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Butler, Bulls tough test for Celtics in East first round

By Matt Youmans  (VSiN senior editor) 

April 15, 2017 02:32 AM
Bulls forward Jimmy Butler averaged 27.3 points, 6.1 rebounds and 6.8 assists in the final 10 games.
© USA Today Sports Images

Sometimes, the best trades are the ones never made. For no apparent reason, the Chicago Bulls seriously listened to offers for Jimmy Butler at the trade deadline two months ago.

Ultimately, common sense prevailed, and Butler stayed and made the Bulls a playoff team. He’s their franchise player, their future. Why even consider dealing him?

Or why did the Boston Celtics not deal for him?

The Celtics’ puzzling decision to stand still at the deadline, when Butler and Indiana star Paul George were available, could come back to haunt them in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Boston stuck with its pile of draft picks and earned the No. 1 seed, so the gamble paid off in a sense. Still, it’s a team that’s missing something.

“Boston still lacks that superstar player,” said Erin Rynning, a handicapper and professional bettor.

Isaiah Thomas finished as the NBA’s No. 3 scorer, averaging 28.9 points, but he’s a 5-foot-9 point guard who rates as a defensive liability. The Celtics’ ceiling is considerably lower — and a championship seems highly unlikely — without a star such as Butler or George running alongside Thomas.

Butler is one of the league’s elite two-way players. He goes to work on both ends of the floor, similar to Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James. Boston will get an up-close look at Butler in the first round of the postseason.

The Celtics are minus-500 favorites against the Bulls (plus-400) in a best-of-7 series that begins Sunday. Butler is the main reason it’s a shorter-priced series than the typical 1-8 matchup. Boston is a 7½-point favorite in Game 1.

“The Bulls have the best player on the court,” Rynning said. “Down the stretch, Butler was as good as anybody in the NBA.”

Butler, a 6-7 forward, averaged 27.3 points, 6.1 rebounds and 6.8 assists in the final 10 games. Chicago (41-41) is a mediocre team in need of putting better pieces around Butler next season, but for now, he and Dwyane Wade will give the Celtics their best shot.

“Butler is one of the top 10 or 15 players in the league,” Sunset Station sports book director Chuck Esposito said. “I think the Bulls can win one or two games in that series, but the Celtics will prevail.”

Boston has a deeper, more well-rounded team, and Brad Stevens will make sharper coaching adjustments during the series. Chicago is the second-worst 3-point shooting team (.340) in the playoff field. For those reasons, expect the Celtics to advance in six.

The East could feature several close, entertaining matchups in the first round, but it’s tough to forecast any shockers.

“I don’t think we see any upsets in the first round,” said Doug Kezirian, ESPN SportsCenter anchor. “I think it’s going to be an uneventful postseason.”

A look at the rest of the East:

(2) Cleveland (-1,400) vs. (7) Indiana (plus-800)

The defending champion Cavaliers are minus-225 favorites to win the East, with the Celtics at plus-450. James is rested for the playoffs, and his supporting cast is mostly healthy, assuming center Tristan Thompson can play through pain with a sprained right thumb. Cleveland obviously has the talent to return to the NBA Finals for the third year in a row, but it’s also a team that posted a 12-15 record after the All-Star break.

If the Cavaliers implode at some point in the playoffs, don’t be surprised. There are signs of dysfunction. But it’s not going to happen in this round. James is 44-7 in his career in first-round games. George will have his moments, and the Pacers might win a game or two, but that’s it.

Cleveland is an 8½-point favorite in Saturday’s opener. Kezirian anticipates the Cavaliers will make an early statement to quiet their critics.

“The Pacers have no chance. I don’t think they are very good or well coached at all,” Kezirian said. “I think the Cavs will come out and dominate the Pacers in the first quarter and first half in Game 1.”

(3) Toronto (-400) vs. (6) Milwaukee (plus-330)

Numerous analysts foresee the Raptors pushing the Cavaliers to the brink in the second round. First, though, they need to handle “The Greek Freak.” Giannis Antetokounmpo is a 6-11 forward with guard skills and an incredible arsenal of dunks. He could be must-see TV, but the Bucks are probably too young and shorthanded to take the series.

Toronto has been through the growing pains required to make the leap toward the top in the NBA. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are elite guards, and they got the frontcourt help needed in a trade for power forward Serge Ibaka. Rynning said he bet the Raptors at 8-1 odds to win the East, and there is value in that wager.

(4) Washington (-220) vs. (5) Atlanta (plus-190)

The Wizards are favored to advance for two reasons — John Wall and Bradley Beal, who each averaged 23.1 points. Wall just had his best season at the point. The Hawks can be a tough matchup because of big men Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard, but Washington’s guard play is probably too good.

Rynning said the Wizards are “worth a bet” as 5-point favorites in Sunday’s opener. Keep this fact in mind this weekend: Teams that win Game 1 of a best-of-7 series go on to win the series 77 percent of the time.

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