Sudden resurgence puts Bulls' fate into their own hands

Sudden resurgence puts Bulls' fate into their own hands

If the Chicago Bulls allow their season to end 11 days from now, they’ll only have themselves to blame.

They've completed the "contenders" portion of their schedule and all that remains is the "Waiting on Secaucus" segment, as every team left is lottery bound, throwing out and trying out different lineups for the rest of the season to give young players time to play and explore—similar to when the Bulls trotted out every available player for a stretch and looked like a mess a couple weeks back.

All the Bulls have to do is take care of business, but if they conducted their business the right way for most parts of the season, they wouldn’t be in this spot, scratching and clawing with a handful of games left.

A scary proposition indeed: 28 quarters to relevance and a new life or 28 quarters to another offseason where leadership and competence and direction is questioned.

Not many pictured this after Taj Gibson was traded at the deadline and certainly when Dwyane Wade’s elbow went "pop-pop" a few games back, the playoffs seemed like a Vegas mirage.

But through the ineptitude of the East and a couple unexpected wins, the Bulls are in the driver's seat. Jimmy Butler's play has risen from "Huh?" to "Wow!" and with it, expectations have to be raised.

They don't want to say it aloud, because acknowledgement means there will have to be some serious accountability on the back end if they come up short, but they know what's in front of them.

"We're not looking at it that way, we're taking it day by day," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. "We have a great challenge in front of us. This was an emotional game."

Such an emotional game that Hoiberg couldn't remember if the Bulls were traveling to New Orleans or Sacramento for a game on Sunday, having to be corrected by the all-knowing media members—as all have one thing in common: Not having a single clue where things are going from here as the Bulls try to clinch a playoff berth following a one-year sabbatical.

Six games remaining, with five of them against the four worst teams in a bad Eastern Conference and another against a New Orleans Pelicans team that hasn't yet figured out how to use Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins to full efficiency.

But because these are the Bulls, no game can be penciled in as an easy win. Against the Knicks, Nets, Magic and 76ers, the Bulls are a combined 6-4—and if not for a Jimmy Butler buzzer-beater against the Nets in late December, that record would be an even .500.

The combined teams have a winning percentage of .331, making it by far the easiest schedule of the teams vying for a playoff spot.

Short of the Nets, the Bulls have lost to the bottom feeders in the East—as those individual instances are chief reasons why the Bulls sit two games below .500 and needing the back end of their schedule to help push them to the postseason—along with timely collapses from the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons to move things along.

Only Rajon Rondo would acknowledge the opportunity in front of his team, that the Bulls control their destiny. Ever the one who zigs when everyone else zags, Rondo has his sights set a bit higher than being tied for seventh seed in the East—which would put them in danger of playing a motivated Cleveland Cavaliers team in the first round.

"We’re not stopping at seven. We've got a nice schedule ahead of us," Rondo said. "(If) we take care of what we need to take care of, we can move up even more. I think other teams have a tougher schedule than us, but it's one game at a time."

Rondo having a hand in the Bulls being a more cohesive unit certainly elevates his level of confidence and the fact the Bulls beat the Bucks and Hawks—the teams occupying fifth and sixth seeds, respectively—gives credence to his beliefs.

"I always look at it like nobody picked us to be in the playoffs, nobody picked us to win, anyway," Butler said.

But expectations can be recalibrated and the Bulls must face the reality of what they've created and walked into: They should be somewhere when the playoffs begin two weekends from now, and it's not Bora Bora.

Fast Break Morning Update: Celtics even up series with Bulls

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Fast Break Morning Update: Celtics even up series with Bulls

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Isaiah Thomas carries Celtics at critical times to save series against Bulls

Isaiah Thomas carries Celtics at critical times to save series against Bulls

Isaiah Thomas carries Celtics at critical times to save series against Bulls

The Celtics season was unraveling, and their face of the franchise was stumbling down the stretch. The opposing Bulls had used a 40-18 run spanning the second and third quarters to take their first lead. Jimmy Butler was hearing “M-V-P” chants from the crowd of nearly 22,000 and the Celtics looked lost, just as they had at times in Game 1 and 2 losses.

And Isaiah Thomas, the MVP candidate who had carried the Celtics all season, was at the front of the miscues. In just 4 third-quarter minutes he missed two shots, turned the ball over three times and committed his third and fourth personal fouls, the latter occurring on a charge during a 3-on-1 fast break. Knowing he’d need his All-Star point guard down the stretch of what was quickly becoming a tight contest, Brad Stevens subbed out Thomas with the hope that the Celtics could keep close their eight-point lead at the time.

Instead, the Bulls kept their foot on the gas, eyeing a 3-1 series lead behind the driving force of Jimmy Butler. The Bulls’ own All-Star helped manufacture a 12-0 run that put the Bulls, down by as many as 20 late in the second quarter, ahead for the first time, 65-63.

Thomas reentered with the score tied at 63, missing his first shot that set up the Bulls’ go-ahead basket from Robin Lopez. Following that basket, Thomas strung together the most important stretch of basketball this season in a 4-minute span that saved the game, and potentially the season.

The Bulls’ lead was brief, as Thomas twice drove to the basket and connected on layups to put the Celtics ahead. Next he found Al Hoford on a pick-and-roll set that the duo had run to perfection in Game 3. Thomas then took two trips to the free-throw line, burying all four attempts, and capped the quarter with a pair of assists to Kelly Olynyk that pushed the lead to 10. All told, Thomas had a hand in all 16 of the Celtics points scored after the Bulls took their lead.

The Celtics managed to hide Thomas defensively – he finished with just the four fouls – and the Bulls only managed to get within five in the fourth quarter (with Thomas on the bench) before the All Star point guard closed the door to even the series heading back to Boston for Game 5 on Wednesday.

“The game was not going our direction and the worst that could happen is somebody fouls out of a game,” Stevens said. “Isaiah’s a big part of our offense and we needed to feel better about ourselves and we tweaked the defense a little bit there to try to protect him, but we didn’t feel like he could sit right there. Things were not going our way.”

Much of the night belonged to the Celtics, even if the Bulls did manage to erase the 20-point deficit. The Bulls’ defensive strategy in Game 3 to limit Thomas, who was second in the league in scoring, to just 18 points, his second lowest point total of the year. Thomas’ nine assists were crucial in Friday’s win, but the Celtics wanted him attacking the basket.

They set higher pick-and-rolls to allow Thomas room to take Robin Lopez off the dribble, and the Boston again playing a small-ball lineup the floor was spaced enough to allow Thomas to attack the rim; just two of Thomas’ 10 makes came outside the restricted area, and his 13 free-throw attempts were a stark contrast after he tallied zero in Game 3. Thomas was a team-high +17 in the nine-point win. His 33  points were the most he had scored in the series.

“It helps us feel a lot more confident when he’s on the floor because he’s able to make plays, not only for himself but other guys on the team,” Avery Bradley said. “Sometimes we need him getting in the paint, kicking it out, and hitting the next guy because it’s contagious.”

Thomas’ third-quarter stretch was his best, but not the only time he contributed. The 5-foot-9 Thomas scored 10 points in the first quarter as the Celtics pushed their lead to as many as 14 points. He hadded six more in the second quarter as the Bulls deployed three different point guards – Jerian Grant, Michael Carter-Williams and Isaiah Canaan – at him, as well as Jimmy Butler.

Thomas remained focused as the Bulls’ carousel of point guards with Rajon Rondo out continued to to turn.

“I just try to play the same way no matter who’s out there on the floor. I got a job to do and that’s score the basketball, make plays for others on this team and be a leader,” Thomas said, speaking to the media for the first time this postseason. “So it doesn’t really matter what the other team’s doing because I’ve got to do my job and I’ve got to do it at a high level for us to win.”

Thomas went for the kill shot in the fourth quarter and delivered. Two baskets from Game 1 hero Bobby Portis cut the Bulls’ deficit to five, prompting Stevens to sub in Thomas, Bradley and Jae Crowder earlier than he would have liked. No matter. Thomas drove twice to the basket on successive possessions and scored both times, including a three-point play. That pushed the Celtics’ lead back to 10 in just 90 seconds, and the Bulls didn’t get close than eight the rest of the way.

Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg vented frustration with the officials following the game, noting that Thomas becomes an “impossible guard” when he’s allowed to carry the basketball during his dribble. Thomas said he couldn’t remember a time this season when he was called for carrying – in reality he’s been called for it three times, though not since January.

It was a strategic tactic for Hoiberg to deploy, hoping for any chance to slow down Thomas. The Celtics point guard is heating up at the perfect time, and he’s doing so while still trying to find his three-point shot. Once that starts working the Bulls will need to once again adjust on the fly. As for Hoiberg’s comment, Thomas echoed during his postgame availability what he showed earlier on Sunday night.

“That,” he said with a smile, “is not the reason why I’m an impossible cover.”