NBA Buzz: Bulls-Celtics not a typical 1-8 matchup, plus NBA award selections

NBA Buzz: Bulls-Celtics not a typical 1-8 matchup, plus NBA award selections

It didn't happen exactly the way Bulls might have drawn it up, but they did accomplish their primary goal of avoiding LeBron James the Cleveland Cavaliers in the opening round of the playoffs.

The Bulls are 0-4 against James-led teams in the postseason, and the thought of playing the defending NBA champs wasn't too exciting for anyone in the organization.

Of course, they're also 0-4 in postseason matchups with the Boston Celtics. But Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish aren't walking through the door to play in this year's series, and neither are Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.

The Bulls split their four regular-season meetings with the Celtics, with each team winning on their home court. Boston has dynamic point guard Isaiah Thomas, who finished third in the NBA in scoring at 28.9 points per game, while the Bulls will counter with All Star Jimmy Butler, the league's 14th leading scorer at 23.9 per game.

The biggest advantage for the Bulls could come in the rebounding category, where Al Horford, Amir Johnson and Kelly Olynyk aren't exactly known for owning the defensive glass, tied for 26th in rebounding percentage. In the two games the Bulls won against the Celtics this season, they dominated the battle of the boards, leading to a significant edge in second-chance points.

Three-point shooting will also be critical to the Bulls' hopes of extending the series. Since Rajon Rondo and Nikola Mirotic returned to the starting lineup on March 13, the Bulls have suddenly become one of the league's best 3-point-shooting teams. Paul Zipser came off the bench to toss in a career-high five 3s in the regular-season finale against Brooklyn, and he figures to be a key member of a shortened playoff rotation.

If Mirotic, Zipser, Bobby Portis and Jerian Grant can connect from long range, that will open up driving lanes and post-up opportunities for Butler and Dwyane Wade.

Boston also has the ability to do some damage from long range, averaging 12 3-point field goals per game during the regular season. The Celtics ranked in the middle of the pack in team 3-point percentage, but Horford and Olynyk will be able to pull the Bulls' big men out of the lane with their ability to hit from beyond the arc, and Thomas, Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder all shoot 37 percent or better from that distance.

Still, most games will probably come down to the Bulls being able to limit turnovers and contain Thomas, the NBA's most prolific fourth-quarter scorer. Fred Hoiberg will be able to run multiple defenders at the 5-foot-9 Thomas in hopes of wearing him down for the critical stage of games. Rondo will get the first call, but the Bulls used 6-foot-6 Michael Carter-Williams on Thomas with some degree of effectiveness in a home-court win in mid-February, and you can count on Butler taking his turn in the final minutes.

Can the Bulls upset the top-seeded Celtics? Probably not, but they are certainly capable of stealing a couple games to extend the series and make the passionate fans of the NBA's winningest franchise more than a little nervous.

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And the envelope please ... 

We won't know officially until the NBA's first-ever awards show on June 26, but here are my picks for the top regular-season honors.

Most Valuable Player

Clearly one of the closest and most fascinating races in the history of the league. In almost any other season, James Harden would probably be an easy winner after averaging 29 points a game, leading the league in assists and guiding the Houston Rockets to the NBA's third-best record.

But this isn't any season. Russell Westbrook has put up numbers we've only seen once before in NBA history. Westbrook joined the legendary Oscar Robertson as the only players to average a triple-double (double figures in points, rebounds and assists) over the course of an entire season. And he also topped the Big O's record of 41 triple-doubles in one season.

Westbrook refused to make excuses after Kevin Durant bolted for Golden State in free agency, carrying an average Thunder team to the playoffs. In looking back at every game this season, one of the team's regular beat writers concluded Oklahoma City probably would have had only 33 wins if not for Westbrook's big plays in the final minutes of close games.

With apologies to Harden, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Thomas, Westbrook has to be the choice as NBA MVP.

Rookie of the Year

This one is also tough to pick but for a completely different reason. Philadelphia center Joel Embiid would have been a unanimous selection, but a knee injury limited him to just 31 games. After missing his first two seasons because of recurring foot problems, Embiid was one of the NBA's top centers in those games he played, showing Hakeem Olajuwon-like moves in the low post, along with a soft shooting touch out to the 3-point line. He also was a force at the defensive end, averaging two blocks per game. But it's tough for me to vote for a guy who played less than half a season.

Since most of the top picks from the 2016 draft turned out to be disappointments, I'm going with Bucks point guard Malcolm Brogdon for ROY. Brogdon had to fight to make the team as an unheralded second-round pick out of Virginia, but his maturity and play-making ability helped get the Bucks to the playoffs after Jabari Parker was lost for the season because of a second ACL tear.

The Bucks took off late in the season after Brogdon replaced Matthew Dellavedova in the starting lineup. His stat line isn't overwhelming — 10.2 points and 4.2 assists in 26.5 minutes per game — but he's shot 45.7 percent from the field and 40.4 percent from behind the 3-point line, and his ability to run Jason Kidd's offense efficiently is one of the big reasons the Bucks got back to the playoffs.

Embiid was clearly the best first-year player in the league this season, but Brogdon gets the nod for the award over another Sixer, Dario Saric.

Sixth Man

This award could probably be renamed the Jamal Crawford Award with the way he's dominated the race in recent seasons, but the 37-year-old Crawford didn't have one of his best years, opening the door for other players.

Lou Williams continued to put up big points off the bench for the Lakers and Rockets. Andre Iguodala excelled on both ends as the leader of the Warriors' second unit. Enes Kanter proved to be a reliable low-post scorer for Oklahoma City. And former Bull James Johnson had the best season of his NBA career in Miami. But the choice here is Rockets guard Eric Gordon.

In case you forgot, the former Indiana University star was one of the league's top scorers early in his career with the Clippers. But after battling injuries during his time in New Orleans, the 28-year-old Gordon has found a home in Houston playing in Mike D'Antoni's 3-point-happy offense. Gordon averaged 16.2 points per game while shooting better than 37 percent from beyond the arc. With Harden, Gordon, Williams and Ryan Anderson on the court, the Rockets are capable of lighting up the scoreboard from 3-point range. It will be interesting to see if their run-and-gun style holds up in the playoffs. The opening-round series against Westbrook and the Thunder should be one of the most entertaining we've seen in years.

Most Improved Player

Johnson is also a contender for the Most Improved Player category, but it's hard to choose anyone besides the "Greek Freak," Giannis Antetokounmpo, coming off a historic season in Milwaukee.

Antetokounmpo is the first player in NBA history to finish in the top 20 in total points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocked shots. After Parker went out with his knee injury, Antetokounmpo turned his game up to another level and led the Bucks on a late-season run to the playoffs. He's gone from a freakishly athletic curiosity to All-NBA player in just one year.

Big men Nikola Jokic in Denver, Rudy Gobert in Utah and Hassan Whiteside in Miami have elevated their games, with Gobert and Whiteside under consideration for one of the three All-NBA teams. But the Greek Freak is the choice here after making a jump we rarely see in one season.

Defensive Player of the Year

Another award that has several worthy candidates, including two-time winner Leonard and blocked shots leader Gobert.

The choice here is Golden State's Mr. Versatility, Draymond Green. Because of the roster changes needed to facilitate the signing of Kevin Durant, Green has been asked to defend all three frontline positions, and he's responded with excellence in the post and on the perimeter.

Golden State's small-ball lineups normally include Green playing center, and he's able to contain players that are often half a foot taller. Plus Green is capable of going out on the perimeter to contest players like James, Leonard, Butler and Paul George.

With all the attention given to the Warriors' 3-point shooting, they're also among the league's best defensive teams, and the key to that is Green's versatility.

Coach of the Year

Has any coach done more with the available talent on the roster than Miami's Eric Spoelstra? After losing Wade to free agency and Chris Bosh to blood clot issues, Spoelstra was given a roster loaded with veterans on one year make-good contracts to preserve maximum flexibility for 2017 free agency.

Spoelstra managed to turn a motley crew that included Dion Waiters, Wayne Ellington, Johnson and Willie Reed into an effective unit, bouncing back from an 11-30 start to make a run at the playoffs and finish the season at 41-41. Not many people gave Spoelstra credit when the Big Three of James, Wade and Bosh made it to four straight Finals and won a pair of NBA titles, but it's pretty obvious this guy is one of the league's elite coaches.

He's my choice for Coach of the Year, with Mike D'Antoni a close second.

Executive of the Year

The Houston Rockets' rise from a .500 team a year ago to the No. 3 seed in a talented Western Conference has been one of the league's most interesting stories.

D'Antoni deserves a lot of the credit for proving his fast-paced offense still works after failed stints with the Knicks and Lakers, but it's also clear a team has to have the right personnel for the coach's style to be effective. That's where Rockets general manager Daryl Morey fits in.

Morey made a pair of under-the-radar free agent signings last summer, bringing in both Gordon and Anderson to play off the penetrating ability of new point guard Harden. Morey also signed Nene to back up young center Clint Capela, and he made one of the best trades at the deadline, getting Williams to provide more 3-point firepower with the second unit.

Honorable mention to the Warriors' Bob Myers for doing the salary-cap magic to add Durant to the best team in basketball and to LeBron James for ordering David Griffin to bring in the bench help he demanded in the form of trade/buyout guys like Kyle Korver, Deron Williams, Derrick Williams and Larry Sanders. But my choice for Executive of the Year is Morey.

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg criticizes officiating on Celtics' Isaiah Thomas

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg criticizes officiating on Celtics' Isaiah Thomas

You could see it building, with Fred Hoiberg's usually-monotone voice rising with his opening answer after his Bulls gave up a 2-0 lead to the Boston Celtics and now have to win at least one more game on the road to win a first-round matchup that's now tied at two games apiece.

Whether he was taking a page from Memphis Grizzlies coach David Fizdale or finally succumbing to his own frustration after pleading with the officials to enforce the rules as he believes them to be, he made his most direct statement as Bulls coach in his assessment of the officiating surrounding Isaiah Thomas.

He believes Thomas carries the ball for a palming violation, a tactic could make an already-difficult player to defend even more so. 

"Let me say this: Isaiah Thomas is a hell of a player, an unbelievable competitor, a warrior, everything he's going through right now. He had a hell of a game tonight," Hoiberg said. "When you're allowed to discontinue your dribble on every possession, he's impossible to guard. Impossible to guard. When you're able to put your hand underneath the ball, take two or three steps and put it back down. It's impossible to guard him in those situations."

Thomas scored 33 points and added seven assists with four rebounds in 35 minutes, helping torch virtually anyone who came near him and in his postgame news conference, pronounced himself as being an "impossible cover" to defenders.

"Not one man can guard me," he said. "That's just the confidence I have."

When told about Hoiberg's comments, Thomas said, "That's not the reason. It is what it is. I guess (Hoiberg) is just going to continue to say it. I've been dribbling that way my whole life, I don't know what to say to that."

Thomas repeatedly sliced through the defense for layups and open shots, and repeatedly told Bulls reserve guard Michael Carter-Williams "You can't guard me", to the point of earning a technical foul for the talk through the game.

Palming has become as prevalent through the game as the sneakers and mascots, so the timing of it seemed a bit peculiar. One wonders if it's more a motivation tactic to let his players know he's in the fight with them and maybe get a little something in Thomas' head before Game 5 as opposed to wanting it called every time down.

Several Bulls said they see Thomas do it repeatedly, and Hoiberg said it was a point of emphasis for the officials in the offseason—but Thomas was likely to break down the Bulls defense anyways, as he averages nearly 30 points a game on the season.

Thomas said he doesn't recall being called for a palming violation the entire season, and considering the violation seems so miniscule in the context of this playoff series, it could strike as a form of desperation or even motivation for Hoiberg, should his next check be a little lighter because of an impending fine for criticizing the officials.

Fizdale's statement seemed more in line with his personality, while it seemed Hoiberg was struggling with it a bit.

He didn't want to elaborate on it much when follow-up questions were asked, and when Jimmy Butler was asked to address it, he wouldn't wade into those waters.

"First off, Isaiah is a terrific basketball player," Butler said. "I don't really pay attention to if he's carrying the ball. It's not my job to watch that and call that. Even if I do call it, I can't do anything about it."

What Hoiberg and the Bulls can do is presumably come with a better start and a more sustained effort to Game 5, as opposed to complaints about the officiating on one particular issue.

Bulls comeback falls flat as Celtics tie series at 2-2

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USA TODAY

Bulls comeback falls flat as Celtics tie series at 2-2

By the numbers it looks like the series has gone to form but it certainly feels like the Bulls lost more than control of it with their 104-95 loss to the Celtics at the United Center Sunday evening.

The series is tied at two games apiece but it certainly has the feel of a Celtics advantage, and not just because they have two of the last three games in their building in a series that hasn't seen a home team win a game.

It looks as if the Celtics have figured the Bulls out, taken their best shot and delivered some serious blows of their own, in the form of a 5-foot-9 dynamo who produced a signature moment of his own when his team needed him desperately.

If Isaiah Thomas isn't the best player in this series, he was certainly the freshest star when it counted, spearheading a 15-2 run to finish the third quarter when the Bulls made a resounding comeback to look as if they would ride a wave of emotion to an improbable 3-1 lead.

Thomas scored or assisted on the next 20 Celtic points, getting into the lane at will along with finding shooters and buckets inside, the biggest stretch of his 33-point night, as he added nine assists on 10 of 21 shooting and hitting 12 of his 13 free throws.

It didn't matter that the Bulls missed a grand opportunity to exploit one of the most vulnerable defensive players in the league in Thomas, as they refused to attack him after he picked up his fourth foul early in the third.

He kept attacking the Bulls, jumping on the expressway known as the Bulls' paint and finishing multiple times against taller defenders to restore order and press the lead back to 10 at the end of the third.

The Bulls were gassed after coming back from a 20-point deficit, with Jimmy Butler literally doing everything on his way to a 33-point night with nine assists and five rebounds. After a game where he didn't go to the foul line at all, he took every bump and every bruise on his way to 23 free throws.

Nikola Mirotic and Isaiah Canaan scored 13 with Dwyane Wade adding 11, but it was Wade's missed fast break layup that resulted in an Al Horford 3-point play after a dunk that made it 92-80, ending a relatively serious Bulls' threat.

Horford scored 15 with 12 rebounds while Brad Stevens' adjustment from Game 3, Gerald Green, scored all 18 of his points in the first half, helping the Celtics take control as they again gouged the Bulls from the 3-point line in the opening moments—starting with Thomas' patience against an aggressive Bulls defense.

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The game was an instant replay early, with the Celtics jumping out to an 11-4 lead and methodically increasing it throughout. Hoiberg gave his struggling point guards another chance, but Grant and Carter-Williams were again not up to task, with Hoiberg pulling them in favor for Isaiah Canaan.

Canaan hasn't played meaningful minutes in months and certainly has been little more than an afterthought since early April but provided a spark in 33 minutes, being a plus-20 and at least bothering Thomas on defense.

Canaan took a charge on Thomas and then hit a triple, bringing the deficit to five midway through the period. The Bulls took their first lead with a Robin Lopez duck-in hook shot at 65-63 before Thomas sliced inside for two layups on consecutive possessions.

Lopez began picking away at the Celtics on the glass, but only played 22 minutes as Hoiberg opted to go away from him and switch to a smaller lineup. It was a tactic that backfired, as the Bulls lost their advantage in paint scoring with each scoring 48 after the Bulls had dominated that department in their first two wins.

Among many things the Bulls tried, competing was their best counter and it'll have to be that in spades from here—because it looks like the Celtics have all the big faces, even if it's in a small package.