Count me among the Celtics fans that would have preferred to see the Celtics play Philly in the first round. The Bulls are 18-11 since they dealt Andres Nocioni to the Kings in exchange for John Salmons and Brad Miller (and picked up Tim Thomas for Larry Hughes), and they’ve turned into a sneaky good home team–28-13 for the season, including wins in 14 of their last 16 in Chicago.
They’ve won 12 of their last 16 overall, but take a look at those twelve wins: only three of them (home wins against the Hornets, Celtics and Heat) came against teams with winning records, and you surely remember how many players the Celtics were missing in that 127-121 loss in mid-March. Eddie House was guarding Brad Miller with the game on the line in the final seconds. ‘Nuff said.
The Bulls are young and exciting, but they are still a mediocre, inconsistent club. They followed up a key road win at Detroit by getting waxed at home in the season finale Wednesday against the Raptors. They are 14th in offensive efficiency and 18th in defensive efficiency. The latter mark is the worst of any playoff team. They rely heavily on the most inefficient shot in the game, the two-point jumper; only 18 percent of their shot attempts are three-pointers, the 24th lowest rate in the league, and they’re in the middle of the pack in terms of the percentage of their shots that come from in close, according to 82games.
This is a drive-and-kick team (side note: isn’t everyone?). Derrick Rose is going to get by Rajon Rondo–that’s inevitable. He will draw help, and what happens next will decide how competitive this series is. If Boston can help and rotate back out to shooters crisply and precisely, they will stop Chicago. We know the Celtics guards and wings will do this well. But will the big men? Can Glen Davis, Leon Powe and Kendrick Perkins (and Mikki, don’t forget Mikki!) keep track of the Bulls’ quicker bigs? Good thing for us neither Noah or Thomas can shoot jumpers (Noah doesn’t even try, and Thomas shoots them at 35 percent). Still, that Noah is a slippery one underneath the rim, and he must be monitored.
Can the Bulls stop the Celtics? I don’t see it. Derrick Rose cannot guard Rajon Rondo, and nobody on the Bulls can guard Paul Pierce–especially not with John Salmons nursing a gimpy groin. The Bulls starting shooting guard, Ben Gordon, is not tall enough at 6’3” to effectively check Ray Allen. Perk could average 12 points a game given the size advantage he’s going to have and his recent uptick in offensive activity; he averaged 11-9 in March, a career month, and he’s only slowed down a bit this month. He’s put up a KG-esque 16-9 against Chicago this year. I mean this sincerely: Perk can be a weapon in this series.
Obligatory KG talk: I expect the Celtics to come out fired up for these first two home games. This is a proud team, and they are eager to prove how good they are, even without Garnett. Paul Pierce is already on record saying the team can win a title as is. Ray Allen is on record saying a championship would be “sweeter” given the adversity they are facing. KG is going to be on the bench acting like a lunatic. The crowd is going to be crazy. I would be shocked if the Bulls got one of these first two games. Give the C’s two wins at home, and, this year, I think they’re taking one of the next two in Chicago.
A Random List of Things the Bulls do well:
• Offensive Rebouding: 6th best ORB rate in the league (28 percent)
• Three-point shooting: 38.1 % –7th-best overall. As mentioned above, the Celtics will have to rotate and close out on the Bulls’ shooters.
• Defend the three: Opponents shoot just 34.7 percent, 4th-lowest in the league. The Celtics led the league in three-point percentage this season, shooting nearly 40 percent. It’s not quite “irresistible force meets immovable object,” but which team wins this battle will help decide this series. For what it’s worth, the C’s hit 48 percent from deep against the Bulls this season (8.3 of 17.3 on a per game basis).
A Random List of Things the Bulls do poorly:
• Defensive Rebounding: They grab just 70.9 percent of available DRBs, 28th in the league.
• Three-point shooting: They may shoot them well, but they don’t shoot them often–just 15.7 attempts per game, 23rd most in the league. This is why they are 21st in eFG% and 15th in regular old FG%.
The Bulls have never won a single playoff game against Boston, a streak I’d love to see continue. The Celtics have swept Chicago three times: the 1981 Eastern Conference Semis and in the first round in both 1986 and 1987.
Even you youngsters out there know about the 1986 series. Game 2 of this series will come on the 23rd anniversary of Michael Jordan’s epic 63-point performance in Game 2 of that series, a 135-131 double overtime Celtics win. I remember exactly where I watched that game: on my parents’ living room couch, next to my father, the man who introduced me to the Boston Celtics. I was eight at the time, and I truly believed the Celtics were invincible. It was the closest thing I had to a religion. I’m not sure what I’d have done if they hadn’t won the title that year. (Maybe gone to church?)
I didn’t care about Michael Jordan or have any clue, really, how good he was. He wasn’t Larry Bird, and who the heck was he to be coming into Boston Garden and making a game of it against the Boston Celtics? His team was 30-52! The Celtics won ten more home games that season than the Bulls won overall.
I have the distinct memory of not feeling scared that the Celtics were in danger of losing that Game 2. I wasn’t worried. I was insulted. I was already accustomed at age eight to blowing off the first round, maybe the first two rounds, and waiting for the Sixers or Bucks to put up a nominal fight in the conference finals before the real challenge came. It wasn’t possible that the Celtics could struggle at home against a bad team.
Looking back (and you can watch virtually all of Games 1 and 2 here), it is striking how advanced MJ is athletically compared to the Celtics. Nobody can guard him. He toys with Bird. Almost humiliates him on that one play, shown endlessly, in which he feigns a drive several times, getting Bird to step back as he dribbles through his legs before hitting a jumper over Larry.
Random List of Players who Have Played for Both Teams:
Robert Parish, Ron Mercer, P.J. Brown, Stacey King (!), Rick Brunson, Artis Gilmore, Joe Kleine
I had forgotten about the glorious five-game run Burger King had with Boston in 1997–the M.L. Carr Tanking Tour. What a team.
Thankfully, this Celtics team is nothing like that one, and they should be able to get through this series–even without KG.