Celtics take down Bulls in momentous Game 3 that changes course of series

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  • Isaiah Thomas
    Isaiah Thomas
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  • Rajon Rondo
    Rajon Rondo
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Isaiah Thomas took over for Boston in the third quarter. (Getty)
Isaiah Thomas took over for Boston in the third quarter. (Getty)

In a span of 12 hours, the most compelling series of the first round of the NBA playoffs has been turned on its head.

Facing a near-must-win after two losses at home, the top-seeded Celtics tore through the eighth-seeded Bulls in Chicago Friday night, 104-87, and restored order to a series that looked to be tumbling out of control.

They also showed that the news that rocked the Bulls prior to Game 3 — that starting point guard Rajon Rondo will be out indefinitely with a fractured thumb — will be as detrimental to Chicago as the Bulls probably feared. Without one of three alphas, Rondo, and with another, Jimmy Butler, held to just 14 points on 7-of-21 shooting, Chicago stumbled, and exhibited flaws that could dog it throughout the rest of the series.

The story of the game can be told with four numbers: Boston assisted on 34 of its 41 made field goals. Chicago assisted on only 14 of its 33 makes.

The Celtics did what they did throughout the regular season to claim the No. 1 seed in the East. They played team basketball. They zipped the ball around the court. They played stingy defense. They executed. And, crucially, they knocked down 3-pointers. After making just 10 of 33 in Game 2, they hit 46 percent of their shots from beyond the arc in Game 3. They drained 9 of 18 in the second half and pulled away from the Bulls.

Chicago, on the other hand, suffered without its starting point guard. Without Rondo, their attack stalled. It was slow in every sense of the word. Also without the boatload of offensive rebounds that they pulled down in Games 1 and 2, the Bulls had nothing to bail out their stale first-shot offense.

The Celtics didn’t get a dominant performance from Isaiah Thomas, but they didn’t need one. They played three outstanding quarters, and cruised to the Game 3 victory that they absolutely needed.

Boston played by far its best 12 minutes of the series in the first quarter. Brad Stevens replaced Amir Johnson with Gerald Green in the starting lineup, and the small-ball look spread the floor to perfection. The Celtics hit seven of their first 10 3-point attempts, and assisted on 11 of their 12 made field goals.

Chicago, on the other hand was stagnant on offense without its primary ball handler. It recorded just one first-quarter assist, and it came in the final two minutes of the period. Boston stymied Butler (who started 1-of-10 from the field), kept Chicago off the offensive glass, and sprinted out to a 33-15 lead at the end of the first.

Dwyane Wade took the reins of the Bulls offense in the second quarter, though, and the game turned around. Wade got to the line, dished out a couple of assists, and gradually the Bulls got back into the game. Paul Zipser and Nikola Mirotic lived up to their stretch-four billing by hitting a 3-pointer each.

Chicago really got back into the game with defense, though. Or, rather, because Boston went cold. Or both.

Boston has been a middle-of-the-road 3-point shooting team all season, but takes threes at a higher rate than all but two NBA teams. Its shooting, therefore, and specifically the fluctuations in its long-range accuracy, often plays a big role in determining its offensive success. That was the story of Friday’s first half.

The Celtics, after their scorching hot first quarter, hit just 1-of-9 from beyond the arc in the second. After a 33-point opening period, they scored just 11 in the second. Mirotic’s corner three off a Wade kick-out with 30 seconds remaining in the half cut what had been a 20-point Boston lead down to three.

Having coughed up its huge lead, Boston turned to its star in the third. Isaiah Thomas took over. He created offense expertly in the high pick-and-roll. He found teammates and the bottom of the net. It was the passing that really set him and the Celtics apart.

Thomas had four of Boston’s 10 assists in the third quarter. Chicago, meanwhile, stagnated again. It had zero assists in the third. Without Rondo, the offense had no pace — not in transition, nor in halfcourt sets. Boston regained a double-digit lead, and took one — 76-63 — into the fourth quarter.

The Celtics ascendancy carried over into the fourth. So did their ball-movement. On one particularly emblematic possession, the Bulls were chasing shadows. After the ball swung swiftly around the perimeter, Avery Bradley eventually drove baseline and slipped a bounce pass to a diving Jonas Jerebko to put Boston up 16:

The Celtics were never troubled from that point on. Fred Hoiberg conceded the game with around four minutes remaining and emptied his bench.

Hoiberg and the Bulls have work to do to figure out how to play without Rondo if they’re going to regain control of the series in Game 4 and beyond.