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Outlook for Celtics better, but still not great

NBA column by Matt Burke
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Isaiah Thomas and the Celtics will look to go up 3-2 on the Bulls Wednesday night at TD Garden. Getty Images

The Cleveland Cavaliers just accomplished what a true top seed does in the first round of the NBA Playoffs by dismantling the Indiana Pacers in four games.

For many reasons, the Celtics just can’t figure out this first round thing.

Even dating back to the Garnett – Pierce era, the Celtics have had a tricky time in Round 1. The year they won the title, the Atlanta Hawks (featuring rookie Al Horford) took them to seven games. The next year, in 2009, the Chicago Bulls also took the Celtics to seven games.

It’s now an entirely different era (though it’s kind of odd that two different first round draft picks of the Celtics from the mid-2000s – Gerald Green and Rajon Rondo - are the leaders on their respective teams in this series). But this series too looks like it’s going seven games.

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The Celtics were bailed out in Games 3 and 4 with Rondo on the bench with a broken right thumb. Chicago registered just 14 assists in Game 3, which is hard to do. Rondo had 14 assists by himself in the Bulls’ Game 2 win at the Garden. In Sunday’s Game 4, the Bulls did a little better job of moving the ball as they had 19 assists as a team. Jimmy Butler led Chicago in Game 4 dimes with nine, and still scored 33 points, but you gotta figure the Celtics will keep him in check a little better on Wednesday night.

A Rondo comeback in this series is the only way the Bulls can hand the Celtics a first round playoff exit for the third straight year, and fortunately for Chicago – there are whispers that that may be possible. The Vertical’s Chris Mannix, who is tied into the league and the Celtics’ old guard pretty well, tweeted this on Monday: “Prediction: Rajon Rondo plays in Game 5.”

This series has been tough to figure out for sure, with the road team winning every game so far, but expect some normalcy the rest of the way. In other words, I think the Celtics live to see Round 2.

The next issue, of course, is that all four of the teams the C’s could see in the semi-finals (Bucks, Raptors, Wizards, Hawks) are playing much better basketball than Boston right now. That could change based on how the Celtics look Wednesday, Friday and possibly Sunday – but as of right now I would pick any of those teams over the C’s in seven games.

Games 2 and 3 in this Bulls series were washes – as both were blowouts. The signature games in this series so far are Game 1 (won by Chicago in Boston, 104-95) and Game 4 (won by the Celtics, 106-102). Isaiah Thomas scored 33 points in both of those games and got to the line at least 12 times in each contest.

What’s going to happen, though, when the Celtics run into a team with better defensive guards? The Milwaukee – Toronto series is a defensive slugfest right now, with the Bucks holding the Raptors to 88.3 points per game and the Raptors holding the Bucks to 94.3 points per game (ranked 1-2 in team defense this postseason).

The Celtics need to find someone other than Isaiah who can pump in 20-plus points on a given night, because there are going to be games ahead in which the opposing team solves Isaiah.

Having won these last two games, the Celtics have some time to figure it out. But not too much time.

 
 
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