Bulls back in Boston, ready to renew Celtics rivalry

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Bulls back in Boston, ready to renew Celtics rivalry

BOSTON Its only fitting that Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, a native of nearby Connecticut, spent his 55th birthday Thursday in Boston, a place where, from his days as a college assistant at Harvard to winning an NBA championship with the Celtics, hes experienced many pivotal moments during his long career.

Friday, however, its back to business, as Thibodeaus Bulls, after an off day following Wednesdays overtime win in Toronto, will take on the Celtics, his former employer.

Although Boston is coming off a disappointing loss to a hapless Hornets team featuring rookie guard Austin Rivers, the son of Celtics head coach Doc Rivers, in their first meeting between father and son the Celtics were coming off a six-game winning streak before that defeat. In the 2013 calendar year, the Bulls and Celtics, buoyed by the Jan. 2 return of defensive specialist Avery Bradley from injury in their first game of the new year, have identical 6-2 records.

Theyve been playing good lately. I havent seen them play, but Ive seen a couple of stat lines. Scoring a lot more points at home. I think getting guard Avery Bradley back has kind of infused them a little bit. Theyre playing with a lot more energy, a lot more up-tempo. Him and Rondo in the backcourt can D up and be a little bit of a nuisance, so weve got to be ready for them, Carlos Boozer observed. Theyre a very good team. They still have great championship tendencies. They do everything the right way. They play tough D, they try to rebound, they pass the ball. Theyre a very good basketball team, so they pose a big challenge for us. We look forward to playing them.

For teammate Joakim Noah, playing in Boston also has a special meaning, as his coming-out party as an NBA player occurred in the playoffs during his second season, when the Bulls and Celtics staged an epic, seven-game first-round battle, with Thibodeau on the opposing sidelines for the then-defending champions.

Its always fun, a great place to play basketball. They have tough fans and its a great basketball environment, especially with the history we have with them, with the series from four, five years ago? Thats five years ago? Expletive, Im getting old, Noah said. That series was special. Even though we lost, it was my first playoff series and just playing in those overtimes, those hostile environments, playing in games like that are the games that hopefully I can show my grandkids. Even though we lost, I love those games because I feel like they gave me a shot, they gave me confidence to take my game to another level.

Doug McDermott's return boosts Bulls' bench

Doug McDermott's return boosts Bulls' bench

Doug McDermott wasn’t exactly hunting for his first shot, but the first time he touched the ball in an NBA game in nearly a month wasn’t the optimal situation for him to let one fly.

It wasn’t in transition where he runs to an opening behind the 3-point line, nor was it a drive-and-kick situation where the help defense collapsed and left him open. It was a regular, simple, pass to the perimeter and McDermott’s defender was in reasonable proximity with 3:23 left in the first quarter.

He launched and the crowd soon roared its approval as his sweet jumper was sorely missed by the Bulls bench brigade—and moments later when he ran the floor for a fearless layup that caused Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to call a timeout, McDermott showed he missed the United Center crowd too, calling for more noise on his way to the bench.

“Anytime you have a guy like Doug, he comes back and makes his first 3, that’s hard to do,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He stepped up with confidence on that first shot. I’m sure he had a lot of nerves getting back out there.”

Missing 12 games and suffering two concussions, McDermott looked right at home in 25 minutes of run Thursday as the Bulls were able to rely on their reserves in some form in their 95-91 win over the previously perfect road warriors known as the Spurs.

“We defended and kept them off the foul line,” McDermott said. “Coach (Jim) Boylen was with them, so we feel we know them and I think all this time they were missing my defense.”

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The last statement was certainly tongue-in-cheek, but the Bulls’ bench production was certainly missing in action while he was out with the concussion protocol. So much so that his return prompted the Bulls’ coaching staff to call out the reserves in the morning shootaround, demanding more.

“It’s definitely Dwyane (Wade) and Jimmy (Butler) and (Rajon) Rondo (but) the coaching staff kinda called out our bench like, we gotta have you tonight, bench,” McDermott said. “We took that to heart, we were really locked in.”

Seemingly his presence aided the Bulls’ spirits and production, as the Bulls’ bench had the least effective scoring bench in the NBA since Nov. 13, the day after McDermott hit the unforgiving floor against the Wizards for his second concussion this season.

Their net rating ranks ahead of only the Wizards, Mavericks and Nets, who are a combined 17-45 this season. Their effective field goal percentage, which takes into account 3-pointers, is worst in the league in that span (42.3 percent).

When McDermott was healthy for that smaller sample size, the Bulls’ bench ranked fifth in offensive efficiency, seventh in net rating, and fifth in efficient field goal percentage. Whether McDermott – and his absence – was directly related to those numbers, it’s clear the Bulls are better when they have their best reserve – and only true floor spacers on the second unit – on the court.

“We’re all professionals and we want to help the guys who are busting their butts in the first unit to get us the leads,” McDermott said. “Tonight we did a great job of sustaining it. We take it personal when teams come back on us.”

[MORE: Pau Gasol relishes consistency with Spurs he couldn't find with Bulls]

Nikola Mirotic was four of eight from the field, and Cristiano Felicio seems to be back in Fred Hoiberg’s good graces as he’s carved out a rotation spot for himself with nine points and seven rebounds in 18 minutes.

It seems as if Hoiberg will stick with this rotation of players, at least for a little while until Michael Carter-Williams returns from his injuries. If McDermott is the mark of the Bulls’ bench going from bottom feeder to adequate, it should show this month.

“When he’s out there on the floor and we get him coming off screens, it forces the defense to shift as another person they need to be aware of,” Hoiberg said. “It opens up driving lanes for our guys. It was great to have Doug back with us.”

Morning Update: Bulls beat Spurs in Pau Gasol's return to Chicago

Morning Update: Bulls beat Spurs in Pau Gasol's return to Chicago

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