BOSTON – Dwyane Wade stared down Jaylen Brown, and in that moment, fourth quarter, time winding down, seeding never seemed so irrelevant. There was Wade, 35, a battered ex-champ, a veteran of 167 playoff games staring down a defender a year removed from using a meal card. Wade drove right, caught Brown on his hip, faded and drew the foul. A free throw swelled the Chicago Bulls’ lead to 17, pushed Wade’s total to 20 and sent Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens waving his mop-up crew into the game.
The Bulls pummeled the Celtics 111-97 on Tuesday, seizing control of this first-round series, pushing top-seeded Boston to within two games of elimination. On their home floor, the Celtics were embarrassed; the offense was predictable, the defense worse and the fire the team showed in 53 wins this season disappeared. Late in the fourth quarter, Avery Bradley passed Rajon Rondo, the ex-Celtic who finished a rebound shy of a triple-double, overhearing a pointed message from his former teammate.
“I could hear Rondo [saying], ‘Yeah, they gave up,’” Bradley said. “’They gave up.’”
They gave up. Losing hurts. Getting blown out is worse. But quitting? That’s a damning accusation. Still, look at the evidence: Chicago’s physical play has worn Boston down. Robin Lopez (18 points, eight rebounds) has been a force. Every Celtics big man took a turn trying to keep Lopez off the glass. None were successful.
Offensively? No heart. Playoff games are a grind. Boston played this one like it was a 3-point contest. The Bulls’ offense was crisp, with Rondo (14 assists) orchestrating it flawlessly. The Celtics jacked up 33 threes, many contested and more early in the shot clock. This has happened before; Boston’s inability to create offense outside of Isaiah Thomas is a glaring weakness. Al Horford – the $113 million man – was supposed to provide balance. On Tuesday, Horford (seven points) didn’t.
“I just remember one time they went up 10, I felt like we tried to get it all back in one play,” Celtics small forward Jae Crowder said. “That’s not how basketball works.”
And what about Thomas? The tragedy Thomas has suffered – the death of his 22-year-old sister, Chyna, who was killed in a car accident Saturday – is unspeakable. He will travel to Tacoma, Wash., to be with his family on Wednesday, and perhaps the team should encourage him to stay for a while. Thomas’ numbers in Game 2 were solid (20 points), but he was soundly outplayed by Rondo and has looked out of sorts on the floor. He targeted the referees early, picking up a first-quarter technical, and barked at Marcus Smart late in the third quarter.
Clearly, Boston is a better team with Thomas. But the Celtics, understandably, have been walking on eggshells around him, searching for the words to console him, desperately trying to ease his pain. This is uncharted territory for Boston, for anyone. Thomas is an All-Star, irreplaceable. But if he needs time to grieve, the Celtics may be better off trying to grind out a win without him.
It will be a challenge, with or without Thomas, because this Bulls team is for real. Chicago sleepwalked through the regular season, rallied for a playoff spot it didn’t seem it wanted and suddenly became the team it long hoped it could be. Rondo, benched midseason, has rediscovered a Celtics-level form. Butler has been the best player in the series, and Wade is the old Cadillac who needed 82 games to get out of the garage door. The infighting that plagued the Bulls in the regular season is gone, replaced by a playoff camaraderie that has bound this team together.
“One thing I learned about this team is through adverse situations, this team sticks together,” Wade said. “We had adversity this year, and that’s the thing that has made us closer and stronger.”
Indeed. A bracket separated Boston and Chicago last week, but the true divide was always closer. Boston earned the top seed, but was never a conference favorite. Thomas, Horford and Bradley are in their primes. The team, though, isn’t. Brown, Smart and Terry Rozier are years from reaching their potential. And a top-four pick, perhaps the first overall, could soon join them. Changes, significant ones, to the roster could come this summer, as the Celtics continue to build a sustainable contender.
For now it’s on to Chicago, to try to beat back a Bulls team that firmly believes it is the better of the two. It has been an improbable season for Boston, a team four years removed from tearing apart an aging contender, a franchise rebuilt with remarkable speed. This is a team with the foundation of a conference contender. But if the Bulls have exposed anything, it’s that the Celtics are not there yet.
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