BOSTON – It’s fair to say that the Boston Celtics and the Chicago Bulls have both outperformed the expectations many had for their respective teams a few weeks ago.
The Celtics were seen as a good team, but few – outside of maybe Avery Bradley – would have envisioned them finishing the regular season with the best record in the East.
Yes, better than Cleveland!
And the Bulls who seemed to be mired in problems on the floor and within the locker room, rallied to win seven of its last nine games and sneak into the eighth and final playoff slot.
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Several contributing factors have come into play leading them to where they are now.
But few stand out more than their point guards who are All-Star guards of the Celtics’ present (Isaiah Thomas) and their past (former Celtic Rajon Rondo).
Their play with be critical in their first-round matchup which begins on Sunday at the TD Garden at 6:30 p.m., and can also be seen on CSN.
“I just want to go out there and win,” Rondo told reporters after Chicago’s 39-point win against Brooklyn to secure the eighth playoff seed. “So my only focus is to get the win.”
Chicago has done just that, winning seven of their last nine games.
And the play of Rajon Rondo has been a significant part of the Bulls’ late-season surge.
It’s surprising when you consider all the issues that he and the Bulls had this year which at one point led to head coach Fred Hoiberg taking him out of the rotation altogether not to mention some social media back-and-forth barbs between Rondo and Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler.
But through the disagreements and disappointing play for long stretches this season, Chicago righted the ship in time to get into the postseason where they’ll face a Celtics team that is led by Thomas.
The 5-foot-9 guard was named to his second straight All-Star team in February, and did so with the kind of season that will get him some serious league MVP consideration behind the two odds-on favorites; Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook and Houston’s James Harden.
Thomas averaged 28.9 points per game this season which ranks third in the league, and tops among Eastern Conference players.
While some – me – will look at the Bulls as a team the Celtics eliminate, Thomas isn’t about to dismiss them as anything other than a team that’s coming to the playoffs with the same goal – win Game 1 and see what happens.
“It will be a good matchup for us,” Thomas said. “They’re the eighth seed but they’re better than what seed they are. They’re a really good team especially with Dwyane Wade back. So we have to be ready for them.”
Wade suffered an elbow injury that at the time was deemed season-ending. But as the Bulls clawed their way back into the playoff picture, Wade’s status changed to where he’s now available and starting for the Bulls.
The respect that Thomas has for Rondo does indeed go both ways.
“He's probably playing the best out of any point guard as far as scoring the ball and his team is winning,” Rondo said of Thomas. “It’s either him or (Cleveland’s) Kyrie (Irving); take your pick.”
Indeed, Thomas’ numbers and the team’s success will certainly enhance his long-shot candidacy for the league’s MVP award.
But being the number one seed, while nice, can only be the jumping-off point for the Celtics and not their final destination.
“I’ve never been a number one seed,” Thomas said. “So it’s definitely something I’m excited about. But in the playoffs, seeding goes out the window.”
The Bulls certainly hope that’s the case.
But even if they are eliminated quickly as expected, for them to even make the playoffs is a victory in itself.
“We've been through a lot,” Rondo said. “But at the beginning of the season we said we want to make the playoffs, regardless of the spot we're in. We're where we want to be.”
The Celtics (53-29) feel the same way.