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.

After fighting through unspeakable adversity, Celtics 'enjoying the moment' with new perspective

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USA TODAY

After fighting through unspeakable adversity, Celtics 'enjoying the moment' with new perspective

Championship moments rarely occur in the first round. With a playoff format that drags the postseason out for more than two months, with playoff series taking as long as two weeks, the second season feels like just that. It’s far too early to say what exactly Friday night in Chicago will mean for the top-seeded Celtics, but a sense of a team coming together under unfathomable circumstances may prove to be the turning point in a season that a week ago appeared hanging by a thread.

It happened in three parts.

On the floor the Celtics looked every bit the part of a 51-win team that edged out LeBron’s Cavs for the top spot in the East. Brad Stevens’ small-ball approach came full-circle as the Boston guards lived in the paint against the Bulls, kicking out to open shooters for 16 3-pointers that helped the Celtics put away the game (and series) midway through the third quarter.

Avery Bradley starred for a second consecutive night, tallying 23 points while making Jimmy Butler work for his, while eight different Celtics hit a 3-pointer and the team shot 49 percent. For the first time in the series the Celtics looked dominant, like a team poised to contend with the Cavaliers for supremacy in the East.

“It felt good to play Celtic basketball again,” Avery Bradley said. “We were all smiling, having fun, and that’s what it’s supposed to be. That’s how hard we worked this entire year, to play that type of basketball.”

Isaiah Thomas was naturally somber much of the series. The well-documented death of his 22-year-old sister put a damper on the series before it began, and the MVP candidate understandably chose not to address it on the few occassions he spoke with the media. But Thomas looked more like himself as the series went on. Not only did his numbers improve, he appeared more vocal after made baskets, laughed off trash talk from Bulls point guard Isaiah Canaan, and engineered the Celtics' offense to near-perfection.

His defining moment came late in the third quarter with the Celtics nearing a 30-point lead. After a hard foul he gathered his four teammates in a huddle near the baseline and shouted that the series for the Bulls was "a wrap for these m------------!" This was the same player who two weeks earlier was brought to tears prior to Game 1, and who will bury his sister on Saturday in Tacoma, Washington. Under unthinkable circumstances, Thomas averaged 23.0 points and 5.7 assists in 34.8 minutes in the series.

“I feel like he has grown,” Al Horford said. "And we all have in a way with all the adversity that has gone on. It could have easily gone the other way, but I feel like especially tonight when we got the game in hand, in control, we all just kept on repeating to stay focused to keep it going, keep pushing. We didn’t want to give them any life and we were a focused group and we were enjoying the moment.”

Thomas' journey won't get easier. He'll have another short turnaround to get ready for Sunday's second-round matchup against the Celtics. But like his teammates did in Games 3 and 4, when Thomas flew by himself to Chicago following his return home to Tacoma to mourn with his family, they'll have another opporuntity to grow closer. Brad Stevens kept an incredible perspective on the situation throughout the series, and applauded his team for doing the same while still fighting for wins.

"Bigger things than basketball happened, and that took precedent and it takes precdedent," he said. "I was really proud of our guys for how they treated each other, how they stood together, stuck together. And how nobody pointed fingers, they were just a great support for one another, especially Isaiah."

When Thomas does return, and when the Celtics gear up for their next postseason journey, expectations will have remained the same. Though the Wizards were one of the league's best teams in the second half, and with John Wall and Bradley Beal playing on another level, it'll take more performances like Friday night - both on the court and collectively staying together - for Boston to advance. A 2-0 hole against the Wizards will feel a whole lot different than it did against the Bulls.

That sort of letdown doesn't feel like it will happen again. Though no one would have wished such tragedy to force it, the Celtics came together at a critical moment and came out better for it. Their work isn't done, and they know it. But the way they were able to handle the adversity in Round 1, anything seems possible for Stevens, Thomas the top seed in the East.

"We just try to stay the course in the day-to-day. And if that results in us winning more games or winning in the playoffs, or whatever the case may be, there’s only one goal in the Boston," Stevens said. "Seventeen (NBA championship) banners above us. We don’t have a choice. We only shoot for one thing there."

BullsTalk Podcast: Top-seeded Celtics too much to handle for Bulls

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AP

BullsTalk Podcast: Top-seeded Celtics too much to handle for Bulls

In the latest episode of the BullsTalk Podcast, Mark Schanowski, Will Perdue and Stacey King break down the final game of the Bulls' season, a 105-83 loss to the Boston Celtics in Game 6 of their first-round playoff series.

Also, hear postgame press conferences from head coach Fred Hoiberg and All-Star forward Jimmy Butler. And the guys look ahead to the offseason and the NBA Draft.

Listen to the latest episode below: