Chicago Bulls

Bulls are halfway to history after taking an unlikely 2-0 series lead on Celtics

Bulls are halfway to history after taking an unlikely 2-0 series lead on Celtics

The stunned silence of the Garden was only matched by cheers of a team that seems to be growing with every big game, a team unfazed by being the eighth seed.

Because this eighth seed is halfway to making history after another victory over the Boston Celtics at TD Garden Tuesday night, outmuscling and outhustling them on the way to a 111-97 win.

The series is now 2-0 in favor of the Bulls with two games in Chicago this weekend, and if the Bulls have their way, it’ll be the last time they see green T-shirts, the last time they see the 17 championship banners and countless retired numbers in the rafters this season.

For all the Celtics’ history, it can’t help them against the Bulls, and the Bulls have stood toe-to-toe with the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference. In fact, it was a member of Celtics’ past wearing a black Bulls jersey, aggressively stalking, swaggering and absorbing boos like after-school candy.

It also helps that the Bulls are bigger than the Celtics, tougher than their opponents and now, possesses a confidence that swallows any adjustment the Celtics can make with their personnel.

The Bulls have shut off their scoring valves, holding Isaiah Thomas to just 20 points and no other Celtic seems up for the challenge, as they shot 30 percent from three and 46 percent overall, but they trailed for double figures for most of the night.

Rajon Rondo played like a man possessed, intent on putting a stake into the hearts of a team he never wanted to leave. Grabbing defensive rebounds to lead the fast break, smacking loose balls away, he contributed to the chaos as the Bulls took a 25-15 lead and never looked back.

“One thing we know about our point guard is he likes everybody to go,” Dwyane Wade said of Rondo. “He had nine rebounds and when he gets the ball, he’s like, ‘Go, go.’

“We need easy baskets. This is a great defensive team. If we see their halfcourt set up every play, it’s going to be hard to score. So our mentality is try to get out and get some easy ones and put some pressure on them.”

A frenetic pace was just the way he liked it, controlling it enough early to withstand a Celtics storm and then being able to cede space to Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade to close the night and send the Celtics faithful to the exits with a little over four minutes left.

Butler scored 13 of his 22 points in the second half, while Wade scored 16 of his 22 after the half, including hitting all three of his 3-pointers in the face of decent defense.

“Rajon, I thought, did a terrific job once we got the ball off the glass,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “When we inserted him back into the starting lineup, how key he’s been to our recent successes. He’s a confident kid and that rubs off on all the other guys.”

Rondo was too fast, too smart, too manipulative with his eyes, like the time he set up Butler for a transition triple in the third quarter. Or the time he put the coup de gras on the night, an alley-oop feed to Cristiano Felicio with 6:01 left to give the Bulls a 102-86 lead, capping off his night where he scored 11 points with 14 assists, nine rebounds and five steals.

“Playoff Rondo”, the guy who put up games where he suddenly turned into a 3-point marksman and triple-double machine, certainly looks to be real this time around, as he’s averaging 11 points, 10 assists and 8.5 rebounds in the first two games this series.

“I don’t know what it is,” Rondo said. “I try to lock in and do what I can for my team. I wouldn’t be in this position unless my teammates did what those guys did last game---Bobby Portis made some big plays, (Jerian) Grant made big plays. Fred Hoiberg is doing a helluva job of putting us in the right situations to get some wins.”

Rondo was the whirling dervish while Robin Lopez provided the strength inside, grabbing offensive rebounds like Pac-Man, swallowing them with his awkward approach, keeping Al Horford from even pinching the ball,

And when the Celtics doubled Butler and Wade on pick-and-pops, Lopez popped jumper after jumper on his way to 18 points and eight rebounds. And if the Celtics didn’t prepare for Portis’ emergence, they certainly weren’t on the lookout for Paul Zipser, who scored 16 on six of eight shooting.

“I got to give our role players a lot of credit tonight,” Hoiberg said. “Zipser was huge for us. Cris made some huge plays on the defensive end. Then in the end it was good to see Dwyane get it going a little bit and obviously Jimmy is going to have the ball in his hands a lot in the 4th quarter.”

The Bulls led 89-75 in the opening minute of the fourth, their biggest lead of the game, when Butler found Felicio for a layup off a double team. Butler again did his part in helping hound Thomas, who will depart to Seattle after Tuesday’s game to be with his family following the unexpected death of his sister last weekend.

Thomas scored 20 but couldn’t weave his way around Butler, Rondo and Wade.

“Isaiah is a crafty guy and I just wanted to go out and play as hard as I could,” Rondo said. “I tried to stay aggressive last game, but I got myself into some foul trouble.”

Butler and Wade weren’t even necessary, not in the way of giving superhuman efforts because the Bulls’ offense ran to perfection as they shot 51 percent from the field and again controlled the offensive glass.

The Bulls scored 44 points in the paint and had 14 second-chance points off 11 offensive rebounds, but considering they shot so well, they didn’t need a high number.

They just needed to win, and they’ve instilled more than a little doubt in the Celtics’ mind.

And now, the Bulls hope they’ve said goodbye to the TD Garden this season, with the unlikely possibility of closing the series out at the United Center.

If the Bulls buy out Dwyane Wade, the Heat seem like they'd welcome him back

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USA TODAY

If the Bulls buy out Dwyane Wade, the Heat seem like they'd welcome him back

The Bulls are in complete rebuild mode, and that means they have little use for 35-year-old Dwyane Wade.

ESPN's Nick Friedell reported last week that it's a matter of when - not if - the Bulls will buy out Wade. The future Hall of Famer is due $24 million this upcoming season, but how much Wade receives in a potential buyout could hold things up in the short-term.

The question then becomes: where would Wade land after he passes through waivers and becomes a free agent?

A potential destination is joining good friend LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. But Wade could also consider going back to the Miami Heat, where he spent the first 13 years of his NBA career.

And if he did, budding star Hassan Whiteside says the team would welcome back Wade with open arms.

"It'd be great," Whiteside told the Sun Sentinel. "It's a three-time NBA champion coming back, coming in and really helping a team out. It would be great."

Stay tuned, but it seems like a Wade-to-Miami reunion is a real possibility.

State of the Bulls: Stacked 2018 draft class

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USA TODAY

State of the Bulls: Stacked 2018 draft class

2018 draft class is loaded at the top

Quietly, you can bet Bulls' front office executives John Paxson and Gar Forman had a little celebration after hearing that prep star Marvin Bagley III was going to graduate from high school early and enroll at Duke for the 2017-18 season, making him eligible for the 2018 draft.

Bagley, a 6'11 power forward from Los Angeles, is being compared to longtime NBA star Chris Bosh, right down to his smooth left-handed shooting touch. Bagley averaged 24.6 points, 10.1 rebounds and two blocked shots during his junior season for Sierra Canyon H.S. He's also fared well against NBA competition at the highly-regarded Drew League in L.A. this summer. Bagley’s physical tools are off the charts, and you can count on Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski preparing him well for life in the NBA.

Most NBA scouts and execs expect the No. 1 overall pick to come down to either Bagley or Michael Porter Jr., who will play his one season of college basketball at Missouri. The 6'10 Porter averaged an amazing 34.8 points and 13.8 rebounds last season against Seattle high school competition. He's considered a more dynamic scorer than Bagley with more range on his jump shot. Some scouts believe he could quickly develop into one of the league's elite players with Kevin Durant-type length and shooting ability at the small forward position.

International swingman Luka Doncic is also highly coveted by NBA teams. The 6'8 swingman has excellent shooting range, and is also capable of creating his own shot with outstanding ball-handling ability. Forget the stereotype of European players being mechanical and unable to compete athletically, Doncic is capable of being an 18-20 point scorer in the NBA and should go in the top five next June. He's considered one of the best international prospects in the last decade.

Two 7-footers also will hear their names called early on draft night 2018. University of Arizona freshman DeAndre Ayton averaged 19.8 points and 12 rebounds in high school last season, while Texas freshman center Mohamed Bomba has an incredible 7-foot-9 wingspan. Sure, the NBA has moved away from the traditional low post center, but teams are still looking to acquire agile big men like Karl-Anthony Towns, Joel Embiid, DeAndre Jordan, Rudy Gobert and Hassan Whiteside. Depending on how they fare against top level college competition, Ayton and Bomba could round out the top five.

Other names to watch in the lottery portion of next year's draft include Texas A&M power forward Robert Williams, Michigan State's forward duo of Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr., and the latest one-and-dones from John Calipari's Kentucky program, center Nick Richards and small forward Jarred Vanderbilt.

In case you missed it, ESPN released its preseason win total expectations for the Eastern Conference on Wednesday, and the Bulls were dead last with a projected record of 26-56. Now, I'm not sure a team with veterans Dwyane Wade and Robin Lopez and the three young players acquired in the Jimmy Butler trade with Minnesota will be quite that bad, but if you're going to rebuild, the idea is to get the best draft pick possible, and the Bulls appear to be on course for a top-five selection depending on how the lottery falls.

If the Bulls are able to land an elite talent like Porter Jr., Bagley III or Doncic in the draft, then use their $40-50 million in cap space to land a couple of quality free agents, the rebuild might not be as painful as some fans are fearing.

Last dance for LeBron in Cleveland?

Well-connected NBA writer Chris Sheridan dropped this bomb on Twitter Wednesday, quoting an NBA source, "This will be LeBron's final season in Cleveland. He is 100 percent leaving. Relationship with owners beyond repair." Don’t forget, Sheridan was the first national writer to report James was going to leave Miami to go back to Cleveland in 2014, so his reports definitely warrant a little extra attention.

Okay, we've already heard countless rumors about James planning to join the Lakers after next season. He's built a mansion in Brentwood, is close with Magic Johnson and will be able to bring another superstar with him to L.A. like Paul George or Russell Westbrook. Plus, the Lakers have a number of talented young players in place like Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. and a promising coach in Luke Walton.

Add in the likelihood Kyrie Irving will be traded before training camp opens and LeBron's long-standing poor relationship with Cavs' owner Dan Gilbert, and you have the perfect formula for another James' free agent decision next July. Although, I'm not sure why LeBron would want to go West, where Golden State is positioned to dominate the league for another five seasons, with strong challengers like the Rockets and Spurs still in place. 

But if we've learned anything from watching James over the years, he's clearly a man who wants to align the odds in his favor. So don't rule out anything when it comes to James' free agent decision. If the Cavs make a home run trade for Irving, maybe LeBron decided to plays out his career in his home state. If not, look for him to find a team with the cap space to bring in another top star to run with him.

Back in 2010, the Bulls carved out the cap space to add two max contract stars, but lost out to Pat Riley in Miami. This time around they won't be on James' July travel itinerary.

One thing we know for sure. Where LeBron plays in 2018 will be the number one story throughout the NBA season.