With less than two weeks to play in the NBA regular season, the playoff seeding picture is beginning to take firmer shape. Though there will be plenty of shuffling between teams for certain spots, it feels safe to say the top four teams in the East are set.
As of Tuesday morning, Miami leads the conference with a 48-28 record with Milwaukee and Philadelphia each sitting a half game back at 46-28. Boston sits at 47-29 overall, as all of those teams are ahead of the Bulls.
FiveThirtyEight projects the following win totals:
- Boston: 52
- Milwaukee: 51
- Philadelphia: 51
- Miami: 51
Meanwhile, FiveThirtyEight predicts the Bulls to finish with 47 wins. It’s hard to imagine the Bulls, Toronto, or Cleveland jumping past fifth place. With that in mind, we’ll be examining the top four teams in separate articles this week, predicting how the Bulls might fare in a first-round playoff series against each, assuming Chicago can avoid the Play-In Tournament, or advance through it (vigorously knocks on wood).
Let’s get started with the East’s hottest team:
The Celtics’ turnaround this season is truly dumbfounding. Boston started 18-21 and appeared to be headed towards another disappointing year, with chatter of potentially breaking up the duo of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown growing louder.
First year head coach Ime Ukoka must have just needed more time to make his imprint on this roster, as the Celtics lead the league in net rating at 12.8 since January 1, ahead of even Phoenix (yes, the same Suns team that is projected for 65 wins). Over that same time frame, their 104.3 defensive rating is four points better than Dallas’s second-best mark.
Boston is scorching as the postseason approaches, going 11-1 in their last 12 and 22-3 over their last 25. Compare that to Chicago’s -7.9 net rating in March, and it’s clear these two teams have been heading in opposite directions.
The Bulls have gone 1-1 against Boston this season, the most recent matchup a 114-112 road loss on January 15. Zach LaVine and Alex Caruso missed that contest, but Nikola Vucevic went for 27 points, Ayo Dosumno shot 9-10 for 21 points, and Coby White made five three-pointers off the bench. DeMar DeRozan was held to 23 points on 7-20 shooting.
The Tatum/Brown duo is as good an answer for LaVine and DeRozan as any team has to offer. With their size, length, and agility, both are elite wing defenders who can make life difficult for anyone. Marcus Smart is terrific on the perimeter, while Williams cleans up mistakes, although there aren’t many. The Celtics now have the best defensive rating of any team on the year overall, and they hold teams to a league-low 33.5% 3FG. Boston ranks 18th in defensive rebounding percentage (if you want to nitpick), but the Bulls rank dead last in offensive rebounding percentage, so they wouldn’t be likely to pounce on one of the few advantages they might be able to exploit on that end.
Tatum powers the Celtics’ offense and is a matchup nightmare, particularly for Chicago, whose best defenders (Caruso, Ayo Dosunmo, Lonzo Ball) are likely too small to bother him much. As we’ve covered before, Patrick Williams could prove crucial in that matchup, although it would be a tough ask of a second-year player returning from injury and a prolonged absence. Tatum has vaulted himself into the MVP discussion with his recent play, averaging 32.1 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 4.6 assists since the all-star break, shooting 50.7% from the field and 43.8% on 3-pointers.
Outside of Tatum, Brown averages 23.4 points per game on 46.9%/35.0%/75.8% shooting splits, Marcus Smart has become an important facilitator, averaging a career-high 5.8 assists per game, while Grant Williams and Payton Pritchard both shoot over 40% on 3FG.
As positively as things have trended for Boston lately, the Celtics were dealt a serious blow on Monday, as center Robert Williams has reportedly suffered a torn meniscus and will be out indefinitely. Williams is one of the very best rim protectors in the league; the article above notes that Williams is the only player in the league to hold shooters under 40% shooting as the closest defender.
That injury is significant enough to swing a series, and possibly the balance of power in the East. Williams was an integral part of the league’s best defense and Boston has nobody on the roster capable of replicating his skillset, so it’s certainly worth keeping an eye on the Celtics from here on out. The third and final meeting scheduled between Boston and Chicago on April 6 could be a first-round preview and will allow the Bulls to get a first-hand look at the effects Williams’s absence has on the Celtics.
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