BOSTON – When Chicago Bulls teammates Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo took the podium after Game 2 of their first-round playoff series, a reporter asked whether the “three alphas” were back — referencing the nickname the trio of ball-dominant guards gave themselves amid immense criticism of the team’s roster-building effort this past summer — and a smile washed over all of their faces.
Sure enough, Butler and Rondo both posted near triple-doubles, Wade submitted a vintage fourth-quarter performance and the Bulls found a fourth alpha, Robin Lopez, who added 18 points and eight rebounds in a dominating 111-97 victory that dug top-seeded Boston an 0-2 hole on their home court.
Rondo turned back the clock, collecting 11 points, 14 assists, nine rebounds and five steals against his former team, just missing his first triple-double since he was still wearing green in Game 7 of the 2012 Eastern Conference finals against Wade’s Miami Heat. The legend of Playoff Rondo was finally reborn.
“Hated him,” Wade said of Playoff Rondo, whose elbow he once injured and who was sitting right next to him. “Hated him as a competitor. ‘Hated him’ is that respect. When we would play Boston back in the day, Rondo knew all the plays. He messes up your first option, and then he knows your second option. We were just good enough to have a third option, but he was that good, and I think for myself and Jimmy to have someone who’s so locked in, that gives us a different voice … and he’s watching film all the time, so it’s key when you have a point guard like him that controls the whole game.”
Meanwhile, All-Star Jimmy Butler contributed 22 points, eight assists, eight rebounds, four steals and a pair of blocks. Wade scored 11 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter to put the C’s away for good. When all was said and done, the Bulls shot better than 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from 3-point range, and six different players scored in double figures. Suddenly, Chicago is no three-man show.
It wasn’t so much that the Celtics lost both games at home, but how they did, with season-long issues biting them at the worst possible time. Boston can’t rebound and can’t generate offense sans 5-foot-9 dynamo Isaiah Thomas (team-high 20 points) doing everything humanly possible — at a time when that might be too heavy a burden to bear — and the C’s compounded those problems by playing sloppy and listless basketball, committing 16 turnovers and being out-rebounded again by the Bulls.
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“Game 3 is a must-win for us,” said Celtics big man Al Horford.
“It’s not the ideal situation for us,” added Boston’s Jae Crowder (playoff career-high 16 points). “You definitely don’t put yourself down 0-2 at home, but it’s not the end of the world for us. We feel like we’ve got the unit, we’ve got the togetherness to go out to Chicago and get Game 3 and take care of business. Obviously, it’s not ideal for us go down 0-2 at home, but I feel like we can bounce back.”
As in Game 1, the TD Garden crowd energized the Celtics, who staked themselves to a 7-0 lead, only to watch it disappear in a sea of second-chance points. All five Bulls starters grabbed at least one offensive board in the opening quarter, corralling nearly half their misses for eight additional points in the first 12 minutes. A late-quarter run sparked by second-year guard Terry Rozier (a plus-11 in 13 minutes) — the ninth man Boston coach Brad Stevens used in a first-quarter attempt to generate any offense with Thomas on the bench — cut what was a 12-point deficit to 31-26 after one.
Marcus Smart (13 points, eight rebounds) briefly kept the spark alive to start the second quarter, crashing the glass and scrapping Boston back to a 36-36 tie, but the Bulls injected a steady dose of Rondo playmaking, Lopez rebounding and top-to-bottom shotmaking to regain a double-digit lead.
This is just embarrassing pic.twitter.com/lqzLSlgBYQ
— John Karalis ???????? (@RedsArmy_John) April 19, 2017
Boston curbed Chicago’s second chances a bit after the opening quarter, but the Bulls still bullied them in the paint, where they outscored the C’s 32-20 in the first half and took a 54-46 lead into the break. This despite Game 1 hero Butler scoring just nine points on 12 shots through 24 minutes.
Butler found his groove in the third quarter, and Lopez — a 44 percent shooter from the mid-range during the regular season — couldn’t miss from that distance. The Celtics shot 62 percent in the period, and still came out worse for wear, trailing 86-75, thanks to a handful of turnovers. The Bulls just seemed more engaged than Boston, save for Thomas and Smart. Chicago attacked, picked the C’s to pieces, and got open shot after shot. No amount of inspiration from the home crowd, which was ready to erupt every time the Celtics cut it to single digits, could get their team out of the funk.
Wade: "We'll ride Jimmy until we can't ride him no more. And then when they're ready to ride me, I'm ready."
— Nick Friedell (@NickFriedell) April 17, 2017
Then came the fourth quarter, when Wade lived up to his off-day promise of putting games on ice, sandwiching eight points, including two 3-pointers, around a Cristiano Felicio alley-oop dunk (it was that kind of game, folks) to push Chicago’s lead to 19 midway through the final frame. And, yes, the Bulls were getting contributions everywhere from Felicio to Paul Zipser (16 points), all while the Celtics couldn’t find anyone beyond Thomas capable of manufacturing points when Boston needed them.
“Well, you play 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. We had adversity this year,” Wade said in a massive understatement, “as every team has, and that’s the thing that has made us closer and stronger. The credit for this team sticking together through injuries 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, you come into the playoffs like this and get wins together. It feels good.”
Seriously, when Michael Carter-Williams banks home long jumpers, and Thomas — a 90 percent free-throw shooter who had never missed more than four in a single game — misses six, maybe it’s not Boston’s night. And maybe it’s not Boston’s series. It was the sort of performance that made you wonder if the Celtics were rightfully overwhelmed by the tragedy that befell their star, or whether this Chicago team — with their three alphas finally finding their stride and a center Boston was making look like the comic book heroes he idolizes — is just a nightmare matchup for the East’s No. 1 seed.
“You’ve got to give them some credit, but also I think for whatever reason we were a little anxious at times,” said Horford (seven points, 11 rebounds, five assists). “We understood this was an important game for us, and as a group we probably didn’t handle it as good as we could have. We’re learning as a group, but our team, we’ve been very consistent all year, so I feel good about our team. We have some things that we need to figure out, and we will will. And we will get ready for that Game 3.”
Regardless, the Celtics are down 0-2 and heading on the road for Friday’s “must win” in Chicago. They’ll need to figure out how to find that consistency and win four of their next five games or suffer the fate of unfortunate immortality, becoming just the sixth top seed ever to lose in the first round.
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