Atlantic Division Outlook: Chicago Bulls vs. Boston Celtics

Dec 9, 2015; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4) returns the ball against Chicago Bulls guard Jimmy Butler (21) in the second half at TD Garden. Celtics defeated the Bulls 105-100. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 9, 2015; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4) returns the ball against Chicago Bulls guard Jimmy Butler (21) in the second half at TD Garden. Celtics defeated the Bulls 105-100. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports /

This week at PAE, we’ve been previewing the Atlantic Division. Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge flubbed two of his three first-round picks and were unable to land Chicago Bulls star Jimmy Butler. The Bulls might burn them for it in the regular season.

The Chicago Bulls lost two of three meetings against the Boston Celtics last season, 2-1.

Brad Stevens had Jimmy Butler‘s number and often blitzed him as he received the ball. The Celtics also got lucky against the Fred Hoiberg‘s hand-me-down team from long range because the Bulls last year had weak perimeter defenders and the the worst interior defense in the league.

All that changes this year with an overhauled Bulls roster for a faster offense with veterans Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo and a two-way backcourt upgrade for the bench.

The “Three Alphas” and Co. vs. One of the League’s Best Defenses

Boston has Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Smart, veteran center free agent splash Al Horford and lottery pick Jaylen Brown as their main scoring weapons. Backing these guys are Jae Crowder as a stretch-four and Avery Bradley as a strong defensive guard. The C’s lost Evan Turner and Jared Sullinger to free agency this past summer.

The rest of the team are a wait-and-see sideshow after the poor performance of their draft prospects in summer league action. If the team shares the ball like they did last year and keeps looking for the hot hand, they might mask the glaring inconsistency and depth of their bench.

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The Chicago Bulls on the other hand, have a new veteran core in Rondo and Wade complementing Jimmy Butler as Hoiberg’s best scoring and defending studs. Robin Lopez and Bobby Portis should have better game against the depleted Celtics frontcourt lineup this year.

Portis, Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott should have better offensive games now that they will be carrying more of a scoring load after the Bulls dumped Derrick Rose, Pau Gasol and Mike Dunleavy from their starting lineup in favor of a rebuild. These stretch-fours may come into their own as the future of the team as long as Hoiberg plays them together a lot.

Danny Ainge picked Ante Zizic and power forward Guershon Yabusele as his high-upside projects.  These guys are nothing to be scared of in their rookie years, unlike Jaylen Brown, who may give Ben Simmons a run for his money if his raw skills and athleticism evolve into an NBA scoring machine with the Celtics.

But, the Bulls match up nicely with their own NBA-ready Denzel Valentine as a scoring playmaker and Paul Zipser as a potential second-round steal.

Brad Stevens may still mold this team into a defensive-minded group that can work its way through the Eastern Conference portion of the playoffs.

But, against a Chicago Bulls team that shook off the cobwebs from last year, the Celtics might have a tougher time against a better-defending team raring to make the playoffs with possibly the best scoring second unit in the NBA.

Related Story: Atlantic Division Outlook: Bulls-76ers

Coaching: Brad Stevens’ Scouting vs. Fred Hoiberg’s Flow Offense

Brad Stevens has proved his mettle as an NBA coach by beating the Bulls last year with virtually no superstar on his team. This year, he may accomplish the same feat again with his ability to make in-game adjustments.

Fred Hoiberg’s big man crew looks like a stronger unit with Robin Lopez manning the paint and Cristiano Felicio and Bobby Portis coming into their own this year.

Hoiberg is in a position to be successful by tuning his new pieces to score in bunches, while giving opposing teams difficulty setting up their own half-court offense. Hoiberg’s new defense should get his flow offense system in sync nicely, especially with Spencer Dinwiddie and Jerian Grant growing into their roles, locking down opposing playmakers, while the “Three Alphas” and the Bulls’ “Rifle Squad” do their damage.

As close as these games have been in the past, Fred Hoiberg must recognize early on which lineups are working and stick with the better unit down the stretch to win games.

Next: Atlantic Division Outlook: Bulls-Nets

Key: Jimmy Butler’s play

Jimmy Butler is in a position to either repeat his mistakes against this squad last year or redeem the Chicago Bulls and beat the Celtics to gain some ground in the Eastern Conference standings.

Butler should review film against each opponent to see what they do against him, given that Hoiberg doesn’t do the same prep that Tom Thibodeau did to help players anticipate matchup tweaks.

The Celtics will blitz Butler when the ball swings to him and adjustments may include having him attack the paint from below instead of from above the free-throw line where scoring off-ball and via lobs makes him unstoppable and helps him evade double teams and blind side blitzes. The Bulls will definitely protect the rim better than Pau Gasol and Taj Gibson did last year.

If the team gets into a grinder with the Celtics in their meetings, the veteran presence of Rondo and Wade may help put the Bulls over the top with Butler’s smarter play.