The Jimmy Butler-Isaiah Thomas matchup is tricky territory for the Bulls

The Jimmy Butler-Isaiah Thomas matchup is tricky territory for the Bulls

Even in a small ball world, big usually beats little in terms of elite talent, as evidenced by LeBron James besting Stephen Curry in the last three games of the NBA Finals last June.

So as the Bulls prepare to take on the Boston Celtics in their first-round playoff series, they know containing the ultimate “little” in this series may have to require a big of sorts for them to have a reasonable chance at an upset.

Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas is all of 5-foot-9, depending on the day of the week, and is constantly on the attack. If the NBA ranked the leading scorers in points per inch (height), Thomas would be at the top of the list but will have to settle for being behind Russell Westbrook and James Harden at 28.9 points per game.

Which means there will come a time where having Rajon Rondo or Jerian Grant or Michael Carter-Williams just won’t do for Fred Hoiberg, and he’ll have to call upon Jimmy Butler to shadow Thomas for stretches—probably in the fourth quarters assuming the games are close.

And considering Thomas trails only Westbrook in terms of fourth-quarter scoring at 9.8 points, you can bet Butler will have to chase Thomas around screens and have to deal with Thomas’ herky-jerky style as he often gets to places in the paint only he can fit in.

“Yeah, I look forward to that matchup,” Butler said at Bulls practice Friday, two days before the series opener at TD Garden Sunday night. “Especially what he’s done this year for that team. I know it’s going to come at some point and time. I don’t know when, I don’t know where, but you know, I’m going to make it tough for him.”

Avery Bradley, Al Horford and Jae Crowder are secondary scorers for the Celtics and all are capable of hurting the Bulls if left alone, but Thomas—like his namesake, Isiah—is the force that drives this Celtics team.

“We need to understand it’s a team problem, it’s not just the guy guarding him, it’s not just an individual assignment,” Hoiberg said. “He’s so good getting into the paint, getting downhill.”

Isiah Thomas, the Chicago native, disproved the “big beats little” theory for quite some time when his Pistons took on the Chicago Bulls in their heated playoff battles.

Stopping this Thomas is probably the biggest key to the Bulls pulling off an upset, although the Bulls have to be careful about running down Butler, as he likely carries too much of a burden on both ends as is.

“He’s a big part to what they do,” Butler said. “I think we all know that, I think they know that. But you can’t just take him out of the game and think you’re going to win. Nah, because they’ve got a lot of other really good players, role players, that make shots, that create for others, that guard, that rebound, pass the ball. They’ve got a really good team and they’re really good at what they do.”

When Butler was asked how long he could stay on Thomas, the uber-confident swingman said “the whole game”, but that doesn’t seem to be realistic considering he’ll be guarded by Crowder, Bradley and Marcus Smart—meaning he won’t catch a break at any point.

It’ll be incumbent on Hoiberg and the coaching staff to find a way to have a apt defender on Thomas without pressing the “in case of emergency, break open Jimmy” button.

And Butler, never one to shy away from a marquee matchup, may have to resist his competitive urges in going head-to-head—or chest-to-head in their case—for the betterment of the Bulls.

“I know other teammates that I have can guard him, that want to guard him, that look forward to that matchup just as much as I do,” Butler said. “Nobody is backing down from anybody on our side, and I’m sure they feel the same way on their side. So whoever is locked in on guarding him, guarding Jae [Crowder], guarding whoever it may be, like I always say, you win your matchup, you win the game.”

Rondo and Grant will have to keep Thomas busy on offense, exploiting Thomas being a defensive liability, as he’s one of the worst fourth-quarter defenders in terms of defensive rating.

“We do have a plan in place, but obviously you have to adjust if things are going in the wrong direction, but we do have a plan on how we are going to try to slow him down a little bit, which is obviously difficult to do,” Hoiberg said.

So the same way Thomas will run the 220-pound Butler through picks and strenuous off-ball movement, the Bulls will have to pound Thomas on the other end, making him work and perhaps making Celtics coach Brad Stevens adjust to what they’re doing.

But it does seem to the Bulls that if it comes down to big versus little, they’re happy with their 6-foot-7 wing late in games.

After fighting through unspeakable adversity, Celtics 'enjoying the moment' with new perspective

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USA TODAY

After fighting through unspeakable adversity, Celtics 'enjoying the moment' with new perspective

Championship moments rarely occur in the first round. With a playoff format that drags the postseason out for more than two months, with playoff series taking as long as two weeks, the second season feels like just that. It’s far too early to say what exactly Friday night in Chicago will mean for the top-seeded Celtics, but a sense of a team coming together under unfathomable circumstances may prove to be the turning point in a season that a week ago appeared hanging by a thread.

It happened in three parts.

On the floor the Celtics looked every bit the part of a 51-win team that edged out LeBron’s Cavs for the top spot in the East. Brad Stevens’ small-ball approach came full-circle as the Boston guards lived in the paint against the Bulls, kicking out to open shooters for 16 3-pointers that helped the Celtics put away the game (and series) midway through the third quarter.

Avery Bradley starred for a second consecutive night, tallying 23 points while making Jimmy Butler work for his, while eight different Celtics hit a 3-pointer and the team shot 49 percent. For the first time in the series the Celtics looked dominant, like a team poised to contend with the Cavaliers for supremacy in the East.

“It felt good to play Celtic basketball again,” Avery Bradley said. “We were all smiling, having fun, and that’s what it’s supposed to be. That’s how hard we worked this entire year, to play that type of basketball.”

Isaiah Thomas was naturally somber much of the series. The well-documented death of his 22-year-old sister put a damper on the series before it began, and the MVP candidate understandably chose not to address it on the few occassions he spoke with the media. But Thomas looked more like himself as the series went on. Not only did his numbers improve, he appeared more vocal after made baskets, laughed off trash talk from Bulls point guard Isaiah Canaan, and engineered the Celtics' offense to near-perfection.

His defining moment came late in the third quarter with the Celtics nearing a 30-point lead. After a hard foul he gathered his four teammates in a huddle near the baseline and shouted that the series for the Bulls was "a wrap for these m------------!" This was the same player who two weeks earlier was brought to tears prior to Game 1, and who will bury his sister on Saturday in Tacoma, Washington. Under unthinkable circumstances, Thomas averaged 23.0 points and 5.7 assists in 34.8 minutes in the series.

“I feel like he has grown,” Al Horford said. "And we all have in a way with all the adversity that has gone on. It could have easily gone the other way, but I feel like especially tonight when we got the game in hand, in control, we all just kept on repeating to stay focused to keep it going, keep pushing. We didn’t want to give them any life and we were a focused group and we were enjoying the moment.”

Thomas' journey won't get easier. He'll have another short turnaround to get ready for Sunday's second-round matchup against the Celtics. But like his teammates did in Games 3 and 4, when Thomas flew by himself to Chicago following his return home to Tacoma to mourn with his family, they'll have another opporuntity to grow closer. Brad Stevens kept an incredible perspective on the situation throughout the series, and applauded his team for doing the same while still fighting for wins.

"Bigger things than basketball happened, and that took precedent and it takes precdedent," he said. "I was really proud of our guys for how they treated each other, how they stood together, stuck together. And how nobody pointed fingers, they were just a great support for one another, especially Isaiah."

When Thomas does return, and when the Celtics gear up for their next postseason journey, expectations will have remained the same. Though the Wizards were one of the league's best teams in the second half, and with John Wall and Bradley Beal playing on another level, it'll take more performances like Friday night - both on the court and collectively staying together - for Boston to advance. A 2-0 hole against the Wizards will feel a whole lot different than it did against the Bulls.

That sort of letdown doesn't feel like it will happen again. Though no one would have wished such tragedy to force it, the Celtics came together at a critical moment and came out better for it. Their work isn't done, and they know it. But the way they were able to handle the adversity in Round 1, anything seems possible for Stevens, Thomas the top seed in the East.

"We just try to stay the course in the day-to-day. And if that results in us winning more games or winning in the playoffs, or whatever the case may be, there’s only one goal in the Boston," Stevens said. "Seventeen (NBA championship) banners above us. We don’t have a choice. We only shoot for one thing there."

BullsTalk Podcast: Top-seeded Celtics too much to handle for Bulls

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AP

BullsTalk Podcast: Top-seeded Celtics too much to handle for Bulls

In the latest episode of the BullsTalk Podcast, Mark Schanowski, Will Perdue and Stacey King break down the final game of the Bulls' season, a 105-83 loss to the Boston Celtics in Game 6 of their first-round playoff series.

Also, hear postgame press conferences from head coach Fred Hoiberg and All-Star forward Jimmy Butler. And the guys look ahead to the offseason and the NBA Draft.

Listen to the latest episode below: