The last Bulls’ home playoff game before this series was a disastrous, effortless drubbing to the Cleveland Cavaliers on a Friday night in May two years ago.
The Boston Celtics completed their resounding and emphatic comeback using the same formula and the Bulls were greeted by the same reaction from the United Center fans on a Friday night in April, with a chorus of boos.
That game brought about a summer of change, chief among them a coach firing and hiring of Fred Hoiberg, who had to watch his team submit physically and emotionally to the Celtics in Game 6 of their first-round series with a 105-83 loss at the United Center Friday night.
The Celtics took what was left of the Bulls’ competitiveness by the end of the third quarter with a 34-18 flurry to give themselves a 29-point cushion, on a night where the Bulls can only say two words.
Dwyane Wade shot just one for 10, and the Bulls shot just 38 percent as the Celtics acted like the schoolyard bullies who takes lunch money through the hallways, a far different scene compared to the first two games when the Bulls looked ready to make history as an eight-seed poised to knock off a top seed.
“I understand the frustration (from the fans),” Hoiberg said. “It was a frustrating game, no doubt about that, to go out this way. The high note to start this series, getting out to a 2-0 lead, we couldn’t finish it off. We fought, we battled, especially that Game 5 in Boston. We didn’t have it tonight.”
Gerald Green scored 16 as Brad Stevens’ signature personnel adjustment from Game 3, and Celtics guard Avery Bradley continued his torrid end to the series with nine of 12 shooting, including three of four from 3-point range, to score 23 points.
All five Celtics starters scored in double figures, and they jumped on the Bulls early from three, hitting 16 triples—a move to which the Bulls had no counter. The Celtics got off to another quick start, hitting three quick triples and never truly looked back.
They even did it without Isaiah Thomas exploding, but the attention paid to him from the Bulls resulted in unselfish ball movement and a Bulls defense that didn’t look ready for it, yet again, as the Celtics had 28 assists on 39 field goals.
“They shot the three ball here better than they did at their place and we played better at their place than we did here; very weird series from that standpoint,” Wade said. “At the end of the day they came out and took care of business… eighth seed we didn’t have all our guys but we put a fight up, made it a tough series and I’m proud of our guys.”
Everything was in vain, from Hoiberg’s adjustments to Rajon Rondo’s sideline pressing to Jimmy Butler’s ability to play through pain, because their spirits were broken and their bodies were bruised—from attrition in some cases and the Celtics in others, as they beat up the Bulls in every way that mattered, as Robin Lopez was the only Bull besides Butler (23 points) to score in double figures with 10 points as the Bulls shot 39 percent and were four of 21 from 3-point range.
“I’d have played more minutes I’d of went one for 20; I don’t care; you have to shoot the basketball,” Wade said. “Jimmy did came out tried to be aggressive tonight; they kicked our butt overall. I played 19 minutes; I’ve been one for 10 in a half before.”
Butler was playing through an injured left knee and clearly lacked explosiveness, but was doing more than his share to keep the Bulls alive—by a thread. He wouldn’t elaborate on the injury but by the end of the third quarter, it appeared he had no business on the floor with the game out of reach and risking possible serious injury.
“The same thing everybody this time of year feels,” Butler said. “Nicked up a little bit, still gotta go out there and compete, play the best basketball you can. Nobody feels sorry for me that I’m nicked up, I’m okay with it.”
It was a thread that popped when he took a rest to start the second quarter and the Bulls down by seven that ballooned to 17 quicker than you can say “20-second timeout”.
“That’s one thing people don’t realize how banged up Jimmy was,” Hoiberg said. “You talked about that fourth quarter in the last game, only getting two shots. A lot of that was his limitations, trying to get the ball up the floor against Avery Bradley. Felt better today, got treatment throughout the day yesterday and today to put himself in the position to go out there and fight with his teammates.”
At that point, it was a matter of time before the Celtics truly put the game out of reach, because Butler could only do but so much and with Wade having his worst game of the series, no rescue was on the way.
Butler was efficient with nine of 17 shooting, but his teammates contributed to go just 15 of 43 (34 percent) by the end of the third, with the Celtics getting stronger and stronger as they saw the Bulls were rudderless without Rondo’s services for the fourth straight game.
The Celtics continuously attacked the Bulls and found their soft spots. First, it was their defense, and then it was their psyche as the Bulls learned a lesson in physical and mental toughness.
A week ago, it was thought the Bulls had the advantage, up 2-0 with an edge that bordered on cockiness.
By the end of 36 minutes, the edge dwindled to hopelessness and one wonders what the next step for the storied franchise will be as the Celtics move on, and Bulls are going fishing.