The milestones for this Bulls run were many. Mid-March in Boston after a blowout loss when Rajon Rondo and Nikola Mirotic got back in the regular, starting rotation. Closing hard with seven wins in the last nine games to make the playoffs on the last day, Jimmy Butler and Rondo with extraordinary weeks with Dwyane Wade out injured. And then that practice.
“That first day in practice to prepare for this series, they (reserves) kicked our butt,” Wade was saying after the Bulls’ stunning and complete 111-97 victory over the Boston Celtics Tuesday. “They really brought it. They were out there about an hour before us, preparing, getting ready. And now you see it. You see guys are ready. They kicked out butts and we (with Rondo and Butler) looked at each other and were like, ‘We’re going to be good.’”
This good? The second ever eighth seed to win the first two games of an opening round playoff series in NBA history, the Bulls dominating the Celtics for a second straight game? In Boston?
Game 3 is Friday in Chicago.
No one is looking too far ahead because they’ve seen this Bulls team surrender the biggest leads and lose to the weakest opponents. Well, maybe not this Bulls team.
“I’m not surprised because everybody’s so locked in right now,” said Butler, who with Wade topped the scoring with 22 points each. “Everybody’s putting in extra work right now, watching film, working on their game, and that’s where your confidence always comes from. We’ve got some great field generals out there in these two guys (Rondo and Wade) to help out and these younger guys and to make sure they’re playing hard at both ends of the floor.”
It’s been a can’t-quite-believe-what-you-are-seeing few days in Boston for the Bulls, thwarting everything the Celtics have thrown at them from a big start from scoring star Isaiah Thomas in Game 1 to second half starting lineup changes in Game 2 to challenging the Bulls rebounding advantage with small lineups to force mistakes.
The Bulls throughout have remained poised, powerful and ahead.
After the vital Game 1 with 19 points from Bobby Portis, the Bulls Tuesday got a big start from Nikola Mirotic with 10 first quarter points after Boston bolted out to a 9-3 lead. The home crowd was expectant, energized; time for No. 1 to recreate order. But in this continuing series of unexpected developments, Mirotic took over with a drive for a two handed dunk, a relentless followup after a Robin Lopez miss and then a pair of threes after missing all five he attempted Sunday.
“I didn’t feel any pressure today. All the pressure was in the first game, missing those shots. I knew I was going to bounce back. I knew I was going to play much better. Mostly, I’ve been very focused on my defense, talking a lot with the coaches, the players. They knew my defense against (Al) Horford would be very important this series, so most of the focus has been on defense. But today I started making those shots.”
Horford had just seven points in 32 minutes as his inferior play has been one of the determining factors with Mirotic frustrating him throughout the first two games. Indeed.
Lopez had another vital game, 18 points and eight rebounds, five offensive that finally forced Celtics coach Brad Stevens to go to Tyler Zeller over Amir Johnson to start the second half on Lopez. But Lopez continued to take the heart out of the Celtics and, interestingly, the crowd as there were audible sighs as he continued to beat the Celtics for offensive rebounds. This even as the Celtics coming into the game said the focus would be rebounding and controlling Lopez.
The Bulls outrebounded Boston 43-38 and hold a 22-rebound advantage in the two games in Boston.
“We talked a lot about keeping our poise,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg, who continued to press all the right buttons in maximizing production off the bench and utilizing Rondo. “We knew they’d come out and play tough, physical basketball and you have to go out there and withstand runs. Playing through those tough times and handling adversity well. We’ve done a pretty solid job of that; they make a run, one of our guys would step up and make a play and that’s what it’s all about.”
Often, surprisingly, it was Zipser, the second round pick constantly in and out of the rotation who had 16 points off the bench with clutch shot after clutch shot, making six of eight and a pair of threes without hesitation. Zipser had a big step in jumper early in the fourth quarter when Boston closed to 91-82 and ran him off the three-point line. And then with the Celtics making one, last, desperate run after a Wade three gave the Bulls a 105-86 lead with 5:18 left, it was Zipser with a corner three on a Butler pass after Boston scored six straight points.
That sent much of the home crowd shuffling to the exits and those left booing as the clock ticked the end of the game.
“I was just focused on the things I wanted to do,” said Zipser. “Everybody is just locked in; we talk about it all the time. Everyone just wants the best shot for the team. Our guys do a great job. I felt we had that same type of mentality with the defense, too.
“We knew it was not like a typical one and eight series,” Zipser added. “We knew we had our chances. Before, we showed against the good teams. Every shot the last five minutes, the three corner and the midrange on the pass from Rondo; didn’t think about it. When you are wide open you have to shoot it. (And) Rondo, just out of his mind right now. I love playing with him. He’s made for the playoffs.”
Yes, the man who named the Three Alphas, and then who challenged them, who withdrew from them, was benched, was out of the rotation, seemingly out of the city, off the team. Yes, that Rondo. He had 11 points, 14 assists, nine rebounds and five steals and defended Thomas most of the game. He had the team’s highest plus/minus rating at plus-24 and was the guy who Hoiberg said has been the unifier for this often splintered Bulls team. Plus, he played almost 41 minutes, second to Butler’s 43. Suddenly, the Bulls can barely survive without him.
Try that one on with your preconceptions and misconceptions.
“I don’t see anything different from Rondo than when he comes in on a day off and plays three on three,” said Hoiberg. “He approaches everything with such a competitiveness and that rubs off on our players. We were scheduled to have a day off between two of our late season games and Rondo’s in there organizing a five on five almost like a pickup game. It’s who he is; he loves to play, loves to be out there. He’s the ultimate competitor. We know we will continue to get that effort out of him. When we inserted him back into the starting lineup he was the key…to our recent success. We know he’s going to go out and fight every night. He’s going to get his teammates involved. He’s so good for the chemistry of our team.”
So forget everything you think you knew about this Bulls team. OK, it’s just two games, and only halfway to a series victory. Though both on the road hardly matches anyone’s expectations.
“We had our backs against the wall the couple of weeks leading in to where we had to win (to make the playoffs). Our guys did a good job of doing what had to be done to get us into the post season. So we’ve been playing high pressure basketball for several weeks and I think that does help you when you come into playoff time. Can’t be satisfied. Have to go home now and keep playing. This is one of the better road teams in the league. We have to continue to go out and fight, learn, continue to make adjustments and hopefully we play well.”
But this has been a special pair of games against the emotional backdrop of the tragic auto accident death of Thomas’ sister. The Celtics say he will now return to Washington state to be with his family and then likely return for the next game. There was no word on a funeral or if other Celtics players would attend. But no one on Boston was using it as an excuse after Thomas had 33 points in the opener and a team high 20 points in Game 2.
The Bulls have taken Horford and the front line out of the game, quieted Avery Bradley and forced Boston to go deep into their bench Tuesday using Terry Rozier, Zeller and extra time for Kelly Olynyk. But it was the Bulls with the answers on offense, Wade coming to life with 11 fourth quarter points and the bench like a relay race with the baton passed to someone different every quarter and a response coming. Felicio finished a nice pick and roll for a dunk in the fourth quarter 10-0 spurt that effectively ended it, and another early in the quarter when Boston tried to trap Butler.
“It’s really simple,” said Butler. “When I’m open, I normally shoot the ball and sometimes when I’m not open I also shoot the ball. The majority of the time I pass it to the open guy and when they are making shots my job is a lot easier. People can’t load up on me and on top of everything these two (Rondo and Wade) do a lot of that as well. When they are attacking, being aggressive and they are getting everybody else involved, especially when we are getting stops. When we are getting stops we are pretty tough.”
Perhaps symbolically as well as per force, Butler, Wade and Rondo sat together at the post game press conference to answer questions. The NBA selects the stars of the game to bring to a media session outside the locker room. We may not have seen that scene of the three of them like that in months. But this appears to be a different dynamic, a team that has put its regular season woes and weaknesses behind it and bonded for a common goal.
“Hated him. Hated him as a competitor,” Wade laughed when asked about Rondo. “That hate is that respect. When we played against Boston back in the day, Rondo would mess up all the plays. He messes up your first option. And then he knows the second option. We (Miami) were just good enough to have a third option. He was that good. I think for myself and Jimmy to have someone who is so locked in, that gives us a different voice. We know we can go to him and ask anything. He’s watching film all the time. It’s key when you have a point guard like him that controls the whole game. You just have to play. As I told him, ‘Way to run the team.’ He did an amazing job of that.”
Who could have imagined that scene after those ugly days in January, team meeting, fines, benching, angry stares.
“You play to 82 games to learn a little bit about yourself and one thing I learned about this team is through adverse situations this team sticks together,” said Wade. “We had adversity this year, as every team has, and that’s the thing that has made us closer and stronger together. The credit through this team sticking together through injuries through everything to put ourselves in position to make the playoffs goes to everyone from the coaching staff to the leaders to the young guys; everyone did it together. When you win, when you come into the playoffs like this and you get wins together, it feels good because you know no one gives you a chance. Your success comes by what your guys do together and believe as a group. We all believe in each other and that has led to us playing a lot better of late.”
It manifested itself Tuesday in a forceful effort that saw the Bulls control the game and fleck off every Celtics run like lint on their collars.
It began with Mirotic’s play in the first quarter and six Bulls offensive rebounds in the quarter, two by Lopez. It seemed to take the heart out of the Celtics, at least their fans, with all the talk about changing that dynamic. Lopez was also sharp shooting, popping out of double teams against Butler and making eight of 11 shots.
“Some of the biggest shots of the whole game were Lopez’s jump shots,” said Boston coach Brad Stevens. “He hit those three jump shots in the third quarter. That kind of stemmed the tide of our run and were huge.”
After leading by 12 in the first quarter, the Bulls led 31-26 after one quarter. The Celtics closed quickly to open the second, eschewing the physical inside play for ball pressure with a smaller lineup. They got within 38-36 and then Wade got away for a dunk, making it after coming up short with one Sunday. A good sign. The Bulls found Lopez for a pair of jumpers, one a long push with time running out and the Bulls held onto a 54-46 halftime lead.
The Celtics are known for myriad adjustments and opened the second half with Zeller and quickly they were within 60-59. Mirotic finally added a third three pointer after missing four straight and so did Butler and Wade, Butler after another quiet first half scoring 10 third quarter points. And the Bulls were back ahead 79-65 and led 86-75 after three quarters.
“Jimmy is doing what he’s done all year,” said Hoiberg. “He just continues to go out there and make huge plays for our team; really, whatever needs to be done Jimmy’s right there in the middle of it. Whether we need a big basket, whether a double team comes, he’s making simple basketball plays leading to assists or hockey assists, rebounds, guards, he just does everything for this team.”
Defends, of course, also. Though he didn’t take Thomas head on much, Butler’s intelligence on defense was crucial and exemplary.
Most NBA teams seek out favorable matchups through pick and roll. The Bulls are known as a team that switches frequently on defense, so teams can maneuver into a matchup they like. Instead, Butler continued to blow them up. One great example was midway in the third quarter. Thomas runs a lot of pick and roll with Horford, who is defended often by Mirotic because of his perimeter shooting ability. So Boston tries to get Mirotic to switch onto Thomas, who can then go right by or step back. Watching Boston set that up several times, Butler jumps in over the screen, pushes Mirotic off to the corner and faces up the smaller Thomas. Thomas is not a particularly good passer, especially when thwarted in his move, and repeatedly the Celtics’ offense would break down.
“Fred Hoiberg is doing a helluva job of putting us in the right situations to go out there and get some wins,” said Rondo.
The fourth quarter was Wade, as he suggested earlier in the weekend, time for the classic car to come out of the garage and go for a spin again.
“Obviously we are featuring Jimmy,” Wade said. “We have to have guys throughout the series if we are going to win, it has to be their night. One night it’s gonna be Niko; one night it have to be Rondo; one night it might be me.”
After the Celtics gave it a last gasp with the crowd begging and Smart throwing in a three in Wade’s face, Wade went the other way and took over with a three, a driving score, another three, that one a long from on top and the Bulls were the story of the first weekend of the NBA playoffs with a 2-0 lead over the winningest team in the Eastern Conference.
“Game 3 is just one game. But it’s going to be our biggest game of the season. We want to approach it with that mindset and go out there and try to get another W. It’s one game at a time, one possession at a time.”