BOSTON-As with seemingly every matchup between these two teams in recent memory, Friday evening's matchup between the Bulls (23-15) and Celtics (20-19) was a physical, nip-and-tuck and dramatic affair almost all the way through.
In a game that saw Luol Deng go down with an injury in the third quarter, three players foul out and the Bulls permit the Celtics send the contest into an extra session after leading from nearly wire to wire, backup shooting guard Marco Belinelli was the unlikely hero, as he hit an off-balance jumper with 3.1 seconds left in overtime to give the visitors a 100-99 victory at the TD BankNorth Garden, a day after New England native and former Boston assistant Tom Thibodeau's 55th birthday.
Carlos Boozer's (19 points, 20 rebounds) remarkable play during the month of January carried over, as the power forward, coming off his best point total in a Bulls uniform during the team's previous outing, Wednesday night's overtime win in Toronto, was effective on the interior as a scorer and rebounder, knocking down his first four shot attempts from the field.
Fellow veteran Rip Hamilton (20 points) also got off to a solid start, helping the Bulls acquire some early breathing room, though the Celtics narrowed the gap, cutting the deficit from double digits to a more manageable margin, mostly due to the visitors' ball-security issues.
Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo (30 points), named an Eastern Conference All-Star starter Thursday evening, was the main catalyst for the hosts, who went on a 10-2 run to make the contest a close-knit affair as the opening period waned on.
Propelled by Joakim Noah (14 points, 13 rebounds), the Bulls regained their composure late in the frame, however, and despite committing eight turnovers-Boston had six miscues of its own-they held a 23-19 advantage through a quarter of play.
The guests held on to their tenuous lead early in the second quarter, though the Celtics remained on their heels into what had evolved into a defensive-minded contest, as offense was hard to come by.
But the Bulls stayed afloat, as the contributions of Boozer and various second-unit players, such as ex-Celtics point guard Nate Robinson (11 points)-Noah and Deng, after playing the entire first quarter and beginning of the second, both rested; the latter was a game-time decision after injuring his right hamstring Wednesday-were enough to keep Boston at bay for the time being.
That changed, though, as the rebounding of rookie Jared Sullinger (15 rebounds) and more significantly, Rondo's playmaking and ability to get into the paint or transition for layups, as well as keep the defense honest with his willingness to take his much-improved mid-range jumper, allowed the Celtics to again decrease the separation between the two teams.
At the intermission, the Bulls still managed to cling to a 45-39 lead, behind Boozer's continued play and the timely efforts of Robinson, whose fearless, aggressive nature, despite questionable shot selection, was a boon for the visitors.
After the break, Boston's backcourt of Rondo and Leandro Barbosa-starting in place of injured starter Avery Bradley-led the way for the hosts, who were countered by the Bulls' offensive balance, starting with Hamilton and Boozer.
Besides Rondo, Brandon Bass was also effective for the Celtics, as the starting power forward's mid-range game and ability to finish above the rim were another reason why the game remained tight.
Noah made his presence felt with quietly solid interior play, including stifling defense on Boston counterpart Kevin Garnett (16 points), an All-Star starter, as well as his typical effort on the glass, as both the Bulls center and Boozer, his low-post partner, notched double-doubles.
Hamilton , who exceeded his usual minute limitations, shouldered much of the offensive load as the third quarter waned on, but hings took a turn for the worse for the visitors when Deng had to exit the contest-the small forward, who was largely dormant throughout the night, strained his right hamstring upon pulling up lame on a transition layup attempt with 1:56 to go in the period-but they managed to head into the final stanza ahead, 68-62.
Without Deng in the lineup, the Bulls relied on Robinson to manufacture offense and the Celtics, buoyed by Rondo and Sullinger, who was a force on the boards, continued to challenge their guests.
Boston gradually made their push and at the 7:03 mark of the period, the game was tied at 74 apiece on a Rondo layup, prompting the contest to go into back-and-forth mode for the next few minutes, before Rondo, who reached a season-high point total on the evening, gave the Celtics their first lead of the night, 80-79, on a free throw.
Heading into the stretch run, the tension in the game was thick-symbolized by Noah and Garnett, two players with no love lost, getting tangled up and being whistled for double technical fouls with 2:20 remaining-as neither team would give an inch and scoring was hard to come by.
With 36.6 seconds left, Rondo knocked down an open pull-up jumper to give the Celtics an 86-84 lead, prompting a Bulls timeout, after which Boozer was fouled on a drive with 22.5 seconds to go, splitting a pair of attempts from the charity stripe to make it a one-point game.
Following a Boston timeout, Garnett was fouled with 20.1 seconds on the clock; Kirk Hinrich was fouled on the subsequent trip and also made one of two foul shots, putting the Bulls in an 88-86 hole with 12.1 seconds remaining and no timeouts, though the Celtics called one at that point, giving the visitors a chance to strategize.
Remarkably, with 9.4 seconds left, Noah tied up Paul Pierce (13 points) after Boston inbounded the ball and after the Bulls secured the jump ball, Hinrich knocked down a jumper with two seconds to go, tying the game at 88 all.
The Celtics had a final opportunity, but Garnett's deep fadeaway was off the mark, leading the game to head into an extra session, the Bulls' second in as many games.
As one might expect, overtime didn't start out as a scoring bonanza and with both teams initially struggling to produce points in the tightly-officiated contest, the importance of every basket was magnified.
For the Bulls, an unexpected source of offense, Jimmy Butler, who replaced Deng after the starter's injury, scored six consecutive points, including two crucial finishes at the rim and then, a pair of free throws-the second-year wing tripped by Rondo, who was disqualified on a loose-ball foul-to give the Bulls a three-point lead, 96-93, with 1:16 remaining.
But a Garnett jumper with 1:08 to play made it a one-point contest again, prompting a Bulls timeout on the subsequent possession, with 59.6 seconds left.
On the next two trips, the teams exchanged player disqualifications-Sullinger and Hinrich both fouled out, with reserve Belinelli and Pierce going to the line-and free throws and after a fruitless Bulls possession that saw Belinelli threw up a wild attempt, the Celtics came away with the rebound, called timeout and with 20.6 seconds to go, had another opportunity to overtake their guests.
Boston sixth man Jason Terry knocked down a mid-range jumper with 12.5 seconds remaining, giving the hosts a 99-98 lead and after a Bulls timeout, the visitors had a dishelveled possession, ultimately resulting in an improbable Belinelli game-winning fadeaway.
The Celtics' Courtney Lee got off a final attempt, but it harmlessly grazed off the backboard, allowing the Bulls to escape with a victory and in a silenced arena, Belinelli, the night's hero, being mobbed by his teammates at midcourt.