After landing a max-contract free agent, showing marked improvement to grab the one seed over the defending champions and raising expectations, the Boston Celtics are somehow back on the verge of another first-round exit in the playoffs.
Boston wasn’t just supposed to overcome the first-round roadblock this year, but be a legitimate threat to reach the Eastern Conference Finals and potentially offer the Cleveland Cavaliers at least some resistance.
Instead, the Celtics are facing a 2-0 hole to the eighth-seeded Chicago Bulls following two uninspiring losses on their home floor.
Game 1 was somewhat excusable, given the trauma Isaiah Thomas was going through in the wake of his sister’s death. But there is no more comfort to take in writing it off as an isolated disappointment following the lifeless display in Game 2, a 111-97 loss that only reiterated how real Boston’s problems in this series truly are.
And the problems are multiple, from the Bulls’ aggressive defence to Boston’s lack of rebounding.
Thomas has by no means been the cause for concern offensively, but he’s having a tough time navigating what Chicago are throwing at him. As Cleveland and Atlanta did to the Celtics the past two playoffs, the Bulls are hedging aggressively with their big man in the pick-and-roll. Thomas has been able to exploit the brief mismatch before his defender recovers for the screen at times, but when he’s held in check for a couple seconds, Chicago’s defence gets back in place.
The Bulls’ massive rotations should be ripe with opportunities for Boston to pick and choose favourable matchups, but the Celtics just don’t have the personnel to fully take advantage. It leaves Boston flinging the ball around the perimeter in search of open lanes or shots that have been few and far between, while also being squandered too often when available.
Despite fielding an efficient offence in the regular season, the Celtics’ attack has been largely neaturalised through two games. What hasn’t been a surprise though, is Boston’s lacklustre play when Thomas heads to the bench. Marcus Smart, while a good playmaker, has been dared to shoot and his shortcomings as a marksman have been magnified.
On the other end of the floor, the Celtics have had no reprieve.
Chicago have shot better than expected, such as Dwyane Wade hitting 4-of-6 from beyond the arc, while role players like Paul Zipser and Bobby Portis have stepped up as key contributors. But the Bulls are only converting at 46.9 per cent from the field and 35.3 per cent on 3-pointers, so it’s not as if they’re shooting lights out.
It only feels that way because they’re grabbing offensive rebounds at a ridiculous pace – 37.8 per cent – and coming away with points on possessions that would otherwise end with nothing.
The Celtics don’t have a deep roster of big men to rely on to keep the Bulls of the glass. Amir Johnson is capable, as is Tyler Zeller to a degree, but having either on the floor limits the floor spacing and what Boston want to accomplish on offence. Robin Lopez is eating Al Horford and Kelly Olynyk alive, meaning Brad Stevens has little to turn to.
A bad mix of lack of size, playmaking and rebounding that was always limiting the Celtics’ ceiling, but now it’s threatening to stop them dead in the tracks, keeping them from making any progress at the time of the year when it matters.
The Houston Rockets (third seed) will face the Oklahoma City Thunder (sixth seed) in their opening playoff series. The match-up pits the two MVP front-runners and former teammates, who are eager to lead their team to victory and settle the MVP debate once and for all.
Houston won the regular season match-up 3-1 and possess home-court advantage, where they are 30-11. Westbrook leads the Thunder in points, rebounds, assists, and steals. However, Harden has had more contribution from his teammates in the season series.
CASE FOR THE ROCKETS
Harden has hit his stride this season, Houston’s offense is playing at a high level and led the league in 3-pointers made with 1,181 for the season. The team scored the second-most points per game behind the Golden State Warriors at 115.3, which makes them a nightmare for the Thunder’s defence.
Harden has averaged 29.1 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 11.2 assists and became the only player in league history to accumulate 2,356 points, 907 assists and 659 rebounds in a single season. His MVP case has been further strengthened by the fact that his team is winning. Houston ended the season with a 55-27 record and are looking to make a deep run in the playoffs.
The Rockets have four players that can be difference-makers against the Thunder. Trevor Ariza is a big swingman that can shoot 3-pointers and play solid defence. Defensive-minded guard Patrick Beverley will surely make Westbrook work for everything, plus he can shoot the long ball.
On the interior, Clint Capela and Nene are the big men that can cause problems under the rim. Capela has emerged as a solid defender that can block shots and rebound, averaging 8.1 rebounds and 1.2 blocks for the season. Nene is agile and can score in the post even though his defence is limited.
Adding to that are the array of shooters that Houston has, with Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon both perimeter threats and Harden will look for them as he penetrates the Thunders defence.
CASE FOR THE THUNDER
The story all year long in Oklahoma City was whether or not Westbrook could average a triple double and break Oscar Robertson’s record of 41 triple doubles in a season. Westbrook accomplished both in a historic season, averaging 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists, while recording 42 triple-doubles.
Individual statistics aside, the goal for Westbrook and the Thunder is to win games and position themselves to make a run in the playoffs. The team leads the league in rebounds, credit some of that to Westbrook’s visceral attack on the boards and being able to push the ball up the floor.
The Rockets will have their hands full with Westbrook, the uber-athletic point guard who can do it all from attacking, passing, and creating offence for others and himself at crucial times throughout the game. The rest of the team will have to respond to the challenge along with their leader.
Steven Adams is a stalwart at centre, his contribution on the boards and as a rim protector are vital for the Thunder on defence, while being a pick-and-roll option on the offensive end. Enes Kanter will be a factor as well and has averaged 14.3 points and 6.7 rebounds.
The additions of Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott help the Thunder on both sides of the court. McDermott is a 3-point specialist while Gibson can grab rebounds and offer some toughness and grit on defence.
Victor Oladipo is the promising shooting guard that can play both sides of the ball and also shoot from the perimeter, along with Andre Roberson. Westbrook will need someone to step up from game to game.
Rockets win the series in six
This is a must-see match-up, even though Westbrook is having a once-in-a-lifetime season, basketball is a team game. The Rockets simply have too much firepower on offence and have a deeper bench to their advantage. Westbrook will likely put up amazing numbers, but the Thunder are too much of a one-man show to get past the Rockets.
Game 1 is on Monday morning, April 17th, 05:00 UAE time
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