Bulls vs. Celtics: Who has the edge?
Boston Celtics guard Avery Bradley, left, drives toward the basket past Chicago Bulls center Robin Lopez, right, during a game on March 12.
Granted, Dwyane Wade is biased. But he’s also as savvy a league observer as you will find, having played on everything from lottery to championships teams with the Heat.
And his take on the Bulls’ first-round matchup with the Celtics in the Eastern Conference playoffs is drawing echoes around the league: "It says 1-8 (seeds), but I think it’s going to be a little tougher than that."
The Bulls have been consistently inconsistent but closed the regular season with a 7-2 stretch. Which team will show up? Who has the edge?
Rajon Rondo’s revival helped salvage the Bulls’ season. He averaged 12 points, 6.2 rebounds and 8.0 assists in 13 games after coach Fred Hoiberg re-inserted him as a starter. Isaiah Thomas finished third in the NBA in scoring at 28.9 points per game, including a second-to-only Russell Westbrook 9.8 points in the fourth quarter. Look for Jimmy Butler to match up on the 5-foot-9 scoring dynamo in that period. Before then, Rondo has a tendency to drift defensively. Edge: Celtics.
Dwyane Wade rallied to return early from his fractured right elbow and play three regular-season games to try to get his rhythm for a match of last postseason’s turn-back-the-clock performance with the Heat in which he averaged 21.4 points in 14 games. Overall, Wade has averaged 22.8 points and 5.0 assists over 166 career playoff games. Avery Bradley is tough and versatile and coming off his career-best 16.3 points per game. Wade’s experience earns slight edge. Edge: Bulls.
Jimmy Butler is the best player in the series. His ability to guard multiple positions gives coach Fred Hoiberg the option to close with him on Isaiah Thomas. And his indefatigable style allows him to play 40-plus minutes while breaking a sweat but not batting an eye. Butler’s former Marquette running buddy Jae Crowder is a physical presence who isn’t daunted by big moments. He will make Butler work. Edge: Bulls.
Nikola Mirotic is a critical component to this series. The Bulls need his shooting stroke to be consistent to space the floor, and his strong defensive rebounding often gets overlooked. But which Mirotic will show up? He didn’t even play in two regular-season meetings against the Celtics by coach’s decision and then averaged 15.8 points on 43.1 percent 3-point shooting over 16 games after re-entering the rotation. Amir Johnson is steady and dependable and has the ability to guard out on the perimeter. Edge: Celtics.
Robin Lopez is low maintenance and has helped the Bulls lead the league in second-chance points with his physical play. That’s not a strength of Al Horford’s. But neither is closing out on shooters for Lopez, and Horford is adept at pick-and-pop to draw out defenders. This is the classic matchup of traditional versus new wave, and which coach is able to tilt the discrepancy in their favor will play a large part. Edge: Celtics.
Jerian Grant is the backup point guard for now, although Michael Carter-Williams could be called upon to provide a defensive presence lacking from Wade and Rondo. If it’s Grant, the Bulls’ reserves have zero games of playoff experience. Even if it’s Carter-Williams, it’s only six games. Celtics’ reserves, led by Marcus Smart and Kelly Olynyk, are talented, versatile and more experienced. Edge: Celtics.
Even when the Celtics went 25-57 in 2013-14 after Celtics President Danny Ainge lured Brad Stevens from Butler University, Stevens drew raves for his dynamic offense and creative out-of-bounds plays. He’s 166-162 in four seasons and entering his third straight playoffs. Fred Hoiberg, who made strong adjustments down the stretch to his rotation and game plans, is 83-81 in two seasons and entering his first playoffs. Edge: Celtics.
Prediction: Celtics in six.