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.