Chicago Bulls

Jimmy Butler, Bulls steal game 1 in an emotional Boston Garden

Jimmy Butler, Bulls steal game 1 in an emotional Boston Garden

BOSTON — Having the best player on the floor can cure a lot of ills, and the playoffs have a way of showing who's not afraid of the moment.

Against the emotional backdrop of the tragedy surrounding the death of Isaiah Thomas' sister, a charged-up atmosphere was at a more fevered pitch in Game 1 of the Bulls' series with the Boston Celtics.

Big runs, big stops and big stops resulted in the Bulls stealing the opener with a 106-102 decision Sunday at TD Garden, with Bobby Portis aiding Jimmy Butler in a way not many thought was possible.

Portis finished off the Celtics with a midrange jumper to give him 19 points to go with his nine rebounds in his playoff debut, along with a big block over Jae Crowder on a basket cut a few minutes earlier when the Bulls first began to take late control.

With so many young players who are seeing the real bright lights for the first time, Portis stepping up wasn't predictable but he's never appeared to allow moments to be too big for him.

"He was one of our new young guys who I wasn't worried about," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. "He's gonna play with unbelievable confidence, he's gonna play with swagger. He's gonna lay it on the line. He was playing with such tenacity. He was hitting shots, we needed every one of them."

But the star of the night was none other than the apple of the Celtics' eye, Jimmy Butler.

Shaking off a passive first half, Butler scored 23 in the second half to finish with 30, going with nine rebounds and three assists. He caught fire to push a close game to a 95-88 lead with four minutes left.

"I think we were so locked in all week. We knew their stuff like they knew our stuff,"  Butler said. "We executed really well, we haven't done that all season but this is the right time to do it. And that's all you can do, especially on the road."

Hitting nine of 19 shots from the field after starting one for five, he and the Bulls weathered an early emotional storm authored by Thomas as Thomas played amid unspeakable grief.

"What did I see? The same thing he always does. He's such a tough kid, one of the hardest guards to cover in the game," Hoiberg said.

He scored 13 of his game-high 31 points in the first quarter but when directly defended by Butler in the last few minutes, he had a hard time finding space — which could mean doom for the Celtics if they can't get him loose in the last few minutes of close games.

"It's just a different look for him," said Bulls guard Dwyane Wade, a man who also saw some time chasing Thomas around. "Obviously, he scored more than 30 points, he's a handful on the floor. It's just mixing up, giving him different looks with different guys. If it takes two or three seconds away from their offense, it takes the ball a little further out, then we won that battle."

Butler took Thomas after Rajon Rondo picked up two fouls in succession, leading to an 88-87 Celtics lead with 5:41. From that moment, the Celtics mustered just one score and two free throws, while the Bulls went on a 12-4 run until the 1:17 mark to give themselves some breathing room.

Of course, since these are the Bulls, nothing comes easy. A nine-point lead with a minute left turned into danger time in the last 10 seconds, as a review went against them along with an offensive foul on Butler for freeing himself against Celtics irritant Marcus Smart.

But Butler hit two free throws with 3.3 seconds left as the Bulls had a two-point lead to finally close the door and sending the Bulls to the second road win in these NBA Playoffs.

He had help from Portis, who played like a lottery pick when Nikola Mirotic played with a scared rookie. Portis flexed after a big block on Jae Crowder and played the biggest game of his career in his playoff debut, scoring 17 with eight rebounds and hitting back to back triples in the third quarter when the Bulls were reeling.

They shook off a first half where they mustered just 38.5 percent shooting with 11 turnovers along with going two of 14 from the 3-point line.

Many times the Bulls were at their best when shots caromed waywardly off the rim and found its way to Robin Lopez, or Taj Gibson early in the season. Lopez and Portis were all over the glass as the Bulls were under 40 percent for most of the night, but the relentless attacking wound up in keeping the Bulls within striking distance as the Celtics couldn't get away in the first half.

"Obviously we knew that was an advantage of our going into the series, I think everybody did a great job of keying in on that aspect," said Lopez, who finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds in 34 minutes.

The Bulls dominated the boards overall with a 53-36 advantage, as 20 of those came on the offensive end with 23-15 advantage in second-chance points. Hoiberg made a critical decision when Rajon Rondo picked up his fifth foul guarding Thomas, subbing in Jerian Grant and moving Butler to Thomas. Grant had been one of eight from the field but hit a big triple from Butler to make it a 95-88 game with four minutes left.

From there the Bulls held on for dear life and suddenly have more than new life in their attempt to show this is not an ordinary 1-8 first-round matchup.

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.