson failing to put a solid box out on him, Lopez is able to alter the offensive rebound to the point where it squeaks away to Bobby Portis, who puts it back in for an easy two.
Second chance points could kill the Celtics. It’s no secret that rebounding has been an issue for them all season (41.9 per game, 27th in the league) and if they aren’t able to limit Chicago on the glass, they could find themselves in trouble.
Is it enough to do them in in a seven game series? Probably not. But it’s something they need to be aware of.
Offensively, the Celtics should be just fine. Chicago is a solid defensive team, ranking 13th in the league with a 105.6 defensive rating, but Butler and Lopez are probably the only two guys that can make a significant individual impact on that end of the floor. Wade just doesn’t have it anymore and Rondo has admitted that he hasn’t really played defense in years.
Schematically, the Bulls don’t switch very often on the pick and roll and, more often than not, the big involved in the play will drop back rather than blitz.
Christiano Felicio does just that here.
The Celtics have too many good shooters for the Bulls to get away with that, especially at the 4 and 5 positions. Felicio does the right thing by dropping back to cut off Rozier’s lane to the hoop but, in turn, he leaves Al Horford wide open from beyond the arc where he shoots a solid 35.8%.
Boston can take advantage of that with a number of different players and they’ll likely do so in a way that pulls Lopez (1.4 blocks per game) away from the rim, whether it’s done in the pick and roll or by simply finding the mismatch as quickly as possible—just as they do here.
Should this matchup come to fruition, it’s also possible the Bulls try Butler on Isaiah Thomas for large stretches of the game. And while Butler might be successful in keeping Thomas in check as a scorer, the Celtics point guard has the playmaking chops to find the open man. Boston has plenty of other options offensively that can make a shot when their number is called (i.e. Bradley, Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart, Horford, Olynyk, etc).
Bottom line: the Celtics should fare well against the Bulls in a potential first round series. Chicago has obviously shown that they can beat Boston during the regular season, but things change when the playoffs start. The Celtics have the horses to counter much of what the Bulls do on both ends.
Stats current through Tuesday, April 3.