Leave it to the Chicago Bulls to fall helpless in the face of the absence of a player that spent at least half the season wondering if he even wanted to be on the darn team.
Leave it to the Boston Celtics to win on the shoulders of a 5-foot-9 point guard, and a former benchwarmer that was supposed to be the team’s Swingman of the Future a decade ago.
The Celtics tied their first-round series with Chicago 2-2 on Sunday evening, following Isaiah Thomas’ lead and Gerald Green’s ascension to its logical conclusion – a 104-95 win over a Bulls team led most efficiently by Isaiah Canaan, a triple reserve playing his first double-figure minutes since Feb. 12:
Isaiah Canaan had more DNP-CDs than minutes after the All-Star break. And Hoiberg is rolling with him. Weird season.
— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) April 23, 2017
Green, a 2005 Celtics draftee who was inactive for 35 games this season (after spending 2007-16 away from the club), gave the Celtics 16 first-half points, with five rebounds and four 3-pointers.
Chicago was led by Jimmy Butler’s 33 points and nine assists, and the All-Star hit 19 of 23 from the line, but it was hardly enough with Rajon Rondo not around to stir the drink. The club badly missed his defensive presence on Thomas, who tossed in 33 of his own, and Chicago’s offense often looked miserable without Rondo’s creative touch to keep the Celtics’ defense on edge.
Green’s second consecutive inclusion into the starting lineup was of paramount importance. In a season that saw the Celtics reportedly dissuade themselves out of notions of attempting to deal for Butler, the addition of an All-Star-level off guard into the previously turgid Boston lineup was a series-shifting spark:
Gerald Green changed the series
— Ricky O'Donnell (@SBN_Ricky) April 23, 2017
Following the win, in an interview with NBA TV, Boston center Al Horford (15 points, 12 rebounds) found it “unbelievable” that Green, who “hadn’t played all year,” was able to “show everybody that he’s still got it.”
“He’s a guy that’s stayed ready all year,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens told the media after the win, “and his attitude has been great all year. Regardless of whether he’s playing or not, he’s been ready.”
With the Game 4 win, Boston can now look forward to a reprisal of what the team thought it earned entering the postseason – a shortened series against a lower-seeded opponent, with more games played in Boston than in Chicago. Tied at 2-2 and seemingly having made the expert counter moves in the face of a Bulls team that was too quick to everything in the first two games of the series, the C’s appear to have the upper hand and then some.
Chicago’s return to the mean, including an insipid first-quarter appearance, can’t just be chalked up to adjustments from Boston coach Brad Stevens. The Chicago Bulls really are collapsing in Rajon Rondo’s absence, their second straight defeat since the point guard (a man just three months removed from bashing the franchise on his Instagram account) was sidelined with a right thumb fracture.
Early on in Game 4 the Bulls played as if they didn’t have a clue, and didn’t care to earn one. The team’s attempts at spread-floor penetration were routinely cut off by a smaller Boston team featuring Green’s long arms in the lineup, and, per usual, a fruitless series of Bulls possessions came down to one-on-one forays to the hoop. Legends from Dwyane Wade to Paul Zipser.
Boston covered every angle, and managed to overcome the short waves that emanated from a second-quarter mini-argument between Butler and tenacious Boston guard Marcus Smart …
Butler responded to Smart’s aggression following the game, insisting that the Celtics guard was “not about that life,” a reference that could get Butler fined prior to Game 5:
Jimmy Butler just went all the way in on Marcus Smart pic.twitter.com/GMlmzsXvoS
— Kenny Ducey (@KennyDucey) April 24, 2017
The game also included a charming shoelace incident that, again, seemingly gave the Bulls life after the prospect of going up 3-1 in a first-round series just wouldn’t do.
Credit the Celtics, though, for learning from the first two losses in the series. The C’s understand they’ll need every bit of their smallish roster to overcome a Bulls team that still has enough to take another game or two from the favorites.
And thank goodness for the presence of Isaiah Thomas, who not only made a mockery of Rondo’s reserve in Game 4 starter Jerian Grant, but also replacement Michael Carter-Williams, as the two combined to contribute zero points, zero rebounds, two assists, two turnovers and mostly awful defense in the loss. Thomas scored and assisted in every point notched during Boston’s decisive 12-0 run in the third quarter, a desperate run pitched after the Bulls came all the way down from 20 points to take a two-point lead.
When asked if he was “in awe” of his star player, considering that he is a week removed from losing his sister Chyna in a car accident, Coach Stevens was nearly beside himself:
“I can’t believe it. What he’s been through, the day-to-day, it’s unfathomable the way he’s performed on the court. It’s incredible. What he’s done has been remarkable.”
Stevens’ counterpart, Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg, was insistent after the loss that Thomas was on the forgiving end of a series of non-calls:
— The Fuzz (@TheFuzzNBA) April 24, 2017
“I don’t think I’ve been called for [a palming violation] one time this year,” Thomas told assembled media after the win, and after Hoiberg’s mini-rant. “I can’t recall one time this season I’ve been called for a carry.”
Isaiah turned the ball over just 210 times in 2016-17, a fantastic number (just under 11 percent of the possessions he used up) for a player of his size, and with his responsibilities.
If the Bulls are left to rely on the kindness of a referee’s whistle, on the road and with a two-time All-Star in Thomas shouldering the load, they’re in a world of trouble in Game 5 and beyond. The team’s listless play without Canaan on the floor left the team’s coach confounded yet again, though Hoiberg would not commit to starting Canaan (who contributed 13 points, two steals and three assists in 34 minutes) in the team’s desperate Game 5 lineup.
This isn’t to say many of the same issues don’t remain for the Celtics, even in victory. Stevens pointed out just before the second quarter that he “thought if we could keep them off the foul line, We’d be playing good defense.” Butler responded by getting to the stripe 14 times in the first half alone, the Bulls 21 in total, making 15.
The C’s were bashed around on the interior a bit when the Bulls had their wits about them, left helpless on too many broken plays-turned-scores:
— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) April 24, 2017
… but the Celtics knew entering the postseason that they were an unfinished project. Entering Friday night, the club just hoped to make it out of the first round (even in defeat) without embarrassing themselves.
The Celtics made it out of the weekend halfway home, and now the club is heading home.
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