Previewing a potential Bulls-Celtics first-round playoff matchup

DeMar DeRozan, Chicago Bulls Mandatory Credit: Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports
DeMar DeRozan, Chicago Bulls Mandatory Credit: Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports /

The Chicago Bulls dropped to sixth with their loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, but clinched a playoff brith thanks to an Orlando Magic win over the Cleveland Cavaliers. As of now, the Bulls would play the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs, though that can change.

The Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, Miami and Heat and Boston Celtics are all in the running for the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

Miami has the top seed. They are two games ahead of the Celtics and 2.5 games ahead of the Bucks and Sixers. The Heat have two games remaining and will play the Atlanta Hawks on Friday and the Orlando Magic on Sunday.

The Bucks have three game remaining. The have the Celtics on the back end of Boston’s back-to-back, the Detroit Pistons the next day, and then the Cavs on Sunday.

The 76ers have two games remaining, with the Toronto Raptors Thursday, the Indiana Pacers Saturday, and the Pistons Sunday.

The Celtics have two games remaining after beating down the Bulls on Wednesday night. They take on the Bucks on Wednesday night and then close with the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday.

Previewing a potential Bulls-Celtics first-round playoff matchup

The top of the Eastern Conference is a landmine of bad matchups for the Bulls, leaving them with little wiggle room as to who they should prefer to play. The way the regular season plays out, the Celtics have the toughest of the the four remaining schedules. They can still finish in third or fourth with the Bulls likely locked into the sixth spot (but can still leap up to fifth with some Raptors’ losses).

Of the four teams at the top of the east, the Celtics aren’t a matchup the Bulls want. Boston is playing the best basketball in the NBA right now. They have gone on a late-season surge that has propelled them from seventh in the east to second, with the possibility of finishing in first.

In the past, Boston had problems with young stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown coexisting on the court. Both of their games are reliant on pounding the ball and driving to the bucket. When they got the ball, it used to stick and leave the other players on the court watching as their iso dominated the possession.

To make matter worse, Tatum would take breaks on defense at the worst times, losing his man on weak-side and cherry picking down the court, leading to opponents’ offensive rebounds. Brown was a capable defender, but wasn’t great at covering for Tatum.

All of that has changed.

Celtics first-year head coach Ime Udoka has gotten Tatum and Brown to buy in on defense. Boston is the best perimeter defending team, allowing the lowest 3-point percentage in the NBA. They switch their defensive scheme up throughout their contests, throwing in half-court zones and full-court presses. They are relentless in their pressure, forcing elite teams into high turnover rates.

The Bulls mostly played the Celtics before their coming-to-light moment and Boston was somehow able to split with Chicago, who at the time was playing better basketball.

Defensively, the duo of Tatum and Brown are going to be a problem in a seven-game series for Chicago. Both stars have too much length for Alex Caruso and possess veteran savviness that will give Patrick Williams fits. They are young, but have two Eastern Conference Finals appearances under their belt, something that the majority of the Bulls’ roster can’t say. More importantly, they have reliable kick-out options.

The Celtics’ role players aren’t spectacular on paper, but they do their job. Each player understands their role and fulfills the assignment night in and night out. They never go outside of their role and they never shrink in the role. The strength of their role guys makes defending their main guys even harder.

The Bulls will need to possibly throw in Derrick Jones Jr. or Troy Brown just to give Tatum and Brown different looks defensively. In a seven-game series, wearing down stars can prove to be effective, especially if it goes the distance.

For the series to go long, the Bulls’ stars will have to behave as such. DeMar DeRozan hasn’t had an issue showing up as of late. Zach LaVine’s knee has raised questions about his availability and he hasn’t been as explosive on his drives. Nikola Vucevic has been up and down this season, and his 3-of-19 showing from the field and poor defense against the Bucks this week was not inspiring whatsoever.

The Bulls role players are a bigger head-scratcher. Their usage rating is extremely low and the player movement in their offensive sets is non-existent. Earlier in the season. they had great movement altogether, but that drastically changed when Lonzo Ball was lost for the seaosn.

Since Ball went out, it’s been an entirely different experience. The star guards pound the ball in iso while the rest of the team stands around. It’s very similar to what was plaguing the Celtics in prior years. The only difference is that the Bulls aren’t a lockdown defensive team like the older Celtics squads.

It’s safe to say the Bulls got a close enough look at Boston after getting destroyed 117-94 on Wednesday night. Hopefully Billy Donovan took plenty of notes because this is a very real possibility for the first round.

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