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.