With former All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward returning from serious injuries to join a group of talented young players that took Cleveland to Game 7 in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals, most experts around the league predicted Boston would be the new beasts of the East in a LeBron-less world.
But one month into the season, the Celtics are still searching for consistency. They stand 3rd in the Atlantic Division and 6th in the East with a 7-6 record and well-respected coach Brad Stevens is hinting at line-up changes.
Hayward is still struggling to regain his form after that gruesome ankle injury he suffered on opening night of the 2017-18 season. Watching Celtics’ games early this year, it looks like Hayward is playing at three-quarters speed. He’s being limited to around 25 minutes right now and is averaging 9.9 points a game on .396 shooting from the field and .319 from 3 point range. The Celtics might be better served to bring Hayward off the bench and add more size to the front court with either Marcus Morris or Aron Baynes joining Al Horford in the starting line-up.
Irving looks completely recovered from the knee problems that brought a premature end to his 2017-18 season. He’s averaging 21 points and 5.4 assists on .466 shooting from the field and .405 from beyond the arc. When healthy, Irving is one of league’s most dynamic point guards and arguably one of the top 10 players overall.
Still, something is missing in Boston right now. After their breakout performances in last season’s playoffs, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are still trying to adjust to less touches and shot attempts in half-court sets. Terry Rozier has also been less effective in a reserve role after starting in place of Irving in last season’s playoffs. Marcus Smart is still providing his trademark hustle plays and defense, but his inability to make shots (.328 from the field, .250 on 3’s) makes his a liability in crunch time.
Boston still has plenty of time to get things sorted out and Stevens is considered to be one of the league’s best coaches. Hayward should get better as he regains confidence in his surgically-repaired ankle, and Irving, Horford and Tatum are among the best players at their positions in the East.
Long-term, Boston figures to battle it out with Toronto, Philadelphia and Milwaukee for the conference championship, but the predictions we read about the Celtics dominating the East for the next half dozen years might have been overstated. The Raptors are off to a 12-2 start with Kawhi Leonard happy and healthy again, and the 76’ers will feature an impressive big 3 after their acquisition of former Bulls’ All-Star Jimmy Butler. It’s anyone’s guess which team will come out on top in late May.
So, what will the Bulls need to do to hang with the C’s at TD Garden on Wednesday?
1. GET ZACH SOME HELP. LaVine stretched his season-opening streak of scoring 20 or more points to 14 games Monday night, but he was visibly exhausted in the post-game locker room after playing 41 tough minutes against a Mavericks’ defense that was designed to stop him. The Bulls desperately need someone from the group of Jabari Parker, Justin Holiday and Wendell Carter Jr. to emerge as a consistent 2nd scoring option.
2. LET CARTER PLAY THE AL HORFORD ROLE. It seems like every city the Bulls visit around the league, coaches and opposing players are comparing Carter to the Celtics’ multiple time All-Star. Horford is an excellent passer at the high post, and the Bulls might want to try using Carter Jr. in that role to move LaVine off the ball at times to come off screens for catch-and-shoot opportunities. Horford is also an excellent outside shooter, capable of spacing the floor to create driving lanes for Bostons’ athletic wing players. If Carter is able to knock down some mid-range jumpers, there might be less congestion in the paint when LaVine drives to the basket.
3. AVOID THE LONG DRY SPELLS. The Bulls ran their offense effectively early in Monday’s game against Dallas, but missed a lot of open shots. Then, the Mavericks 2nd unit came in and broke the game open by going on a 27-8 run bridging the 1st and 2nd quarters. Boston has a lot more firepower than Dallas, so the Bulls will have sustain their offensive production throughout the game to keep things close heading into the final quarter.
Don’t forget you can watch Wednesday’s game on NBC Sports Chicago. Kelly Crull is with the team in Boston, and she’ll report live from TD Garden on Bulls Pre-Game Live at 6 pm. Adam Amin fills in for Neil Funk on the play by play call alongside Stacey King at 6:30, then Kelly will bring us reaction from Boston plus the expert analysis of Kendall Gill and Will Perdue on Bulls Post-Game Live. We wrap up the night with the fans’ perspective on Bulls Outsiders.
Make your plans to join us Wednesday night.