By: Kenny Doyle
One of the best playoff series in recent NBA history was Celtics-Bulls in 2009. The battle between then Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo and Bulls point guard Derrick Rose was one for the ages. The series itself set NBA records for overtime games in a playoff series (4) and total overtimes in a series (7). Now it’s time for round 2, and Rondo is in red this time.
After a week that featured the Celtics going 3-0 and the Cavaliers doing a better job tanking then the Lakers did, the Celtics come away with the #1 seed in the eastern conference. Despite all this, the Celtics are still very inexperienced in the postseason, especially star player Isaiah Thomas, and in that regard there may not be a worse first round matchup than the Chicago Bulls and Dwyane Wade. Here are the 4 major factors in the series:
Celtics Still Need to Prove It
In the coming days you’ll hear a lot high level members of the media picking the Bulls to either take this series or at least push it to a game 6. ESPN’s Kevin Pelton started early, saying to “Watch a 1 vs 8 series if you want the best chance of seeing a first round upset” and he’s not talking about Warriors-Trail Blazers. Their reasoning will likely be based on one key sticking point which is that this Celtics team still hasn’t won in the playoffs. Three of the Celtics top five players haven’t won a playoff round, and only Avery Bradley has won a game in the conference finals on a team where he was at best the 5th best player. The Celtics still need to prove to the NBA that they can win in the playoffs and until they do the media will likely to continue to pick against them.
The Raptors were in a similar position to the Celtics last year. They hadn’t won a series and many picked the Pacers to beat them in the first round because Paul George had proved he could win already. The Raptors ended up getting some breaks and making it all the way to the conference finals where they genuinely played well against the eventual champion Cavaliers. It’s almost easier to pick the more experienced team over the higher seen when you’ve seen those players win at a high level already. The Bulls wing trio features a 3 time champion, a 1 time champion, and All-Star Jimmy Butler who went to the conference finals with Derrick Rose. So don’t be surprised when you see the experts picking against the Celtics. Boston will just have to win in the playoffs before people respect them the way they should, and that is perfectly fine.
Does Dwyane Wade Still Have It?
Dwyane Wade is the biggest X factor in this series. Last year he was one Hasaan Whiteside injury away from leading the Heat to a conference finals appearance. Wade came alive in the playoffs despite a below average regular season, and if he can pull a similar trick this year he would be a problem. Wade has already clutched a game out once against Boston this year, we can only hope her can’t do it again.
In all likelihood, this playoffs for Dwyane Wade will be reminiscent of Pierce’s in 2012 against the Knicks. A great player at the very end of his prime coming off a disappointing season. Like Wade, Pierce was coming off a great playoff run the year before, only to lose to the younger, less experienced Knicks. Wade will probably look older, slower, and won’t have it anymore. He’s still a little hampered by his elbow injury, so Wade should not be a problem in this series. Still, you shouldn’t completely rule out a champion like Dwyane Wade. Don’t be stunned if Wade starts averaging 20 points per game in this series. There’s no bull tougher than the old bull.
Rajon Rondo returns. There’s no sense in questioning Rondo trade, it was an absolute robbery. The Celtics came away with Jae Crowder and the 2016 draft and stash pick that became Guershon Yabusele for what amounted to 4 months of Rajon Rondo for the Mavericks. It was a great trade, but that doesn’t mean Rondo is happy about it. The Celtics sent Rondo to a team where he became universally hated by the coach, his teammates, and the fan base. The stint with the Mavericks was bad enough that Rondo had to sign with the Sacramento Kings just to get a job. Some people question whether the former All-Star even belonged in the league anymore. For all we know, Rajon Rondo could solely blame the Celtics for ruining his career. If anything is going to get some high level effort out of Rondo, a series against the Celtics will.
Playoff Rondo has been M.I.A. since 2011, but he’s only played in 2 series since. One was on a Celtics team running on empty and the other was with teammates who hated him so much that they unanimously voted to take away his cut of the playoff share after their series against Houston. Playoff Rondo is still in their somewhere and now we're getting Revenge Rondo along with him. Furthermore, he will probably be defended by Isaiah Thomas for the majority of the series. Rajon Rondo is a concern that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Al Horford Time
If the Celtics are going to beat the Bulls and end up advancing to the conference finals, Al Horford will have to be playing at a high level. Al has had a pretty solid season despite the ridicule he’s received. Leading the league in assists for centers and averaging 14 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks. The numbers are fine, but they should go up in the playoffs.
Al will likely get more minutes and have a bigger role in the offense if teams do end up trapping Isaiah off the pick and roll like many think they will. His scoring average is not his biggest problem, but everyone needs to step up if Isaiah does end up having trouble with the playoff defenses and possible double teams he’s facing. Al needs to get his average up to about 17 points to make up for any potential dip in Isaiah’s scoring, and Bradley and Crowder will have to make up the rest.
The rebounding numbers are a fair criticism, and in the playoffs he needs to get at least 8 per game. Al only had 9 games with double digit rebounds this season, but when he has at least 10 the Celtics were 8-1. At this point asking for 10 per game may be unrealistic, but at least 2 games in double digits per series should not be. Rebounding is the Celtics biggest hole and if it is going to be filled this season it’s up to Al. He will need to do better on the glass if the Celtics want to make a deep playoff run. Al Horford should be capable of stepping up in the playoffs at this point in his career. He has the most playoff experience of anyone on the roster. Someone needs to play like a second superstar next to Isaiah in these series, and it really should be Al.
Being a Boston athlete has become synonymous with being a winner. It’s time for Al and IT to prove that they belong in green. The games will be close, but one thing that close point differential means is that the Celtics win the close ones.
Celtics in 5. Take that Pelton.
Photo: (CBS Boston)