Bulls

Bulls are halfway to history after taking an unlikely 2-0 series lead on Celtics

Bulls are halfway to history after taking an unlikely 2-0 series lead on Celtics

The stunned silence of the Garden was only matched by cheers of a team that seems to be growing with every big game, a team unfazed by being the eighth seed.

Because this eighth seed is halfway to making history after another victory over the Boston Celtics at TD Garden Tuesday night, outmuscling and outhustling them on the way to a 111-97 win.

The series is now 2-0 in favor of the Bulls with two games in Chicago this weekend, and if the Bulls have their way, it’ll be the last time they see green T-shirts, the last time they see the 17 championship banners and countless retired numbers in the rafters this season.

For all the Celtics’ history, it can’t help them against the Bulls, and the Bulls have stood toe-to-toe with the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference. In fact, it was a member of Celtics’ past wearing a black Bulls jersey, aggressively stalking, swaggering and absorbing boos like after-school candy.

It also helps that the Bulls are bigger than the Celtics, tougher than their opponents and now, possesses a confidence that swallows any adjustment the Celtics can make with their personnel.

The Bulls have shut off their scoring valves, holding Isaiah Thomas to just 20 points and no other Celtic seems up for the challenge, as they shot 30 percent from three and 46 percent overall, but they trailed for double figures for most of the night.

Rajon Rondo played like a man possessed, intent on putting a stake into the hearts of a team he never wanted to leave. Grabbing defensive rebounds to lead the fast break, smacking loose balls away, he contributed to the chaos as the Bulls took a 25-15 lead and never looked back.

“One thing we know about our point guard is he likes everybody to go,” Dwyane Wade said of Rondo. “He had nine rebounds and when he gets the ball, he’s like, ‘Go, go.’

“We need easy baskets. This is a great defensive team. If we see their halfcourt set up every play, it’s going to be hard to score. So our mentality is try to get out and get some easy ones and put some pressure on them.”

A frenetic pace was just the way he liked it, controlling it enough early to withstand a Celtics storm and then being able to cede space to Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade to close the night and send the Celtics faithful to the exits with a little over four minutes left.

Butler scored 13 of his 22 points in the second half, while Wade scored 16 of his 22 after the half, including hitting all three of his 3-pointers in the face of decent defense.

“Rajon, I thought, did a terrific job once we got the ball off the glass,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “When we inserted him back into the starting lineup, how key he’s been to our recent successes. He’s a confident kid and that rubs off on all the other guys.”

Rondo was too fast, too smart, too manipulative with his eyes, like the time he set up Butler for a transition triple in the third quarter. Or the time he put the coup de gras on the night, an alley-oop feed to Cristiano Felicio with 6:01 left to give the Bulls a 102-86 lead, capping off his night where he scored 11 points with 14 assists, nine rebounds and five steals.

“Playoff Rondo”, the guy who put up games where he suddenly turned into a 3-point marksman and triple-double machine, certainly looks to be real this time around, as he’s averaging 11 points, 10 assists and 8.5 rebounds in the first two games this series.

“I don’t know what it is,” Rondo said. “I try to lock in and do what I can for my team. I wouldn’t be in this position unless my teammates did what those guys did last game---Bobby Portis made some big plays, (Jerian) Grant made big plays. Fred Hoiberg is doing a helluva job of putting us in the right situations to get some wins.”

Rondo was the whirling dervish while Robin Lopez provided the strength inside, grabbing offensive rebounds like Pac-Man, swallowing them with his awkward approach, keeping Al Horford from even pinching the ball,

And when the Celtics doubled Butler and Wade on pick-and-pops, Lopez popped jumper after jumper on his way to 18 points and eight rebounds. And if the Celtics didn’t prepare for Portis’ emergence, they certainly weren’t on the lookout for Paul Zipser, who scored 16 on six of eight shooting.

“I got to give our role players a lot of credit tonight,” Hoiberg said. “Zipser was huge for us. Cris made some huge plays on the defensive end. Then in the end it was good to see Dwyane get it going a little bit and obviously Jimmy is going to have the ball in his hands a lot in the 4th quarter.”

The Bulls led 89-75 in the opening minute of the fourth, their biggest lead of the game, when Butler found Felicio for a layup off a double team. Butler again did his part in helping hound Thomas, who will depart to Seattle after Tuesday’s game to be with his family following the unexpected death of his sister last weekend.

Thomas scored 20 but couldn’t weave his way around Butler, Rondo and Wade.

“Isaiah is a crafty guy and I just wanted to go out and play as hard as I could,” Rondo said. “I tried to stay aggressive last game, but I got myself into some foul trouble.”

Butler and Wade weren’t even necessary, not in the way of giving superhuman efforts because the Bulls’ offense ran to perfection as they shot 51 percent from the field and again controlled the offensive glass.

The Bulls scored 44 points in the paint and had 14 second-chance points off 11 offensive rebounds, but considering they shot so well, they didn’t need a high number.

They just needed to win, and they’ve instilled more than a little doubt in the Celtics’ mind.

And now, the Bulls hope they’ve said goodbye to the TD Garden this season, with the unlikely possibility of closing the series out at the United Center.

Zach LaVine not sweating contract extension, anxious to get back in uniform

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USA TODAY

Zach LaVine not sweating contract extension, anxious to get back in uniform

The Zach LaVine timeline for a Bulls debut remains the same, although he’s ahead of schedule in every metric of his return from ACL surgery this past February.

It doesn’t mean he isn’t angling for more work and pushing his limits to learn the offense he’ll be featured in, along with taking contact “here and there,” in his words. He’s supposed to wait nine months from the day of his February 14 surgery before taking contact, which would put him at a November 14 practice before the Bulls go to Oklahoma City.

“I should be doing contact really soon. It all depends on them,” LaVine said in his first public words since media day several weeks ago. “I’m pushing them as hard as I can, but at the end of the day we still gotta be careful. I feel great. I’m doing everything I was doing before. I’m pretty sure I can do contact, but we’ve got to stick to that schedule. But every day I’m just getting back, trying to as close to 100 percent as I can before I come back.”

LaVine was at Air Canada Centre getting a workout in before the Bulls opener against the Raptors and has gotten in heavy workouts on the off days with the assistant coaches in the meantime.

Sticking to the schedule will be on both LaVine and the Bulls, although both sides could be tempted to cut corners a bit. It would be human nature for the Bulls to show the NBA world their centerpiece from the Jimmy Butler trade on draft night, as well as LaVine to want to be the frontline player he feels he deserves to be.

“Yeah, it’s definitely hard. I don’t like missing games,” LaVine said. “Before the injury I didn’t really miss any games. I think I missed one or two in my career, so it really sucks just sitting there, not being able to help. I try to help as much as I can from the sideline. You know, give a little advice here and there, but yeah it hurts.”

He’s also in line for a big-time extension, having passed the deadline for extensions for players in his 2014 draft class. He’ll have to wait until the summer, especially since it didn’t make sense for him to extend unless it was a max deal.

“Obviously, I want to be here for a long time,” LaVine said. “And I feel the deal is going to get done, either then or next summer. I don’t have any fear in that. I think I know I’ll be in black and red for a little bit longer. I’m very happy and looking forward to that day as well. The main concern is just getting back on the court, get my legs ready and try to help the team as much as possible until then.”

LaVine was averaging a career-high 18.9 points as a third option behind Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, but will be featured in Fred Hoiberg’s offense as a first and maybe even second option, too—especially seeing how anemic the Bulls offense has looked in the first two games.

“With the team that we have and the system that (Fred Hoiberg) put in, we’re going to get up a lot of threes,” LaVine said. “When we’re on we’re going to blow some teams out with those threes. When we’re off, as the last couple games have shown, it’s going to be a struggle to score sometimes, but I think that’s where I can come in and help, and I can’t wait to get out there and start playing.”

Never lacking for confidence, LaVine hasn’t been deterred by the losing or even the unfortunate Bobby Portis-Nikola Mirotic incident from last week.

“We’re building something here. People understand we’re going through a little bit of that process,” LaVine said. “But we’re going to play and win. When I’m on the court, I’m trying to win. Wins and losses do happen. We can always take positives from both of those. That’s how you grow.”

As for Mirotic, LaVine hasn’t spoken to him but has sent texts—as it seems many of the Bulls have reached out to their teammate over the last several days.

“It was unfortunate. That’s what happens when two players are battling I guess,” LaVine said. “I don’t think either of them were in the wrong. It was just something that happened, an altercation. Men are men sometimes. We never should have that happen. But I think we’ve moved past it. Bobby’s in a good spot. We’ve all tried to contact Niko. I think we’ll all be able to move forward.”

In ugly home opener, Lauri Markkanen gives a glimmer of hope

In ugly home opener, Lauri Markkanen gives a glimmer of hope

Keeping the game simple is often a tough task for rookies entering the NBA, but it seems Lauri Markkanen has been a quick learner in that aspect.

Through two games he’s probably the lone bright spot, especially after the Bulls’ cringe-inducing 87-77 loss to the San Antonio Spurs in their home opener at the United Center.

Jumper not falling? Okay, go to the basket.

“It wasn’t falling so I tried to get to the rim a couple times,” Markkanen said. “At the end, I was like let’s do it and I connected on a 3-pointer, I felt more open just because I was at the rim. I think that helped.”

He was asked what the difference was in the second game of his career compared to the first.

“I mean the crowd was chanting for us (tonight),” Markkanen said, referring to Thursday in Toronto.

He wasn’t attempting to display any dry wit but applying common sense seems to work for him, even though he’s been thrust into a situation after an incident that doesn’t make any sense.

With Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic out for the foreseeable future, playing a game-high 37 minutes will be more common than anomaly.

“Whatever your minutes are, you gotta play them to the best of your ability,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s being allowed to play through some mistakes right now. He’s gonna play heavy minutes every night.”

He only shot five of 14 but achieved his first double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds after a 17-point, eight-rebound debut against the Raptors Thursday.

No, someone didn’t open a door for a draft to come into the United Center on that three-pointer that went wide left, but it didn’t stop him from being assertive and continuing to look for his shot.

There was plenty of muck, easy to see on the stat sheet. The 38 percent shooting overall, the lack of penetration, the 29 percent shooting from 3-point range and 20 turnovers.

It’s not hard to imagine what Markkanen will look like with competent and effective NBA players around him, along with a true facilitating point guard that will find him in this offense.

“Markkanen is a wonderful player,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “He’s aggressive, he’s smart and obviously, he can shoot the ball. He’s just going to get better and better as he figures things out.”

He received a crash course, facing the likes of Pau Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay Saturday night. On one instance, Gay drove baseline and made Markkanen buckle with a 3-point play.

Aldridge had 24 shots in 32 minutes as a new focal point with Kawhi Leonard out with injury.

So he’s not getting treated with kid gloves, nor is he backing down from the assignments.

“He didn’t shoot the ball well but he battled,” Hoiberg said. “He had a tough assignment with Pau, who’s gonna be in the Hall of Fame one day. Good experience. He guarded Aldridge, Rudy Gay some. He battled, he fought them.”

Even with the airball, had the moment that gives the Bulls fans hope, when he drove on Gasol, spun and hooked a lefty layup while being fouled by the veteran in the first half—giving the United Center faithful something to have faith in for a moment.

“Sometimes you get labeled as a shooter. That’s the label Lauri had,” Hoiberg said. “But he really is a complete basketball player. He’s versatile, he can put in on the deck. He slides his feet very well for a guy that’s seven feet tall, someone his age. Yeah, he’s learning on the fly. He’s gonna have ups and downs, as young as he is. He’s gonna have some struggles at times. But he’s played pretty darn well for everything he’s been through, understanding two days ago he’s gonna be in the starting lineup.”

And for all the bad air around the Bulls right now, from the on-court product to the off-court drama that seems to follow them around like Pigpen, it would be even worse if Markkanen’s first two games had him looking like a corpse, or someone who would be a couple years away from reasonably contributing to an NBA team.

“He’s good, he’s very good,” Gasol said. “I like him. I like his game.”