Chicago Bulls

Scouting Report: Thomas, Horford, Bradley lead a balanced Celtics attack into the playoffs

Scouting Report: Thomas, Horford, Bradley lead a balanced Celtics attack into the playoffs

The Celtics took care of a Milwaukee Bucks team without their four leading scorers on Wednesday night, securing the No. 1 seed in the East for the first time since 2008, when they won 66 games en route to the franchise’s 17th NBA title.

Just four years after entering rebuilding mode following the trades of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn, the Celtics have regained supremacy in the East under Brad Stevens.

Conversation about the Celtics begins and ends with Isaiah Thomas, the 5-foot-9 point guard who took the jump to super-stardom in 2016-17. He finished the regular season second in scoring (29.1) behind Russell Westbrook, and was fifth in usage (33.8%), ahead of players such as Kawhi Leonard, John Wall and LeBron James. Simply put, the Celtics rely on their All-Star guard plenty. Thomas set a Celtics record by scoring 20 or more points in 43 straight games, and his 9.8 points per fourth quarter were second in the NBA. Thomas knows how to close games, which could be crucial in the postseason.

After missing out on the Kevin Durant sweepstakes the Celtics found the next best option in free agent Al Horford. The four-time All-Star saw a slight dip in his shooting numbers but dished out a career-best 5.0 assists and solidified the center position on a team that desperately needed it. The only other players to reach Horford’s thresholds in points (14.0), rebounds (6.8) and assists (5.0) were Russell Westbrok, James Harden, LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Those could be four members of the All-NBA first team. Good company indeed.

Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley have always been plus defenders, with the latter earning All-NBA Defensive first team honors a year ago. But both players made a jump on the other end of the floor this year that helped Boston jump to the top of the East. Bradley averaged a career-high 16.4 points while Crowder shot a career-best 46.2 percent from the field and became a dependable 3-point shooter, connecting on 40 percent of his triples.

Bradley played in just 54 games while dealing with an Achilles injury during the season’s second half, and Horford missed time in November with a concussion. Both players are back and logging 30+ minutes, putting the Celtics at full-strength heading into the second season.

Other contributors include defensive standout Marcus Smart, though his shooting (35.9%) remains an issue. Rookie Jaylen Brown saw an increase in minutes with Bradley sidelined and proved to be a capable player on the second unit. Amir Johnson does the dirty work inside, while Kelly Olynyk’s stretch-four capabilities give Stevens a different look. Terry Rozier, Gerald Green, Jonas Jerebko and Tyler Zeller all could see spot minutes during the series, but won’t have a direct impact on its outcome.

[VIVID SEATS: Get your Bulls tickets right here!]

Boston sat third in the East following a late January three-game losing streak. At 26-18 they were safely into the playoffs and still in shouting distance of the Cavaliers and second-seeded Raptors.

Then, on Jan. 25, the Celtics knocked off the Rockets – one of their most impressive wins of the year – to begin a stretch of seven straight wins, and 11 of their next 12 total. It pulled them within 2.5 games of the Cavs. They maintained that second seed despite Washington’s resurgence – Kyle Lowry’s wrist injury in Toronto helped, too – and eventually caught struggling Cleveland by winning 12 of their last 16 games.

Having the East’s best road record (23-18) helped, and only Cleveland (31-10) was better than Boston’s 30-11 home mark. Thirteen other NBA teams finished with a winning record; Boston beat 11 of them at least once, with only San Antonio and Oklahoma City sweeping two-game series against the C’s.

Boston finished the year seventh in net rating, which trailed only Toronto in the East. They were one of five teams to finish in the top-12 in both offensive and defensive efficiency (Golden State, Toronto, San Antonio, Utah).

Offensively they use the 3-pointer as much as any team in the league not named the Houston Rockets. Their 33.4 attempts per game ranked third in the NBA behind Houston and Cleveland (33.9 attempts), and they made a respectable 35.9 percent.

Where the Celtics are best is distributing and taking care of the ball. They ranked second in the NBA in assist ratio (percentage of possessions ending in an assist) and assist percentage (percentage of field goals that were assisted). Though Thomas, their leading passer, handed out only 5.9 assists per game, Boston’s 25.2 assists per game were fourth in the NBA. Thomas, Bradley, Smart and Rozier can all handle the ball, while Horford is one of the game’s best passing centers.

They also take care of the ball. Boston’s turnover percentage (percentage of possessions that end in a turnover) ranked 8th in the NBA, and third among playoff teams.

If there’s one area where the Celtics struggle, it’s on the glass. Despite adding Horford, and having one of the better rebounding guards in Bradley, the Celtics finished 27th in rebound percentage (48.5%). Only the Mavericks, Pelicans and Nets were worse (Note: Rebound margin is not a thing). Horford and Bradley missing a combined 41 games may have contributed to that, but between Horford, Johnson, Olynyk and Zeller, there aren’t many plus rebounders on the team.

Outside of the Warriors and Spurs, there isn't a more balanced team in the league than the Celtics. They can play big with Horford and Amir Johnson, or play Crowder at power forward in a small-ball lineup. The combinations of Thomas, Bradley, Smart and Rozier give Stevens, one of the game's most respected head coaches, plenty of options. They'll be a tough out in the postseason if they can overcome their rebounding woes and, of course, remain healthy.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Bulls the worst team in NBA?

bulls.jpg
USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Bulls the worst team in NBA?

David Haugh (Chicago Tribune), Nick Shepkowski (670 The Score) and Dan Cahill (Chicago Sun-Times) join Kap on the panel. Jake Arrieta will return to the rotation to face the Brewers. Can he recapture his pre-injury form? Mike Glennon gets another start Sunday but should he get the hook if he struggles again?

Plus, the guys discuss the one metric that says the Bulls are the worst team in the NBA.

A 'woke' Doug Collins returns to provoke thought — and we'll find out who's asleep in Bulls' front office

A 'woke' Doug Collins returns to provoke thought — and we'll find out who's asleep in Bulls' front office

Doug Collins made it clear, that his return to the Bulls organization won’t result in a return to the sidelines as head coach, meaning Fred Hoiberg has nothing to worry about in the way of looking over his shoulder.

What Collins did admit, though, is he’s back with the Bulls to provoke thought. Anyone who’s listened to Collins as a broadcaster for ESPN or Turner Sports, or talked to him in any basketball capacity, knows he’s not only a hoops lifer but also someone who can have strong opinions, capable of quick dissection of a complex picture in a moment’s notice.

“I’m not here to be a decision-maker. I want to provoke thought. My mind is very active,” Collins said Tuesday afternoon at the Advocate Center. “And I think to get into a room and to bounce ideas off each other or whatever, at the end of the day, Gar, Michael, Jerry, Pax will make those decisions. The beauty of it is is that when there’s a level of trust when you’re talking about things, you can speak openly and honestly with people knowing the only thing that matters is that whatever happens is the best for the franchise.”

Announcing Collins as a senior advisor to executive vice president John Paxson adds another voice to the Bulls’ braintrust and is probably an admission this rebuild will require more than what the Bulls already have, be it in terms of connections, observation and even innovation.

Collins’ connection to Paxson and Jerry Reinsdorf, a growing relationship with Michael Reinsdorf and ability to relate with Hoiberg due to the misery of coaching should align a front office to the floor in ways that has been in doubt for the past several seasons.

“Given Jerry's relationship and my relationship with Doug over the years, we thought, hey, let's see if maybe this isn't a good time for Doug to come back into the fold,” Paxson said. “So we approached him and it was very casual, no expectations other than he's been a friend of ours for so long. But the more we kind of dug into the prospects of this and what it means, the more we kept asking ourselves, why wouldn't we do this?”

Collins made it clear he won’t be giving up his family life, as he already has residence in Chicago and his son Chris is coaching Northwestern and a son-in-law coaching a high school team outside Philadelphia.

“The hours and the time commitment that Fred Hoiberg puts in on a day and the energy that he spends and being on the road and being away from his family,” Collins said. “(This) worked perfectly in my schedule when I talked to Pax that I could be a part of something special, the Chicago Bulls, and I love the Chicago Bulls.”

His energy and passion can light up a room, and though he tried his best to say that’s died down at age 66, claiming “I can sit and do a crossword puzzle for three hours now”, people wired like Collins don’t lose their fervor for the game.

“I think there’s this feeling that I’m a guy who’s always on and fired up,” Collins said.

But that fire and passion and presumably a willingness to be uncompromising with the truth should be something that’s welcome inside the Advocate Center. In addition to his acumen, one of Collins’ greatest strengths is his fervor, and it shouldn’t be scaled back.

That’s not how rebuilds work successfully. Lines have to be crossed and people have to be made uncomfortable in their line of thinking, even if it’s Paxson or Hoiberg or general manager Gar Forman.

It’s not hard to see the Bulls following the thinking of the Golden State Warriors when they added Jerry West in an advisory role years ago, resulting in several key moves being made, most notably West’s objection to Klay Thompson being traded to Minnesota for Kevin Love before Love was eventually moved to Cleveland.

West’s guidance played a part in the Warriors’ upward trajectory to championship status, and he hopes to have a similar affect with the Los Angeles Clippers.

Comparing West with Collins on its face is a bit unfair, considering West’s experience as an executive and championship pedigree dating back to his days with the Lakers.

At least with West, he’s not trying to convince anyone he isn’t anything but a tortured basketball soul at age 79. Collins reminded everyone he’s a grandfather of five and at a spry 66, West would call Collins a “spring chicken.”

What Collins can bring is a keen eye for observation, and expecting him to be a passive personality doesn’t quite seem right, especially leaving the cushy job at ESPN that allowed him maximum exposure and a schedule to his liking.

Perhaps the way Collins left the NBA, with a massive gambit in Philadelphia falling flat when Andrew Bynum’s knees rendered him useless and sending the 76ers franchise into “The Process,” left him with a bad taste in his mouth.

Maybe his competitive juices got him going again and the broadcast booth just wasn’t cutting it, along with having a front seat to the injury that changed the course of the Bulls franchise when Derrick Rose tore his ACL in 2012 against Collins’ 76ers.

Maybe the crossword puzzles just couldn’t get it done anymore. After all, the man once cried on the sidelines as his Detroit Pistons beat the Bulls in a regular-season game in 1997. Curbing that passion would be a disservice.

“See how things quickly change? The NBA is cyclical now,” Collins said. “Other than the San Antonio Spurs, over the last 20 years, every elite franchise has gone through this moment. And so now what you got to do, you got to dig yourself back up.

“We got to start doing all the things that are necessary to gain assets day by day, to put all the work, so we’re going to give ourself a chance, when we continue to get better players and more talent, that you’re going to win more basketball games.”

Collins said he has old-school values, all while being caught up with the times that he called himself “woke” as a nod to the current culture.

If he truly is, we’ll also find out who’s asleep in the front office, in desperate need a loud wake-up call.