Third time’s a charm?  The Celtics are set to renew acquaintances with Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo when they face the Chicago Bulls to open the playoffs.  The Celtics are 0-2 in playoff series under Brad Stevens, while this will be Fred Hoiberg’s first playoff series as an NBA head coach.  Boston was happy to be in the playoffs in 2015, and the team was undermanned last year against Atlanta.  Things are different this time.
Most people remember the unfortunate outcome of last year’s series against Atlanta.  But do people remember the Celtics’ starting lineup in the opening games in Atlanta last year?  In case they do not, Jonas Jerebko was the starter at power forward.  To put that into perspective, consider that he played just 12.7 minutes per game in six April contests this year.  To further accentuate that change, Al Horford has replaced him.  In terms of assist-to-turnover ratio, he was the best big man (players taller than 6′ 7″) in the NBA this year.  The Celtics’ second-leading scorer this season, Avery Bradley, played in just one game in that Atlanta series.
Are the Celtics just a regular season success?  The question lingers as they prepare for another first round playoff opponent.  The regular season is a marathon, although that does not mean the playoffs are a sprint.  As I’ve noted before, teams are sitting key players more and more due to schedule/travel concerns.  While the Celtics endured injuries to various starters, they were never in a position to sit players when you consider their young roster and that they had a new starter to integrate in Horford.  Young players on rookie deals, such as Marcus Smart, Kelly Olynyk, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier, are not looking to rest.  They are looking to prove themselves every night.  That factor, along with having key starters such as Isiah Thomas and Bradley in their primes, provided the Celtics the depth required to wear teams down.  And, of course, the pace-and-space approach instilled by Stevens makes teams work harder to defend while playing extra possessions.  Add it all up, and you get 53 wins despite having only one “star.”
There certainly is a lot to like about this matchup with the Chicago Bulls.  For one, the Bulls are an average shooting team at best that relies heavily on isolation plays.  Against most teams, that philosophy works.  However, the Celtics have three of the best perimeter defenders in basketball in Smart, Bradley and Jae Crowder.  Also, the early-season version of the Bulls hammered the Celtics on the glass.  More specifically, before they traded Taj Gibson, the Bulls outrebounded the Celtics 55-36, 49-39 and 51-31 in three games.  In the one game the two teams played after Gibson was traded, the Celtics outrebounded Chicago 51-40.  Finally, while the Celtics’ bench is unquestionably a weakness, it is unlikely to be exploited by this Bulls team.  Like the Celtics, the Bulls have a very inexperienced bench.  It will be interesting to see what these coaches get from rare bench veterans, such as Gerald Green and Anthony Morrow, two guys who can swing games quickly with hot shooting.

As far as expectations, it’s definitely the season for hope and predictions.  It’s fun to dream about potential matchups against Washington and Cleveland.  But let’s not place too much weight on this team.  I stand firm that this is still a house money season for the Celtics, regardless of achieving the conference’s top seed.  This team is far from a finished product.  While the Celtics certainly have at least some guys who will be here long term, they have an unbelievable chance to significantly upgrade in various ways this summer/next year.  Top picks, talent stashed overseas, cap money and assets to trade.  The expectation should be that the Celtics defeat Chicago, regardless of how many games it takes.  Beyond that, nothing should be considered a failure.  So while it’s easy to get caught up in the hype, let’s just enjoy the ride one last time while the Celtics pay their playoff dues.