Belinelli leads Bulls to thrilling win

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Belinelli leads Bulls to thrilling win

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.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Will the Bulls make the postseason?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Will the Bulls make the postseason?

Ben Finfer (ESPN 1000), Brian Hedger (nhl.com) and Jason Goch (SB Nation Radio) join Kap on the panel.  The Bulls beat the Pistons in a game with huge playoff implication.  So could they actually make the postseason?

The Blackhawks are closing in one division title but what’s their biggest weakness?

Plus Theo Epstein’s a really great leader, Kyle Hendricks is going to have to wait a while to pitch plus DeShone Kizer loves the band “Chicago” but will he play here?

NBA Buzz: 2017 Draft could be the best in more than a decade

NBA Buzz: 2017 Draft could be the best in more than a decade

If you've been watching the NCAA Tournament closely, it's apparent this June's draft will include a number of elite prospects, maybe the best top 10 talent since the LeBron, Melo, Bosh, Wade draft in 2003. 

Washington didn't qualify for the tournament, but NBA scouts seem to be in agreement that Washington point guard Markelle Fultz will be the No. 1 pick. The 6-foot-4 freshman has the size and ball-handling ability to play either guard spot, and word out of Boston is Fultz will be the pick if the Celtics get the first choice in the draft lottery.

UCLA point guard Lonzo Ball put on quite a show in the Bruins' win over Cincinnati on Sunday, finishing with 19 points, nine assists and seven rebounds. The 6-foot-6 Ball reminds scouts of a young Jason Kidd, showing amazing court vision and passing skills with the size to see over the top of smaller defenders. And don't caught up in his unusual shooting form. Ball can knock down shots, hitting almost 56 percent from the field this season and 42 percent beyond the 3-point line.

The other consensus top-3 prospect is Kansas small forward Josh Jackson. The 6-foot-8 Jackson is an Andrew Wiggins clone who has amazing quickness and finishing ability. Jackson improved his draft stock with a sensational performance in the first two games of the tournament. If the Bulls decide to trade Jimmy Butler in a deal for one of the top picks this June, the rangy 20-year-old Jackson would be an ideal replacement. If he ever gets a consistent jump shot, look out. We could be talking about a 25 points per game scorer.

Since Fultz, Ball and Jackson appear to be the kind of players NBA teams build around, the Bulls could potentially negotiate with the teams holding the top 3 picks for the best possible Butler deal. Right now, the Nets (pick will be swapped with Boston), Lakers and Suns own the worst records, and if the order isn't changed by the lottery, the Bulls could obtain a quality package centered around this year's first-round pick and a quality young player from any of the three teams.

Here's a look at how the lottery selections could fall based on the draft order as of March 23.

1. CELTICS (from Brooklyn)  Markelle Fultz  PG   Washington
2. LAKERS                              Lonzo Ball        PG    UCLA
3. SUNS                                  Josh Jackson   SF    Kansas
4. MAGIC                                Jayson Tatum   SF     Duke
5. 76'ers                                  De'Aaron Fox     PG    Kentucky
6. KINGS                                  Malik Monk         SG    Kentucky
7. KNICKS                               Dennis Smith      PG   N. Carolina St.
8. TIMBERWOLVES              Lauri Markkanen  PF    Arizona
9. KINGS (from Pelicans)       Frank Ntilikina      PG    France
10. MAVS                                 Miles Bridges    SF    Michigan St.
11. HORNETS                         Jonathan Isaac   SF    Florida St.
12. BLAZERS                          Justin Jackson   SF    N. Carolina
13. PISTONS                           John Collins      PF     Wake Forest       
14. BULLS                                OG Anunoby     SG-SF   Indiana  

Alright Bulls fans, I'm sure you're asking, why would the Bulls want to draft a player coming off a serious knee injury? Well, the Bulls haven't done all that well drafting productive older players from major programs, so why not roll the dice on a 19-year-old who could develop into the next Butler?

Scouts raved about Anunoby's potential heading into his sophomore season at Indiana. At 6-foot-8, Anunoby has good positional size to play both the small forward and shooting guard spots and figures to be a plus-defender from Day 1 in the NBA. Right now, his rehab from right knee surgery and lack of a consistent jump shot are the biggest concerns, but looking at mock drafts in the 13-20 range, do the Bulls really want to take a project big man or a mystery international player? 

Even if it takes a couple years for Anunoby to reach his ultimate potential, he seems like a good choice in today's position-less NBA. Plus, in the Bulls' current position, they need to take some chances and try to get lucky in landing a future star.

Two other athletic possibilities who are projected as late 1st round picks right now are SMU junior swingman Semi Ojeleye, a 6-foot-7 bundle of energy and muscle who should be able to contribute right away, and Oklahoma St. point guard Jawun Evans, one of the fastest players in the college game who could ignite the Bulls' fast break after Rajon Rondo moves on.

AROUND THE ASSOCIATION

If the Bulls are going to make a late season run to the playoffs, they'll have to find a way to pass two of the league's hottest teams. Milwaukee has won eight of its last 10 games to pull into a 6th place tie with the Pacers, while Miami has been one of the league's biggest surprises over the last two months, going from an 11-30 record on January 13 to 35-36, and a game and a half lead over the Bulls and Pistons for the final playoff spot.

Both late surges are surprising, especially the job Erik Spoelstra has done in Miami. After the controversial departure of Dwyane Wade, Pat Riley decided to hedge his bets for the future and signed a number of journeyman veteran types like Dion Waiters, Wayne Ellington, James Johnson, Derrick Williams and Willie Reed to short-term contracts.

Williams was released and signed on with Cleveland, but Spoelstra and his staff have done a masterful job in piecing together a roster with a lot of duplication into a consistent winning team. Hassan Whiteside has continued to improve, averaging 17 points and 14 rebounds, while the guard rotation of Waiters, Goran Dragic, Ellington and Tyler Johnson has been especially effective.

Bulls fans will remember James Johnson as a guy who arrived from Wake Forest with a lot of potential, but went on to bounce around the league with little success. Now that he's finally in optimal physical shape, Johnson is averaging 12 points, 5 rebounds and 3.5 assists off the bench while doing a strong job on the defensive end.

Spoelstra probably won't win the Coach of the Year award, but it might be his best job yet after losing Wade and Chris Bosh, then seeing promising second-year forward Justise Winslow go out with a season-ending shoulder injury.

It's been a different story in Milwaukee, where the Bucks got off to a fast start behind the amazing rise of Giannis Antetokounmpo to All-Star status. A mid-season slump dropped the Bucks out of the top 8 in the East, and when Chicago native Jabari Parker suffered another devastating ACL injury, it appeared Milwaukee was heading towards another trip to the lottery.

But Bucks' coach Jason Kidd got Khris Middleton back from a hamstring injury, and inserted rookies Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon into the starting lineup. All of a sudden, the Bucks took off with Antetokounmpo getting back to his early season production, and the bench unit of Greg Monroe, John Henson, Michael Beasley, Mirza Teletovic, Matthew Dellavedova and Jason Terry becoming a real strength.

It's unlikely either Milwaukee or Miami will be a threat to Cleveland and Boston in the opening round of the playoffs, but the hard work and persistence of those coaching staffs should not be overlooked.

STAT OF THE WEEK

Yet another example of the Bulls' maddening inconsistency under Fred Hoiberg over the last 2 seasons is the number of impressive wins offset by blowout losses.

These numbers courtesy of CSN's stats cruncher, Chris Kamka.

Bulls 20+ point wins and 20+ point losses

(with Fred Hoiberg as Head Coach)

                 20+ point wins             20+ point losses

2016-17              6                           7
2015-16              3                           7

total                      9                          14
========================================
(With Tom Thibodeau as Head Coach)

2014-15              7                           1
2013-14              7                           4
2012-13              5                           5
2011-12             14                          0
2010-11              8                          1

total                     41                         11

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

I'm pretty sure Hoiberg was being sarcastic when asked early in the week if battling for one of the final playoff spots in the East is "fun".

The coach's response? "It's miserable." 

Hoiberg won't get a lot of argument from Bulls fans who see their team stuck in the middle among the 30 NBA franchises right now. That's the worst place to be in professional sports, with no hope of contending for championships and little chance of getting a franchise-changing talent in the draft.