Bulls

Scouting Report: Thomas, Horford, Bradley lead a balanced Celtics attack into the playoffs

Scouting Report: Thomas, Horford, Bradley lead a balanced Celtics attack into the playoffs

The Celtics took care of a Milwaukee Bucks team without their four leading scorers on Wednesday night, securing the No. 1 seed in the East for the first time since 2008, when they won 66 games en route to the franchise’s 17th NBA title.

Just four years after entering rebuilding mode following the trades of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn, the Celtics have regained supremacy in the East under Brad Stevens.

Conversation about the Celtics begins and ends with Isaiah Thomas, the 5-foot-9 point guard who took the jump to super-stardom in 2016-17. He finished the regular season second in scoring (29.1) behind Russell Westbrook, and was fifth in usage (33.8%), ahead of players such as Kawhi Leonard, John Wall and LeBron James. Simply put, the Celtics rely on their All-Star guard plenty. Thomas set a Celtics record by scoring 20 or more points in 43 straight games, and his 9.8 points per fourth quarter were second in the NBA. Thomas knows how to close games, which could be crucial in the postseason.

After missing out on the Kevin Durant sweepstakes the Celtics found the next best option in free agent Al Horford. The four-time All-Star saw a slight dip in his shooting numbers but dished out a career-best 5.0 assists and solidified the center position on a team that desperately needed it. The only other players to reach Horford’s thresholds in points (14.0), rebounds (6.8) and assists (5.0) were Russell Westbrok, James Harden, LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Those could be four members of the All-NBA first team. Good company indeed.

Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley have always been plus defenders, with the latter earning All-NBA Defensive first team honors a year ago. But both players made a jump on the other end of the floor this year that helped Boston jump to the top of the East. Bradley averaged a career-high 16.4 points while Crowder shot a career-best 46.2 percent from the field and became a dependable 3-point shooter, connecting on 40 percent of his triples.

Bradley played in just 54 games while dealing with an Achilles injury during the season’s second half, and Horford missed time in November with a concussion. Both players are back and logging 30+ minutes, putting the Celtics at full-strength heading into the second season.

Other contributors include defensive standout Marcus Smart, though his shooting (35.9%) remains an issue. Rookie Jaylen Brown saw an increase in minutes with Bradley sidelined and proved to be a capable player on the second unit. Amir Johnson does the dirty work inside, while Kelly Olynyk’s stretch-four capabilities give Stevens a different look. Terry Rozier, Gerald Green, Jonas Jerebko and Tyler Zeller all could see spot minutes during the series, but won’t have a direct impact on its outcome.

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Boston sat third in the East following a late January three-game losing streak. At 26-18 they were safely into the playoffs and still in shouting distance of the Cavaliers and second-seeded Raptors.

Then, on Jan. 25, the Celtics knocked off the Rockets – one of their most impressive wins of the year – to begin a stretch of seven straight wins, and 11 of their next 12 total. It pulled them within 2.5 games of the Cavs. They maintained that second seed despite Washington’s resurgence – Kyle Lowry’s wrist injury in Toronto helped, too – and eventually caught struggling Cleveland by winning 12 of their last 16 games.

Having the East’s best road record (23-18) helped, and only Cleveland (31-10) was better than Boston’s 30-11 home mark. Thirteen other NBA teams finished with a winning record; Boston beat 11 of them at least once, with only San Antonio and Oklahoma City sweeping two-game series against the C’s.

Boston finished the year seventh in net rating, which trailed only Toronto in the East. They were one of five teams to finish in the top-12 in both offensive and defensive efficiency (Golden State, Toronto, San Antonio, Utah).

Offensively they use the 3-pointer as much as any team in the league not named the Houston Rockets. Their 33.4 attempts per game ranked third in the NBA behind Houston and Cleveland (33.9 attempts), and they made a respectable 35.9 percent.

Where the Celtics are best is distributing and taking care of the ball. They ranked second in the NBA in assist ratio (percentage of possessions ending in an assist) and assist percentage (percentage of field goals that were assisted). Though Thomas, their leading passer, handed out only 5.9 assists per game, Boston’s 25.2 assists per game were fourth in the NBA. Thomas, Bradley, Smart and Rozier can all handle the ball, while Horford is one of the game’s best passing centers.

They also take care of the ball. Boston’s turnover percentage (percentage of possessions that end in a turnover) ranked 8th in the NBA, and third among playoff teams.

If there’s one area where the Celtics struggle, it’s on the glass. Despite adding Horford, and having one of the better rebounding guards in Bradley, the Celtics finished 27th in rebound percentage (48.5%). Only the Mavericks, Pelicans and Nets were worse (Note: Rebound margin is not a thing). Horford and Bradley missing a combined 41 games may have contributed to that, but between Horford, Johnson, Olynyk and Zeller, there aren’t many plus rebounders on the team.

Outside of the Warriors and Spurs, there isn't a more balanced team in the league than the Celtics. They can play big with Horford and Amir Johnson, or play Crowder at power forward in a small-ball lineup. The combinations of Thomas, Bradley, Smart and Rozier give Stevens, one of the game's most respected head coaches, plenty of options. They'll be a tough out in the postseason if they can overcome their rebounding woes and, of course, remain healthy.

Could star-crossed Derrick Rose be ready to call it quits?

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AP

Could star-crossed Derrick Rose be ready to call it quits?

I'll never forget watching the reaction of Derrick Rose after he found out his hometown Bulls had won the rights to draft first overall in the 2008 lottery. Rose was smiling from ear to ear as he imagined the possibilities of leading the team he rooted for growing up back to greatness. And, the fact the Bulls faced such long odds to win the top pick made the news even sweeter for the soft-spoken teenager from Simeon high school.

Rose took the NBA by storm, turning in the kind of highlight reel plays Bulls fans hadn't seen since the Jordan era. He was named Rookie of the Year and matched a record set by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar by scoring 36 points in his very first playoff game against the Celtics. The future couldn't look brighter for Chicago's hometown hero.

Rose really took off in his first season playing for Tom Thibodeau, averaging 25 points a game while leading the Bulls to a league-best 62-20 record, in the process becoming the youngest MVP in NBA history. The Bulls lost to Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals, but it appeared only a matter of time before Rose brought NBA championship to the city of Chicago.

But then came that fateful Saturday afternoon in April of 2012 when Rose ruptured his left ACL playing the meaningless final minutes of the Bulls' playoff opening win over Philadelphia. The Bulls would go on to lose that series while Rose headed off to a long and frightening rehab. The wunderkind suddenly robbed of his amazing gifts with one fateful misstep.

Rose sat out the entire 2012-13 season, drawing criticism from many fans and some media members who expected Rose to return after the mid-season All-Star break. Eleven games into the 2013-14 season, Rose was hurt again, this time with a season-ending right meniscus tear. Forget the flashy Adidas marketing campaign about Rose coming back better than ever, we would never see the explosive league MVP again.

Only Rose, his family and his trusted friends know the extent of the frustration that Derrick went through as he tried to prove to all the doubters he could still be one of the league's best players. Rose grew more combative with the media when questioned about trying to reshape his game given the new physical limitations. He would have one more knee surgery while a member of the Bulls, missing about six weeks in the 2014-15 season following another right meniscus tear.

Rose had one more heroic moment in a Bulls' uniform, banking in a three-point heave to give the Bulls a 2-1 series lead over LeBron James and the Cavs in the 2015 playoffs, but Cleveland would go on to sweep the next three games of the series, ending Rose's last chance to lead his hometown team to a championship.

Rose was traded to the Knicks in June of 2016 after the Bulls failed to make the playoffs, but after having a productive 2016-17 campaign in New York, Rose would suffer yet another knee injury, leading to another summer of rehab and doubt.

After talking openly with reporters about getting a shot at signing another max contract in September of 2015, two years before he would hit free agency, Rose could only land a veteran's minimum deal to hop on board with LeBron and the Cavs this season. He played fairly well in seven games, averaging 14.3 points on 47 percent shooting from the field, but then an injury sidelined him again, this time an ankle sprain.

Which brings us to Friday's bombshell that Rose was leaving the team to "re-evaluate his future in the NBA." Would the self-described "hooper" actually pull the plug on his NBA career at the age of 29? It seems like all the years of injuries, rehab and reduced effectiveness have taken a substantial physical and emotional toll.

In Rose's mind, he's still one of the league's elite players and should be held in the same regard as LeBron, KD, Steph, Russ and James Harden. Problem is, his body has already betrayed him, and the stat sheets that continually show more turnovers than assists are becoming too difficult to ignore.

Maybe some time away from the daily grind will convince Derrick he still loves the game and wants to get back with the Cavs to play whatever role is needed for a team with an excellent chance to get back to the Finals next June. Or maybe being with his son and family members during the holiday season will convince him that the cycle of injury and rehab is something he just doesn't want to endure anymore, even at the price of giving up the $80 million remaining on his shoe contract with Adidas.

Cavs coach Ty Lue says he's confident Rose will return to the team after some time away, and LeBron has been vocal in his support of Rose trying to re-establish his identity with a championship contender. My best guess is Rose will play again for the Cavs this season, but whether he wants to continue down the road of many injured stars, moving from city to city on minimum contracts, just might not be worth it anymore.

Another wild twist in the Derrick Rose saga

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USA TODAY

Another wild twist in the Derrick Rose saga

We may have seen the last of Derrick Rose on a basketball court. 

According to ESPN's Dave McMenamin and Adrian Wojnarowski, the point guard, who's currently recovering from ankle injury, is away from the Cavaliers organization and contemplating his future in basketball: 

The news may come as a shock considering Rose is still only 29 years old, but the Chicago native has experienced triumphant highs and depressing lows like few others in league history. Undoubtedly, that's taken a toll. 

From youngest MVP in league history to injury-prone backup, the former No. 1 pick of the Bulls has seen it all in his nine-year career. And just last season in New York, his passion for the game was called into question after missing a game without informing coaches, players or staff to attend to a family issue. 

He decided to team up with LeBron James in Cleveland last offseason -- a move that nobody could have predicted five years ago -- on a veteran's minimum contract, and averaged 14.3 points before, you guessed it, being forced to sit with injury. 

Fred Hoiberg, who coached Rose for one season in Chicago, weighed in before Friday's Bulls-Warriors game: 

If Rose ultimately decides to step away for good, eerie parallels can be drawn to Doug Collins' NBA stint. Collins didn't have quite the upside Rose had, but he was a three-time All-Star before foot and knee injuries cut his career short at, yes, also 29. 

It's another sad twist in the Derrick Rose Story. He may be the greatest 'What if' in NBA history.