Honestly, I can’t believe it. At 41-41, the Chicago Bulls are in the Playoffs and with a stroke of luck, the Bulls will avoid LeBron James and the Cavaliers. This begs the question: Could the Bulls ACTUALLY win a Playoff series? It’s not that far-fetched.
First, the Bulls and Celtics split the season series 2-2. Second, the Bulls have flourished since the All-Star break as predicted by yours truly. The Taj Gibson trade and the subsequent Dwyane Wade injury created a lineup featuring Rajon Rondo, Jimmy Butler, Paul Zipser/Denzel Valentine, Nikola Mirotic, and Robin Lopez. This created the space the Bulls so desperately needed to operate and became an offense that resembled the vision of “Hoiball.” Since the All-Star break, the Bulls are shooting 38.2% from three per NBA.com/stats, which is sixth in that same span and are averaging 104.5 points per game (19th), up from their season average of 102.9 (23rd). The Bulls also finished the season with a defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) that ranked 6th in the entire NBA. Since the All-Star break, their defensive rating has ranked 3rd behind the mighty Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs despite losing the defensive presence of Taj Gibson.
The Bulls are 13-12 since the All-Star break, which is tied for the 14th best record since the break and they’d done the majority of that without Dwyane Wade. I was secretly hoping that Wade wouldn’t be healthy for the Playoffs, but he is and “Playoff Wade” and “Playoff Rondo” are lurking to give the Bulls a more dangerous look in round 1. Can the Celtics reasonably stop Butler, Wade, and Rondo? Do they have the personnel? The strength of those three stars is getting to the rim and getting to the line. The Celtics rank 16th in the league since the All-Star break in opponent’s points in the paint and are sixth in opponent’s free throws per game (4th since the All-Star break). The Bulls are also a good rebounding team. Since the Taj Gibson trade, the Bulls are 4th in the NBA in rebounding and the Celtics are 14th. Can the Celtics keep the Bulls off the glass? These could become issues for the Celtics and major advantages for the Bulls.
But ultimately, Playoff series come down to superstars. Which alpha is going to take over? Isaiah Thomas has averaged 26.8 points per game and 5 assists since the All-Star break while shooting 45.2% from the field and 36.3% from three. Jimmy Butler has averaged 22.8 points per game, 6.6 assists, and 6 rebounds while shooting 46.2% from the field and 43.8% from three. Butler is also an elite defender and one of the best two-way players in the league. The question is, “Will the Bulls defer to Butler with Dwyane Wade on the court?” In the 3 games since Wade’s return, Butler has averaged 25 points per game, 6 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and shot 48.1% from the field and 66.7% from three. When Wade and LeBron joined forces in Miami, there was always this awkwardness about whose team it was and it always felt like they were deferring to one another. I always thought the best thing for the Heat was Wade having an issue with his knee. It caused him to defer and LeBron to step forward and take the lead. Maybe the same thing has happened with the Bulls on a smaller scale. Maybe Wade’s injury was a blessing in disguise and it’s enabled Butler to step forward and say, “Follow me.”
I whole-heartedly believe Jimmy Butler’s all-around brilliance can and will outshine Isaiah Thomas. NBA history has taught us that defense matters, particularly to postseason success and guys that play both sides of the ball succeed. Butler is a two-way force, Thomas is not and that may just decide this series. There’s been a lot of trade talk and speculation about the Celtics and Jimmy Butler. Could this serve as an awkward audition or could this be the moment the Bulls declare they are building around Jimmy Butler? They’ve only half-heartedly committed to it, while exploring other options and bringing in stars like Wade and Rondo. If Butler and the Bulls pull off this upset and make it to round 2, does that put all of that to bed? Also lingering over the Celtics is that they have never won a Playoff series under head coach Brad Stevens. Is this the year that they break through or are they doomed for the ultimate upset? I think this series could go either way.
The Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics begin their series on Easter Sunday at 6:30pm eastern/5:30pm local time on TNT. Let’s do this.
Brandon Pence is the co-founder of B2 Hoops and the founder/editor emeritus of “The Bulls Charge.” Follow him on Twitter here.