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.

Bulls: Jimmy Butler had the 8th best-selling NBA jersey this year

Bulls: Jimmy Butler had the 8th best-selling NBA jersey this year

Jimmy gets Buckets, and Bulls fans get his jersey.

The Bulls superstar ranked 8th on the list of top NBA selling jerseys this season, the league announced Tuesday. It's the second time Butler has appeared on the list, up from No. 10 last season.

Dwyane Wade also made a splash this offseason when he left Miami after 13 seasons to join the hometown Bulls. Fans responded by making him the 11th top-selling jersey in the league.

The same happened for former Bulls point guard Derrick Rose, who slotted in at No. 12 after being traded to the Knicks this offseason.

The Knicks (Rose, Kristaps Porzingis) and Warriors (Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson) were the only other teams with multiple players on the top-15 list.

1. Stephen Curry, Golden State
2. LeBron James, Cleveland
3. Kevin Durant, Golden State
4. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City
5. Kyrie Irving, Cleveland
6. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio
7. Kristaps Porzingis, New York
8. Jimmy Butler, Chicago
9. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee
10. James Harden, Houston
11. Dwyane Wade, Chicago
12. Derrick Rose, New York
13. Klay Thompson, Golden State
14. Isaiah Thomas, Boston
15. Damian Lillard, Portland

The Bulls also finished third in the NBA among most popular team merchandise, finishing behind last year's NBA finals participants in Golden State and Cleveland.

Cavaliers: LeBron James had never been swept by a division opponent, until this year's Bulls

Cavaliers: LeBron James had never been swept by a division opponent, until this year's Bulls

LeBron James wins a lot. This should come as no surprise, as the three-time NBA champion and four-time MVP has put together a Hall of Fame career by age 32 and doesn't seem to be slowing down.

His dominance over the Eastern Conference also speaks for itself, as James has been to an NBA-record-tying six straight NBA Finals. Widdling his success down even further, James has commanded the Central Division in his 10 seasons with the Cavaliers, and the Southeast Division in his four seasons with the Heat.

Since the NBA created in 2004 the current divisions, James has won division titles in nine of those 13 seasons; James' Cavaliers won the Central five times and his Heat won the Southeast each of the four seasons he played there. James hasn't not won a division title since 2008, a span of nine years

His divisions have featured some pretty awful teams, such as the 2012 Bobcats that went 7-59 in a lockout-shortened season. His divisions also featured the likes of the Pistons' East dominance in the mid-2000s.

In the current division format, James has played 52 regular-season series against the Central and Southeast, respectively.

In 51 of those series James earned at least one victory in the four-game* season series.

Meet the 2016-17 Bulls.

With Thursday night's 99-93 victory over the Cavaliers, LeBron James was swept by a division opponent for the first time in his 14-year Hall of Fame career.

Dec. 2: Bulls 111, Cavaliers 105
Jan. 4: Bulls 106, Cavaliers 94
Feb. 25: Bulls 117, Cavaliers 99
Mar. 30: Bulls 99, Cavaliers 93

In 10 seasons with the Cavaliers and four with the Heat, James' teams hold a 135-70 division record. That includes games against the Central's Bulls, Bucks, Pistons and Pacers, and the the Southeast's Hornets/Bobcats, Wizards, Magic and Hawks.

Of those 51 series (the Cavs still play the Pacers once more this season), here's how James has fared.

4-0: 12 times
3-1: 17 times
2-2: 11 times
1-3: 8 times
0-4: 1 time

3-0: 1 time (lockout-shortened season)
1-2: 1 time (lockout-shortened season)

And against each opponent:

Charlotte: 15-0
Orlando: 12-4
Atlanta: 12-4
Milwaukee: 26-10
Indiana: 24-11
Washington: 10-5
Chicago: 18-18
Detroit: 18-18

In what has been an incredibly odd year for the Bulls, full of unthinkable losses and improbable victories, the fact that they were the ones to sweep James for the first time is perhaps the most remarkable stat of all.

Go figure.