NBA Playoffs Preview: Celtics vs. Bulls

In a matchup that should be closer than the typical 1-versus-8 clash, does Chicago have what it takes to pull off the upset?

A playoff series between the Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls sparks up memories of the epic battles between Larry Bird and Michael Jordan, along with a classic video game. The 2016-17 version has its own worthy version of a superstar clash, with All-Stars Isaiah Thomas and Jimmy Butler squaring off against each other. The series is much more than that, though, as it brings together two teams seemingly going in opposite directions.

First, you have Boston, who surprisingly earned the top seed in the East -- their first since the Big Three were in Beantown in 2007-08. At 53-29, you have to go back to 2002-03 to find a time when the Eastern Conference's top dog had a worse record than Boston. Even after claiming the top spot, the perception -- and our algorithms -- still believe the Cleveland Cavaliers have a better shot of reaching the Finals.

While the Celtics have been trending upward the past few seasons, the Bulls' win total has declined in the last three and they should count themselves lucky to be in the playoffs at all this year. A 9-4 record over the final three-plus weeks was needed just to climb back to .500 and snag the final postseason berth.

First-round matchups between a 1 seed and 8 seed tend to be washouts, but the numbers have this one a lot closer than you would think. The Celtics hold only a 2.2-point differential advantage over the Bulls, making it the second-tightest margin of the eight playoff series.

How do the rest of the numbers -- specifically our nERD metric and algorithms -- think the series will play out? Let's dive in.

Boston Celtics (1)

Record: 53-29
nERD: 57.1
Championship Odds: 5.2%

Chicago Bulls (8)

Record: 41-41
nERD: 50.3
Championship Odds: 1.0%

Regular Season Series - Celtics 2, Bulls 2

Of the four times they met this season, only one -- the most recent -- was handily won by either team. The first three were decided by seven points or less, and each squad scored an identical 103.0 points per game. Overall, the home team held serve by winning on their own court.

The Celtics came within a questionable foul call of taking the third meeting on February 16th, but ended up losing 104-103 as Butler sank a pair of free throws with 0.9 seconds remaining in the game. The difference in that game was the Bulls' work on the glass -- they out-rebounded Boston 51-31.

In the most recent game, the lone aberration, the Celtics dominated out of the gate by building up a 22-9 first quarter lead prior to holding a 20-point lead at halftime. Butler and Dwyane Wade were off their game, combining for just 13 points on 6-for-22 shooting. As the Bulls were prone to do this season, the rest of the team looked listless and without much fight after falling behind early. The loss was their fifth in a row and put them at a season-worst four games under .500.

The one part of the Bulls' games this season that should worry Celtics fans was Chicago's ability to slow down Thomas. The NBA's third-leading scorer at 28.9 points per game was limited to just 24.8 points in these contests. Of all the playoff teams, only the Golden State Warriors held Thomas to lower scoring nights than the Bulls.

On the same note, Boston was able to slow down Butler by throwing a variety of tough defensive wings his way in Jae Crowder, Avery Bradley, and Marcus Smart. The Bulls' superstar averaged 20.3 points on 36.2% shooting in the four games.

How the Celtics Can Win

It may seem simple, but if the lesser-experienced Celtics can fight through any playoff nerves, they have what it takes to hold off the Bulls. After all, they were the better team all year long, and particularly on offense.

Team Offense ORtg Rank Points Rank eFG% Rank
Boston 108.6 8 108.0 7 52.5% 8
Chicago 104.6 21 102.9 23 48.7% 30

It wasn't just a one-man show in Boston, either.

Four players averaged at least 13.9 points per game -- Thomas, Bradley, Crowder, and Al Horford. Head coach Brad Stevens' system also emphasized ball movement and making the extra pass, as they ranked second in the NBA with a helper on 65.3% of their field goals. They were also just behind the Warriors with a 18.9 assists ratio -- the percentage of a team's possessions that ends in an assist.

The Celtics also proved to be one of the NBA's most balanced teams -- they are one of four to own a top-12 rank in offensive and defensive efficiency, as they finished with a 105.5 defensive rating. The Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, and Toronto Raptors were the others.

Owning home-court advantage in the series will pay off big for Boston, as each team held serve at the Garden this season. Overall, the C's posted one of the better home marks (30-11) in the NBA, while the Bulls struggled away from the United Center, posting a 16-25 mark on the road.

Celtics Player to Watch - Al Horford

By far the most experienced postseason player on the Celtics' roster (74 career postseason games), Al Horford's leadership will be counted upon to get them through the tight spots. Big Al is one of only three players on the Celtics to have ever won a first-round series -- Amir Johnson and Bradley are the others.

While Thomas has shown he can pile on the points, coach Stevens will need Horford to help keep the Celtics offense alive when the Bulls decide to double or trap the point guard. The veteran's ability to space the floor and hit the mid-range jumper -- 45.2% on shots 15-19 feet away from the basket -- can provide Boston with the complimentary scoring weapon that will be in high demand if the Bulls continue to be successful at neutralizing Thomas.

The Celtics just play better with Horford on the floor, too. They went 7-7 in the 14 games he missed this year, but 46-22 in the 68 games he played in.

How the Bulls Can Win

The matchup on the glass heavily favors the Bulls in this series -- they ranked third in rebounds per game (46.3) and fourth in rebound percentage (51.7%), while the Celtics were 27th in rebound percentage (48.5%). The advantage on the glass for Chicago has lessened after the departure of Taj Gibson, but the Bulls were still the NBA's fourth-best rebounding team with 45.8 boards per game since the All-Star break. If they can continue to box out and out work the C's, the Bulls will be in a good spot.

All those rebounds, especially on the offensive glass, led the Bulls to 15.1 second-chance points per game, the most in the NBA. Getting those putbacks are crucial to help maintain their offense, as Chicago was the worst shooting team in the league with a 48.7% effective field goal percentage.

However, over the last 13 games (where they went 9-4) the Bulls offense has started to find their touch, posting a respectable 52.8% effective field goal percentage thanks to a league-leading 41.5% success rate from beyond the arc. During that stretch, the defense has also clamped down, making the Bulls one of the league's hottest teams.

Split ORtg Rank DRtg Rank NetRtg Rank
First 69 Games 103.8 23 105.7 16 -1.9 22
Last 13 Games 108.4 15 98.1 1 10.4 3

It's also worth noting that their competition over these final 13 games was stiff, with wins coming against playoff teams Cleveland, Utah Jazz, Atlanta Hawks, and Milwaukee Bucks.

If the Bulls continue to hit the glass and play with the same intensity -- particularly defensively -- they did down the stretch, Boston could be in for some trouble.

Bulls Player to Watch - Nikola Mirotic

Nikola Mirotic has gone through an inconsistent season, much like the rest of the Bulls if we don't count Butler.

He has gone back and forth from the starting lineup to the bench, and has even been out of the rotation completely. After being re-inserted into the starting lineup 13 games ago, he has become the unique offensive weapon Chicago hoped for. Averaging 15.4 points and 3.1 three-pointers per game, Mirotic has provided the Bulls another scorer besides Butler for teams to fear. Not coincidentally, in the 15 games he has started this season, the Bulls are 10-5.

While Wade and Rajon Rondo will get plenty of attention for their championship experience and faded star power, Mirotic has been the second-best player in the Bulls' offense this season. Per, the Bulls offense owns a 110.2 offensive rating with him on the floor, opposed to a 105.8 mark with him on the sidelines. The 4.8-point difference was second to only Butler (6.0).

His three-point shooting down the stretch -- 47.8% over his final 10 games -- has been a boon to the Bulls' woeful mark from beyond the arc and could make a difference in the series.

Series Prediction

With the Bulls' playoff experience, a player with the ability to take over games in Butler and the team's overall hot play of late, they will be able to give the Celtics all they can handle in this series.

However, home-court advantage should play out big in this series. Also, the overwhelming depth of the Celtics' roster should put them over the edge in what could turn out to be the most exciting first-round matchup.

According to our algorithms: Celtics are 65.25% favorites.

My final prediction: Celtics in 7.