- Shockingly, the Bulls lead the Celtics 2–0 in the NBA playoffs. This called for an emergency conversation about spring's most surprising series.
The Bulls are up 2–0 on the Celtics. The series is far from over, but even Chicago's 2–0 lead has left the basketball world shocked. And if this is how it feels for everyone else, it's gotta be twice as confusing for Bulls fans. To help explain what's happening, on Thursday afternoon, Andrew Sharp traded e-mails with conflicted, befuddled Bulls fan Jeremy Woo. (Note: this conversation took place prior to the news that Rajon Rondo is out indefinitely with a thumb fracture.)
Andrew Sharp: Dear Woo,
On Sunday March 12, the Bulls went into Boston and put together what can only be called a nationally televised crime against basketball. They scored nine points in the first quarter. They opened the game 3–23 from the field. They finished the first half with 27 points, and they lost by 20. It was their fifth straight loss, and everyone looked miserable.
Now... they're heading back to Chicago with 1) Jimmy Butler looking like the second-best player in the East, 2) Wade looking like vintage Evil Wade in Game 2 (22 points on 9–16 shooting), 3) Rajon Rondo playing like it's 2009 and the last three years never happened, 4) Robin Lopez looking like Wilt next to Boston's front line, and 5) Paul Zipser doing Paul Zipser things.
It's a lot to process. Look at this Hoiberg quote:
Fred Hoiberg on Rajon Rondo: "He's been such a rock for us all season long."— Cody Westerlund (@CodyWesterlund) April 20, 2017
Are we in the middle of the greatest practical joke in NBA history?
Jeremy Woo: Dear Sharp,
What even are Paul Zipser things? What is that supposed to mean? I honestly do worry that we’ve slipped into a dangerous alternate timeline. My first thought was that this was some kind of karmic comeuppance for the last time the Bulls and Celtics played in the first round and Rajon Rondo shoved Kirk Hinrich, started stuff with Brad Miller, harassed rookie Derrick Rose and contributed to arguably the greatest non-Finals playoff series of all time. That and all the times Dwyane Wade devastated the Bulls while flanked by teammates like Jamario Moon.
The reality is that the least likable Bulls team I’ve ever seen has a 2–0 lead right now. Anyone who watched them this season on a semi-regular basis understands how difficult it is for the Bulls to put together consecutive, coherently positive performances. They definitely all still hate each other (except Cristiano Felicio, who’s large, cuddly-looking and almost certainly lacks a mean bone in his body). And even though they’re winning, it doesn’t feel good. The Chicago fan base has been jerked around dozens of times over the past few years, and a week ago it felt like this season just needed to end.
Now there are a bunch of excuses to 1) not make sweeping organizational changes, 2) not trade Jimmy, and 3) re-sign Rondo, and also 4) Wade could opt back into his deal. And this is all applicable whether or not they manage to win this series. So, in truth, the scariest thing about the strength of these two wins is we might get an entire unwatchable second season of this. The Bulls are True Detective.
Sharp: So that's what I was wondering... It's pretty clear that Gar Forman and John Paxson have no idea what they're doing (consider the all-in draft night bet on Doug McDermott, the mystifying Cam Payne trade, or the two years they've spent trying to trade Jimmy Butler, the player who's currently carrying this team). But if the past two years weren't enough to threaten management's job security, winning this series could buy them lifetime immunity.
Then there's Hoiberg. I like him more than most, but he's obviously struggled. Then throw in Wade. And Rondo. And (maybe?) another few years of the Nikola Mirotic experience if they decide to re-sign him this summer. Is this run worth it?
I've lived this timeline. Three years ago, the Wizards limped through the regular season with some fantastically uninspired basketball. Wall was miscast as a scorer more than distributor, Beal's development had plateaued, and Randy Wittman's offense made me want to stick my head in an oven. Then they went to the playoffs and beat... Jimmy Butler and the Bulls!
And honestly, it was so much fun that I didn't care if winning that series meant Wittman (and GM Ernie Grunfeld) were coming back forever. Wall was great, Beal turned into a monster on national TV, and Nene picked a fight with Joakim Noah in every game they played. It meant that the Wiz passed on pursuing Steve Kerr or Stan Van Gundy that summer, and structural issues would limit Washington's ceiling for the ensuing two seasons. It might have cost them a shot at Kevin Durant. And I'm still pretty sure it was worth it. Life is too short to whine about long-twos while your favorite team is dominating in the playoffs.
Of course, I didn't have to talk myself into another year of D-Wade and Rajon Rondo as honest-to-God cornerstones.
Woo: I think that’s the big question now—what’s the best case scenario here? I’ve had mixed Butler feelings for a few years, but it would be a total joke to deal Jimmy now. He’s improved every single year to this point. Pay him whatever he wants, because there’s not a better player showing up in a Bulls uniform for a very long time (unless you count Game 1 Bobby Portis).
Committing to Butler publicly and financially is step one, regardless of what happens in this series. The way he’s shouldered the offense and been able to slow down Isaiah Thomas late in games has triggered memories of LeBron preventing prime Derrick Rose from doing anything when it mattered. Jimmy is clearly not LeBron, but there aren’t many guys with skill sets like this. He's earned superstar-type respect, at least with me, if not GarPax.
Beyond that, who knows? I don’t think these two games mean Portis and Zipser should be anything more than rotational patchwork for now. The elephant in the room is that although Chicago effectively cleaned house last summer and changed the face of the team, the last several drafts have not gone particularly well. They have to start putting real stuff around Butler, who’s going to turn 28 in September. On one hand this feels like a start, but on the other hand, we all know what happens when Rondo goes back to not caring and aging Wade sees Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul teaming up somewhere in July. At least there’s nobody on the roster who’s going to command a drastic overpay and long-term deal on the open market (except...they still might overpay Mirotic).
But at some point, we have to start thinking short-term here and focus on what the Bulls are actually doing. Role players are stepping up, their older guys are feeling nostalgic, Jimmy is dominant. It's fun. And if they can somehow play this well into the next round, what type of finish are we talking about?
Sharp: Well, wait. We should probably point out that a.) Friday's game is not on TNT, and b.) if this team has any real superpower, it's the power to make everyone upset. Now that everyone's buying into the GarPax Revolution and counting out the Celtics, the Bulls definitely lose Game 3, right?
Woo: I'd be willing to bet that Boston has some juice left. They just don’t have a ton of lineup flexibility unless they bring in some extra Jonas Jerebko, go small and punt on the fact they can’t rebound. With my Brad Stevens hat on, that’s what I’d do—take the random, inexperienced Bulls big men and try to put them on their heels. The Celtics don’t have a ton of time to soul-search, but they have enough talent to make this a series. Speaking of which, do you think this whole debacle is more a case of Chicago being kind of good, or Boston just falling flat?
Sharp: That was my next question! First, to follow up on one other point: I have no idea what "Paul Zipser doing Paul Zipser things" means, but I laugh like an idiot every time he hits a jumper. Blame it on the name. It's very difficult be serious about anyone named "Zipser".
But yes, Boston. I think this series says more about Celtics weaknesses than Bulls strengths. Robin Lopez is solid, but not this valuable. And Boston's had the same weaknesses all year. On January 10th, Jonas Valanciunas had 18 points and 23 boards in 28 minutes and the Raptors beat the Celtics. Right then, that night, it should've been obvious they needed to make a move for help up front.
The Isaiah Thomas situation makes all of this more complicated. The team's depended on him to be a superhero all year long, and he's not himself, with good reason. So any Celtics "told ya so" takes feel a little bit unfair. Nobody can say how much this awful, real-life tragedy is affecting these meaningless basketball games.
What we can say: Whether Isaiah's himself or not, he hasn't had much help. Avery Bradley's been fine, but not good enough to make a difference. Jae Crowder's been flat-out bad. Marcus Smart, for the third straight year, can't shoot. Al Horford's been underwhelming, and he's the same age as Joakim Noah, in Year 1 of a deal that will pay him $130 million. This is a team that's been playing with house money for years—or Nets money, to be specific—but some of these losses are beginning to hurt.
Woo: That’s all very true, and my favorite stupid Internet thing about this Boston mini-collapse is every reminder I see that the Nets pick is averaging zero points, zero rebounds and zero assists in this series.
As for the players they actually have, I think role players’ weaknesses become more glaring in the playoffs as coaches pick apart every possible hole to try and gain an edge. Kind of like how the Rockets aren’t guarding Oklahoma City's Andre Roberson, the Bulls don’t really have to guard Smart. When he flipped off that fan, it was just one notable incident in a greater series of extremely emotional, reactionary on-court behavior by the Celtics. They’re collectively shook a little.
I never want to bash pro athletes for caring, but there have been a lot of long, scrunched-up faces wearing green jerseys this week. If Boston blows this, the incessant TV storyline is going to be whether or not Danny Ainge should have cut a deal.
Sharp: Yeah, and let's talk about the Butler/George situation. People really need to stop saying Jimmy Butler wasn't available. You can sell me on the Pacers refusing to ever talk seriously about Paul George. Indiana probably gauged the market, tried to get Boston to give up both Nets picks (too much), and that's as far as it went. Fine. But Jimmy Butler was available, and it's part of what makes this whole series fascinating.
The Bulls were toying with a Butler trade before last year's deadline, and they were trying to trade him again in June. They've been talking to the Celtics the entire time. Both Chicago and Boston have been furiously spinning since the deadline, but here's my theory based on tea leaf reading from both sides: Had the Celtics given the Bulls Jaylen Brown, Jae Crowder, and this spring's Nets pick, Jimmy Butler would be playing in Boston right now.
They didn't make the deal. If the argument against that deal is that they wouldn't have won a title regardless, that's fine. But don't pretend like this wasn't a choice. Instead of betting on building the next few years around Isaiah and Jimmy, the Celtics decided to bet on the lottery this spring and free agency this summer, and the next five years with whoever they land. Now they're paying a price for that patience—restless fans, ridicule from outsiders, etc—and it's the first time in four years that the realities of team-building apply to the Celtics.
Woo: Yeah, without getting into too much detail here, it wasn’t much of a secret at Barclays during last year’s draft that the Bulls were extremely close to dealing Jimmy and looking for young talent and a top-five selection (the widely reported rumor was that they coveted Kris Dunn, which, well, thank god that didn’t happen). This saga has dragged on and on.
If Chicago was demanding an exorbitant price from Boston at the deadline, I get it. But it’s a little cosmic that they’re exacting direct punishment in this series. If they don’t pony up by draft day, the Celtics better nail these next two Nets picks—and honestly, it wouldn’t be a terrible idea to retool on the fly a little bit. Boston won’t be in a bad position regardless of what the front office chooses. But there may be a sense that they missed a window here no matter what the draft yield brings.
Sharp: Exactly. There's at least a possibility that Ainge was playing poker and flat-out lost. Of course, if they win the lottery and Markelle Fultz is in Boston next year, standing pat and letting the Warriors dominate will look like the smarter play. We'll see it how ends.
But listen, none of that's important right now. The trade deadline was two months ago. This is Paul Zipser season.
What's your honest prediction for the rest of this series? I think I still like the Celtics to win in 7, but the Bulls have won my heart. A week ago, this was a team that could be described as truculent, aloof, old, overrated, ill-conceived—as you said, the most unlikable team in a lifetime. It would be so, so funny if they forced the world to concede that they are also GOOD. Or at least better than a Celtics team that the whole world's been praising for three years. Can they finish this?
Woo: I always hate pivoting on my pick in the middle of a series, but we’re already two thousand words into an email exchange that shouldn’t even exist, so whatever. Bulls win it in six games. Boston will take one in Chicago and rally again in Game 5, but I think it’ll be too little, too late. It looks like the Bulls actually care, and now they just have to win two out of five. It’s very doable. I won’t feel great about any of it as it happens, but we’re already staring at the wreck here.
I like all those adjectives you picked. I also keep saying "Zipser" in my head like Twista says "Twista." It’s the Chicago in me.
Sharp: That makes sense. Zipser is nothing if not an Overnight Celebrity. But you're right, we're done here. Let's close this out with a ceremonial pre-game reading of Rajon Rando's Instagram:
My vets would never go to the media. They would come to the team. My vets didn't pick and choose when they wanted to bring it. They brought it every time they stepped in the gym whether it was practice or a game. They didn't take days off. My vets didn't care about their numbers. My vets played for the team. When we lost, they wouldn't blame us. They took responsibility and got in the gym. They showed the young guys what it meant to work. Even in Boston when we had the best record in the league, if we lost a game, you could hear a pin drop on the bus. They showed us the seriousness of the game. My vets didn't have an influence on the coaching staff. They couldn't change the plan because it didn't work for them. I played under one of the greatest coaches, and he held everyone accountable. It takes 1-15 to win. When you isolate everyone, you can't win consistently. I may be a lot of things, but I'm not a bad teammate. My goal is to pass what I learned along. The young guys work. They show up. They don't deserve blame. If anything is questionable, it's the leadership.
Woo: Go Bulls?
Sharp: GO BULLS.