Bulls will depend on leaders to help youngsters get acclimated to playoffs

Bulls will depend on leaders to help youngsters get acclimated to playoffs

The parquet floor of the Boston Garden can be alluring to observers but unsettling to visitors as the youth of the Bulls will get thrown into the playoff water on the deep end without a life raft this weekend.

The team that the Bulls brass often touts as having so many players with three years of NBA experience or fewer, it’ll surely come into play in the first two games as the Bulls will try to steal a game in the Garden.

For that to happen, they’ll need to lean on the experience of the veterans who won’t be awed or overwhelmed by the atmosphere. Bulls guard Rajon Rondo spit out the clichéd line about the series not starting until a road team wins a game, but for these Bulls it holds as much truth as it does for most, as they’ll need some serious positive reinforcement.

The last time they walked into Boston on March 12, they were sent home smarting after a 20-point whipping during the period when the Bulls were trotting out 12 men in an attempt to “evaluate” players as opposed to trying to win.

Whether that game sticks out in their minds is anyone’s guess and despite some of the puzzling losses they’ve suffered since, they haven’t had their doors blown off since they started to find themselves shortly thereafter.

First-timers Jerian Grant, Paul Zipser and Bobby Portis look to be in line for serious reserve minutes, along with Nikola Mirotic going through the postseason for the second time and Cris Felicio getting back into the rotation recently after a lower back injury.

Denzel Valentine has been out of the rotation recently but as a 3-point threat he could be called upon at some point.

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The Bulls and Celtics tied the season series with two wins apiece, each winning on the other’s floor. The season opener was dramatic as Dwyane Wade punctuated his debut with a step-back 3-pointer that finished off a 105-99 win, as he scored 22.

“We weren’t the only team in the NBA to have a challenging season,” Dwyane Wade said. “This is what happens when you play in a challenging league. I’m proud of these young guys who have the opportunity to play in the playoffs.”

Wade has certainly had his share of battles with the Celtics over the years, both as a favorite and an underdog as a member of the Miami Heat. Rondo, of course, is a big part of recent Celtics lore, the point man for the 2008 title team and the others that were a conference fixture from that point on until the team was broken up after the 2012-13 season.

“I like this group, we have good, experienced guys,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Obviously with Wade and Rondo with their championship experience and Jimmy has played in some huge games.”

Hoiberg walking into the playoffs as a novice probably isn’t understated, either, but he knows enough to know the Celtics are not a club to be trifled with—as Isaiah Thomas is one of the best scoring guards in the league and the Celtics have plenty of wings to throw at Wade and Jimmy Butler in Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and Marcus Smart.

“It’s obviously a very talented team, a very versatile team,” Hoiberg said. “They have skilled guys at all five positions on the floor, basically at all times. They have guys who can shoot it, make plays, put it on the floor.”

The Celtics are the No. 1 seed in the East, but certainly not the most feared—as long as LeBron James has working limbs, every conversation starts with him. But the Celtics have arrived as a threat a bit ahead of schedule at the top of the conference, almost trying to wait and season their young pieces while the James flame doesn’t burns slowly instead of being the towering inferno it’s been for the decade.

Come Sunday, the Bulls will find out if the Celtics are a bit premature with their arrival and if their young players are still in the incubator.

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg criticizes officiating on Celtics' Isaiah Thomas

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg criticizes officiating on Celtics' Isaiah Thomas

You could see it building, with Fred Hoiberg's usually-monotone voice rising with his opening answer after his Bulls gave up a 2-0 lead to the Boston Celtics and now have to win at least one more game on the road to win a first-round matchup that's now tied at two games apiece.

Whether he was taking a page from Memphis Grizzlies coach David Fizdale or finally succumbing to his own frustration after pleading with the officials to enforce the rules as he believes them to be, he made his most direct statement as Bulls coach in his assessment of the officiating surrounding Isaiah Thomas.

He believes Thomas carries the ball for a palming violation, a tactic could make an already-difficult player to defend even more so. 

"Let me say this: Isaiah Thomas is a hell of a player, an unbelievable competitor, a warrior, everything he's going through right now. He had a hell of a game tonight," Hoiberg said. "When you're allowed to discontinue your dribble on every possession, he's impossible to guard. Impossible to guard. When you're able to put your hand underneath the ball, take two or three steps and put it back down. It's impossible to guard him in those situations."

Thomas scored 33 points and added seven assists with four rebounds in 35 minutes, helping torch virtually anyone who came near him and in his postgame news conference, pronounced himself as being an "impossible cover" to defenders.

"Not one man can guard me," he said. "That's just the confidence I have."

When told about Hoiberg's comments, Thomas said, "That's not the reason. It is what it is. I guess (Hoiberg) is just going to continue to say it. I've been dribbling that way my whole life, I don't know what to say to that."

Thomas repeatedly sliced through the defense for layups and open shots, and repeatedly told Bulls reserve guard Michael Carter-Williams "You can't guard me", to the point of earning a technical foul for the talk through the game.

Palming has become as prevalent through the game as the sneakers and mascots, so the timing of it seemed a bit peculiar. One wonders if it's more a motivation tactic to let his players know he's in the fight with them and maybe get a little something in Thomas' head before Game 5 as opposed to wanting it called every time down.

Several Bulls said they see Thomas do it repeatedly, and Hoiberg said it was a point of emphasis for the officials in the offseason—but Thomas was likely to break down the Bulls defense anyways, as he averages nearly 30 points a game on the season.

Thomas said he doesn't recall being called for a palming violation the entire season, and considering the violation seems so miniscule in the context of this playoff series, it could strike as a form of desperation or even motivation for Hoiberg, should his next check be a little lighter because of an impending fine for criticizing the officials.

Fizdale's statement seemed more in line with his personality, while it seemed Hoiberg was struggling with it a bit.

He didn't want to elaborate on it much when follow-up questions were asked, and when Jimmy Butler was asked to address it, he wouldn't wade into those waters.

"First off, Isaiah is a terrific basketball player," Butler said. "I don't really pay attention to if he's carrying the ball. It's not my job to watch that and call that. Even if I do call it, I can't do anything about it."

What Hoiberg and the Bulls can do is presumably come with a better start and a more sustained effort to Game 5, as opposed to complaints about the officiating on one particular issue.

Bulls comeback falls flat as Celtics tie series at 2-2

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USA TODAY

Bulls comeback falls flat as Celtics tie series at 2-2

By the numbers it looks like the series has gone to form but it certainly feels like the Bulls lost more than control of it with their 104-95 loss to the Celtics at the United Center Sunday evening.

The series is tied at two games apiece but it certainly has the feel of a Celtics advantage, and not just because they have two of the last three games in their building in a series that hasn't seen a home team win a game.

It looks as if the Celtics have figured the Bulls out, taken their best shot and delivered some serious blows of their own, in the form of a 5-foot-9 dynamo who produced a signature moment of his own when his team needed him desperately.

If Isaiah Thomas isn't the best player in this series, he was certainly the freshest star when it counted, spearheading a 15-2 run to finish the third quarter when the Bulls made a resounding comeback to look as if they would ride a wave of emotion to an improbable 3-1 lead.

Thomas scored or assisted on the next 20 Celtic points, getting into the lane at will along with finding shooters and buckets inside, the biggest stretch of his 33-point night, as he added nine assists on 10 of 21 shooting and hitting 12 of his 13 free throws.

It didn't matter that the Bulls missed a grand opportunity to exploit one of the most vulnerable defensive players in the league in Thomas, as they refused to attack him after he picked up his fourth foul early in the third.

He kept attacking the Bulls, jumping on the expressway known as the Bulls' paint and finishing multiple times against taller defenders to restore order and press the lead back to 10 at the end of the third.

The Bulls were gassed after coming back from a 20-point deficit, with Jimmy Butler literally doing everything on his way to a 33-point night with nine assists and five rebounds. After a game where he didn't go to the foul line at all, he took every bump and every bruise on his way to 23 free throws.

Nikola Mirotic and Isaiah Canaan scored 13 with Dwyane Wade adding 11, but it was Wade's missed fast break layup that resulted in an Al Horford 3-point play after a dunk that made it 92-80, ending a relatively serious Bulls' threat.

Horford scored 15 with 12 rebounds while Brad Stevens' adjustment from Game 3, Gerald Green, scored all 18 of his points in the first half, helping the Celtics take control as they again gouged the Bulls from the 3-point line in the opening moments—starting with Thomas' patience against an aggressive Bulls defense.

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The game was an instant replay early, with the Celtics jumping out to an 11-4 lead and methodically increasing it throughout. Hoiberg gave his struggling point guards another chance, but Grant and Carter-Williams were again not up to task, with Hoiberg pulling them in favor for Isaiah Canaan.

Canaan hasn't played meaningful minutes in months and certainly has been little more than an afterthought since early April but provided a spark in 33 minutes, being a plus-20 and at least bothering Thomas on defense.

Canaan took a charge on Thomas and then hit a triple, bringing the deficit to five midway through the period. The Bulls took their first lead with a Robin Lopez duck-in hook shot at 65-63 before Thomas sliced inside for two layups on consecutive possessions.

Lopez began picking away at the Celtics on the glass, but only played 22 minutes as Hoiberg opted to go away from him and switch to a smaller lineup. It was a tactic that backfired, as the Bulls lost their advantage in paint scoring with each scoring 48 after the Bulls had dominated that department in their first two wins.

Among many things the Bulls tried, competing was their best counter and it'll have to be that in spades from here—because it looks like the Celtics have all the big faces, even if it's in a small package.