The Boston Celtics appeared to validate their fans’ worst fears Sunday night.
Boston’s most glaring weaknesses — inefficiency on the glass, an over-reliance on outside shooting and lack of scoring options outside Isaiah Thomas — all were on display in a 106-102 loss to the Chicago Bulls in Game 1 of their first-round NBA playoff series at TD Garden. If the Celtics can’t bounce back Tuesday in Game 2, they’ll run the risk of becoming the first No. 1 seed to get bounced in the first round since the 2012 Bulls.
Of course, the critics will tell you the C’s aren’t a “true No. 1 seed,” and that their track record suggests their closer to an early playoff exit than they are a trip to the NBA Finals. Those critics are right — to an extent. Yes, Boston’s 53-29 record was the worst by an Eastern Conference top seed in 10 years, and yes, the No. 2 seed Cleveland Cavaliers are the prohibitive favorite to emerge from the East.
But that doesn’t mean Brad Stevens’ club should start booking vacation plans just yet. This is a seven-game series, after all, and the Celtics are fully capable of putting a narrow Game 1 loss behind them and going on to dispatch the Bulls.
In short: There’s still reason for optimism if you’re a Celtics fan. Here’s why:
1. The Bulls aren’t world beaters. This is a friendly reminder Chicago was one of the most inconsistent teams in basketball this season. The Bulls were just as capable of beating the Cleveland Cavaliers on national television as they were of getting blown out by the Phoenix Suns. We got the “national TV Bulls” on Sunday, as Bobby Portis shot 80 percent (!!) from the floor while Jimmy Butler carried them in the second half. Butler will get his buckets, but is his supporting cast capable of sustaining Sunday’s success throughout the series? Don’t bank on it.
2. The Celtics can win without controlling the boards. Rebounding obviously is a problem area for the Celtics, but don’t worry: They’re aware of it. Boston won 53 games this season despite owning the NBA’s fourth-worst rebounding differential, a feat it accomplished by stretching the floor with smaller lineups that pushed the tempo and beat teams with excellent perimeter shooting. The Celtics allowed 20 offensive rebounds Sunday night and still only lost by four. If they can shore up their defensive rebounding and keep second-chance opportunities to a minimum, their offense should be able to pick up the slack.
3. The Celtics have better depth. We know what you’re thinking: Didn’t Chicago’s reserves just outscore Boston’s 35-22? But as we mentioned before, the Bulls still are a top-heavy team that goes as Butler goes. The Celtics endured poor shooting nights from Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley and in Game 1 and got virtually nothing out of their bench. The potential is there, though, as Kelly Olynyk and rookie Jaylen Brown both are capable of hitting outside shots while Marcus Smart can play his usual spark plug role. The C’s may lack elite talent outside Thomas, but they have enough solid role players to wear down a team like Chicago over a seven-game series.
4. The Isaiah Thomas factor. Thomas showed incredible courage in Game 1 by suiting up while still mourning the tragic death of his sister, Chyna. In that sense, his teammates let him down, failing to make clutch plays down the stretch to pick up their All-Star point guard. But this is a proud, close-knit group that already has publicly rallied around Thomas. After Sunday night’s emotional roller coaster, expect the team to put its support of Thomas into action by giving him more help in Game 2 and tying up this series.
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