Their frustration about the quick whistles was manifested in technical fouls, but that didn’t deter the Bulls (13-18), losers of six out of the previous seven home games heading into Thursday night’s clash with the Celtics (13-19), from the task at hand in a 94-82 victory.
In the early going, the Bulls looked like a much better offensive unit than they’ve proved to be as of late, getting balanced scoring and jumping out to a slim edge in the opening period behind the interior play of power forward Carlos Boozer (16 points, seven rebounds). The Celtics, however, were of a similar mindset and stayed within close contact, eventually making it a back-and-forth affair, with scoring guard Jordan Crawford (22 points, seven assists) — the fill-in replacement for injured All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo — serving as a catalyst.
Later in the frame, the Bulls got a boost off the bench from top reserve Taj Gibson (12 points, five rebounds) and after a quarter of play, held a 24-21 advantage.
Led by backup power forward Kris Humphries, Boston went on an 8-0 run to start the second quarter, leading to a timeout to halt the proceedings and giving Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau the chance to make adjustments. Whatever strategic changes were made didn’t immediately take — second-year big man Jared Sullinger (11 points, 11 rebounds) was having his way inside — as Thibodeau’s frustrations led to him being hit with a technical foul shortly thereafter.
Whether not the coach was utilizing the infraction as a motivational tactic or not, his team responded, as the Bulls quickly erased the deficit that had been built, courtesy of an 8-2 spurt that featured solid play from Gibson and fellow reserve D.J. Augustin, the playmaking backup point guard. The All-Star duo of center Joakim Noah (17 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists) and small forward Luol Deng (14 points) also made positive contributions — both gave strong all-around first-half performances, but the former’s six first-half assists were particularly remarkable, given the position he plays—helping the Bulls not only regain the lead, but obtain some breathing room.
With Boozer staying hot from the floor — and picking up a technical foul after going to the bench, following his third foul late in the period — the Bulls went into the intermission clinging to a 48-45 edge in the choppy, stop-and-start affair.
After the break, Deng became the Bulls’ focal point offensively, though Noah’s high activity level quickly stole the show. The charismatic center’s presence in the paint and uncanny passing ability allowed the Bulls to maintain their slight cushion, though they were unable to extend their winning margin — and were subsequently frustrated by that fact, as evidenced by reserve sharpshooter Mike Dunleavy Jr. (11 points, two blocked shots) picking up an uncharacteristic technical foul — and heading into the final stanza, the lead remained steady at 70-62, on a Dunleavy follow-up shot with 0.3 left before the third-quarter buzzer sounded.
Dunleavy’s hot hand carried over to the fourth quarter, as he helped the Bulls mount a double-digit advantage, courtesy of a 7-0 run to start the period. A Boston timeout couldn’t immediately quell the Bulls’ momentum, with Noah’s energetic play leading the way, but the Celtics didn’t go down without a fight, evidenced by Sullinger delivering a hard foul on an airborne Gibson, who managed to finish the layup, despite the ensuing hard spill to the floor, drawing the concern of Thibodeau.
But as the game entered its stretch run, perhaps the only question was whether or not Noah would notch his fourth career triple-double, something he was unable to achieve. In fact, Boston was able to trim the final margin of defeat because of the Bulls’ pressing to reach the feat, though it didn’t affect the result either way.
A Butler corner three-point attempt off a Noah dish on the Bulls’ final possession would rim out, but if asked whether a win or a meaningless milestone was preferred, the answer would clearly be the former.