Top seed Celtics carry expectations into matchup with Bulls
By KYLE HIGHTOWER, AP Sports Writer
BOSTON (AP) — The Celtics’ 17 NBA championship banners hang as daily reminders of the watermark for a successful season.
So as much as fourth-year coach Brad Stevens would like to pat his team on the back for claiming the Eastern Conference’s top seed, the chase for an 18th banner is all the focus he needs as his team prepares to open the first round against the eighth-seeded Chicago Bulls.
The teams split their four regular-season matchups, with each winning two games on their home floor.
Now there’s also a fresh batch of expectation being heaped on Boston, after finishing with the East’s best record for the first time since winning their last title in 2008.
“It’s not always easy throughout an 82-game schedule to be at your very best, but these guys are very consistent,” Stevens said. “So that’s a real positive. But we’ll talk about what was accomplished later.”
The Celtics have lost in the first round each of the last two seasons, including a 4-2 loss to Atlanta last season. Now they’re hoping one of their biggest tormenters in that series, offseason pickup Al Horford, will be the piece needed to trigger a deep run.
Horford said one of main reasons he chose Boston was a chance to play alongside All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas. Though injuries limited their development together on the court at times, having Horford in the middle has clearly elevated Thomas’ game this season. His 28.9 points average this season tied John Havlicek (1970-71) for second place on the Celtics’ franchise leader board.
“We’re a little more confident, we are the No. 1 seed,” Thomas said. “We’ve got home-court advantage, we’ve just got to protect it. We’re ready, though.”
Thomas’ status for Game 1 on Sunday was uncertain after his sister was killed early Saturday in a one-car interstate accident in their home state of Washington. Chyna Thomas was 22.
“We are terribly saddened by the tragic loss of Chyna Thomas,” the Celtics said in a statement. “The thoughts and prayers of the entire Celtics organization are with Isaiah and his family.”
This series is big one for the Bulls on a few different fronts.
Second-year coach Fred Hoiberg is making his postseason debut, while Dwyane Wade is playing in his first postseason series since departing from Miami.
“This is the moment that Dwyane lives for,” Hoiberg said. “It’s playoff basketball. It’s great to have a guy that has championship experience like he has.”
Here are some things to watch for in the matchup between the Bulls and Celtics:
GUARDING ISAIAH: Jimmy Butler figures to see quite a bit of Thomas. And to that, the Bulls’ superstar says: Bring it on.
“I’m gonna make it tough for him, for anyone I guard,” he said. “But not just me. It’s gonna be a team effort.”
One of the league’s top two-way players and Chicago’s best perimeter defender, Butler is the Bulls’ best option to stick with the 5-foot-9 Thomas — whether he’s driving the lane or launching one of his lethal jumpers. Asking Rajon Rondo or Wade to do that would be a bit much.
Butler is used to guarding the other team’s best perimeter player and carrying the load on offense. Doing it in a best-of-seven series might wear him down.
Even so, expect to see Butler on Thomas down the stretch in close games. The Bulls might even gamble and go with that matchup early on, hoping it throws the Celtics out of sync and that no one else gets hot.
“You know what to expect from Isaiah, know what you can expect from other guys,” Butler said. “But when somebody comes out of nowhere and hits you with 20 or 30 points, now what? Now they’ve got a confidence that Isaiah is going to have no matter what, so you gotta lock in on everybody.”
WATCHING WADE: Wade experienced a rebirth during the playoffs with Miami last season. But can the Chicago product do the same for his hometown team?
Wade averaged 21.4 points in 14 playoff games and scored 25 or more four times a year ago. The Heat lost to Toronto in the Eastern Conference semifinals, then the three-time champion signed with Chicago.
He comes into these playoffs trying to work his way back from a broken right elbow that sidelined him for three weeks. The Bulls initially ruled him out for the remainder of the regular season, but he played the final three games.
MAKING AN IMPACT
A concussion in early November slowed Horford down some this season, factoring into declines in both his scoring (14 ppg) and rebounding (6.8 rpg) averages.
Still he says his preseason expectations have been exceeded. Aside from becoming probably the Celtics best passer on offense, Stevens said his leadership on the floor has been invaluable.
“That’s what you want to do,” Horford said. “You want to come and win and be in positions to do some special things.”
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