CHICAGO — The Boston Celtics arrived in Chicago just hoping to play their way back into their Eastern Conference playoff series with the Bulls.
Now, with a win on Sunday at the United Center, the Celtics can return home in a dead heat with the Bulls.
Boston drew even in the best-of-seven series with a 104-87 victory on Friday night. In a game in which the Celtics saw a 20-point lead dwindle to one early in the third quarter, Boston pounded the Bulls from the perimeter with 17 3-point field goals and used fast-paced ball movement to keep Chicago from ever getting close.
But after earning their first victory in the series, the Celtics understand they will have to keep pushing in order to get their second.
“It’s certainly better to be down 2-1 than 3-0,” Boston coach Brad Stevens told reporters on Saturday. “We’re going to have to play with great purpose, be intentional about the way we approach (Sunday’s game). We know it’s going to be really hard and each game is its own entity.”
The Celtics relied on a balanced scoring attack to build their lead. While guard Isaiah Thomas — who scored 16 points, well off his season average of 28.9 points — didn’t score as much as his teammates have become accustomed to, he contributed nine assists.
Still dealing with the death of his sister, who was killed in a car accident last weekend, Thomas hit back-to-back 3-pointers to widen the gap after Chicago had drawn to within a point.
His teammates fed off his effort and then did enough to get within a game of the Bulls.
“I felt like as a team, we had a much better rhythm (Friday),” Celtics center Al Horford said.
The Bulls, meanwhile, struggled with pace in their first game playing without injured point guard Rajon Rondo. Jerian Grant and Michael Carter-Williams both struggled in Rondo’s absence and leading scorer Jimmy Butler was 7-of-21 from the field. Chicago turned the ball over 18 times and had only 14 assists (compared to Boston’s 34) and the offensive woes — coupled with the Bulls’ defensive issues — all added up to the 17-point loss.
Now, like the Celtics did on Friday, Chicago will enter Sunday’s game looking to bounce back.
“We’re in a good position,” Bulls guard Dwyane Wade said. “One thing Rondo did before he went out is help us win two games on the road. Now we have two of the next three (games) on our home court and we have to come in and care of business at home.”
With Rondo out indefinitely, the Bulls won’t have a lot of time to make the adjustments they will need to get to within a game of closing out the Celtics. Wade said after Friday’s loss that Chicago can’t afford to use Rondo’s absence as an excuse.
But given what’s at stake before the series shifts back to Boston for Game 5, the Bulls believe they can do what’s needed to make the Celtics’ comeback efforts even tougher. Now, they will need to carry out their plan on their home floor.
“I think a big theme of the playoffs should be possession by possession, quarter by quarter, game by game,” Bulls center Robin Lopez said. “You just try to keep a level head, even with failure and success. We’re going to come back (Saturday) and look at the film to make improvements.”