It’s not a stretch to say tonight’s Celtics-Bulls contest could be a playoff preview. In the spirit of getting kilometers ahead of myself, I broke down a potential playoff series position-by-position.
Depending on who you believe, Derrick Rose is either the easy choice for MVP or the latest case of rhetoric-driven media hype. My thoughts? He’s the sole shot-creator on the Eastern Conference’s best team, makes the game look quite easy, can get to the rim any time he wants to, and has left opponents shaking their heads in disbelief (in a good way) all season long. Take him off that team, and what do you have? C.J. Watson dribbling the ball upcourt, passing to Keith Bogans, and hoping that, at some point during the possession, Carlos Boozer or Luol Deng will make a tough shot. Yeah, that doesn’t sound great to me, either.
Critics say Chicago’s defense is the real reason the Bulls are so great, and they surely have a point; but I say the Bucks have a great defense, too, and they were just eliminated from playoff contention yesterday. Stats are terrific, and they can certainly improve our understanding of the NBA, but basketball isn’t baseball. In baseball, it’s just the batter and the pitcher, and a defense that can take away a sure hit once in a long while. But basketball is a chorus of moving parts, with so many external factors that affect every stat; things like spacing, teammates, and a player’s role within the structure of his team’s offense. I’m not sure statistics will ever be able to fully account for so many factors. Is Derrick Rose shooting a rather low 44.0% because he’s an inefficient offensive player? Or is he shooting that low because A) he’s the only player on his team who can create a shot, and B) since he’s the only creator on his team, defenses load up against him to an absurd degree? You tell me.
One thing we certainly don’t need advanced statistics to explain? The Rondo-Rose matchup will entertain us. Two completely different styles, two competitive players who each think they’re the best point guard in the league, and some shared history (2009 playoffs, 2010 FIBA World Championships). Just today, Rondo was asked one too many questions about Rose. “I’m not talking about other point guards,” he responded. Yeah, these two want each other’s throats.
Rondo’s great, and he’s playoff-tested, and he has moments where he looks like the Most Valuable Player on Earth. But this is Rose’s season, and everyone else is just playing in it.
I’m going to give you two stat lines. You tell me which one you’d prefer:
Player A — 16.7 ppg, 49.3% FG, 45.3% 3-pt, 165 3pt-made
Player B — 4.3 ppg, 39.9% FG, 37.4% 3-pt, 82 3pt-made
Yeah, I’d pick Ray Allen before Keith Bogans, too.
Advantage (by a few thousand miles): Celtics
I’m actually a Luol Deng fan. When Tom Thibodeau says, “There’s no way we would be in this position if not for the year [Deng's] having and all the things he does for our team,” I nod. When Thibodeau asserts, “I just know we’re better with [Deng] on the floor,” I agree. When Thibodeau endorses Deng for the All-Defense team, I think, “Why not?”
But if you expect me to sit here and write that I would rather have Luol Deng on my team than Paul Pierce, you’re either A) crazy, B) drunk, C) high, D) crazy, drunk and high, or E) someone who has a lower basketball intelligence than Vinny Del Negro. (Note: I know, I know, there’s nobody with a lower basketball intelligence than Vinny Del Negro. Still, I’m taking Pierce.)
Not enough attention has been paid to Kevin Garnett’s resurgence this season; it has been nothing short of impossible. When 15-year vets (especially 15-year vets who have played almost 1,200 games and 44,000 minutes) start to decline, that decline usually continues until the player retires. NBA stars are a lot like the Adam Sandler movie “Funny People”—once they hit the point where things begin to go downhill, everything only gets worse.
Except for Kevin Garnett. In just four months of offseason, he morphed back into form. His stats aren’t that much different than last year, but the difference between his impact from last year to this year is the same difference between daylight and darkness. He should make the All-Defensive First Team, his rebounding rate is his best since joining the Celtics, and he no longer gets beaten (badly) by the likes of Kris Humphries or Andray Blatche. And that last point’s important; Garnett’s mobility allows him to match up with any power forward in the league.
All of which means he’ll make life very difficult for Carlos Boozer. Boozer’s a better (or at least more aggressive) scorer than Garnett. But does he make as much of an impact on both ends?
A bad sign about Boston’s center position? I don’t even know who will start come playoff time. I assume it will be Jermaine O’Neal, but that assumption assumes (can an assumption assume?) that A) Jermaine will remain healthy and B) Shaq won’t be healthy. Of course, those roles could be reversed. Or they could both be healthy. Or they could both be injured.
Or I have no flipping idea what will happen, because the O’Neals’ health reminds me of the Tony Allen era in Boston: When Tony was bad, I cursed the world and repeatedly threw shoes at the television screen (I know, what kind of man throws his shoe?). And when Tony was good, I couldn’t stop wondering when he’d be bad again. That’s just the way it was with Tony Allen, and the way it is with the O’Neals now.
Joakim Noah has been injured for large chunks of this season, too. The difference? He’s young, his body is not yet held together by silly putty, and he can reasonably be expected to play every playoff game. I think.
Taj Gibson/Ronnie Brewer/C.J. Watson/Kyle Korver/Kurt Thomas
Delonte West/Jeff Green/The Artist Formerly Known as Glen Davis/Nenad Krstic/Whichever leftover O’Neal is healthy
As much as I admire Ronnie Brewer’s jumpshot form and Kurt Thomas’s youth, Boston’s bench simply has more playmakers. Even if Brian Scalabrine now plays for the Bulls.
On one hand, Tom Thibodeau’s almost definitely going to be named Coach of the Year, and he deserves the honor. On the other hand, he’s never been there before. He’s never needed to make adjustments from one playoff game to the next. He’s never had to play the chess match that is playoff matchups. He’s never had to decide, “Shit, we can’t put Kyle Korver in today, or else the Celtics will run a high ball screen with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, and it will eat Korver alive.” Doc Rivers has done this before, and he has evolved into one of the very best in-game coaches in the NBA.
The Bulls have a rare edge to them, that “every game counts, so let’s not take any possessions off” feel the Celtics had back in 2008. They’re like Clubber Lang, and the Celtics are Rocky. I can just hear Mickey right now:
“No, they ain’t just another team! These guys are a wrecking machine! And they’re hungry! Hell, you ain’t been hungry since you won that belt. The Cavs last year was a good team, but they wasn’t killers like this guy. They’ll knock you to tomorrow, Rock!”
But the Celtics have the experience. Derrick Rose has never been past the first round. Neither has Joakim Noah. The only Bull with a ring is Brian Scalabrine (if I’m not mistaken), and he didn’t play in a single postseason game the year he won that ring, and probably won’t play in a single postseason game this year.
Advantage: Celtics. In the NBA playoffs, experience matters.
Boston’s depth and experience will be the difference, and home court won’t be enough for Chicago. Celtics in 6. You know, if the two teams even meet each other. And if they don’t? Well, then I just wasted a few hours of my life. Oh, well. I could probably think of worse things to do.