Bulls

Jimmy Butler, Bulls steal game 1 in an emotional Boston Garden

Jimmy Butler, Bulls steal game 1 in an emotional Boston Garden

BOSTON — Having the best player on the floor can cure a lot of ills, and the playoffs have a way of showing who's not afraid of the moment.

Against the emotional backdrop of the tragedy surrounding the death of Isaiah Thomas' sister, a charged-up atmosphere was at a more fevered pitch in Game 1 of the Bulls' series with the Boston Celtics.

Big runs, big stops and big stops resulted in the Bulls stealing the opener with a 106-102 decision Sunday at TD Garden, with Bobby Portis aiding Jimmy Butler in a way not many thought was possible.

Portis finished off the Celtics with a midrange jumper to give him 19 points to go with his nine rebounds in his playoff debut, along with a big block over Jae Crowder on a basket cut a few minutes earlier when the Bulls first began to take late control.

With so many young players who are seeing the real bright lights for the first time, Portis stepping up wasn't predictable but he's never appeared to allow moments to be too big for him.

"He was one of our new young guys who I wasn't worried about," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. "He's gonna play with unbelievable confidence, he's gonna play with swagger. He's gonna lay it on the line. He was playing with such tenacity. He was hitting shots, we needed every one of them."

But the star of the night was none other than the apple of the Celtics' eye, Jimmy Butler.

Shaking off a passive first half, Butler scored 23 in the second half to finish with 30, going with nine rebounds and three assists. He caught fire to push a close game to a 95-88 lead with four minutes left.

"I think we were so locked in all week. We knew their stuff like they knew our stuff,"  Butler said. "We executed really well, we haven't done that all season but this is the right time to do it. And that's all you can do, especially on the road."

Hitting nine of 19 shots from the field after starting one for five, he and the Bulls weathered an early emotional storm authored by Thomas as Thomas played amid unspeakable grief.

"What did I see? The same thing he always does. He's such a tough kid, one of the hardest guards to cover in the game," Hoiberg said.

He scored 13 of his game-high 31 points in the first quarter but when directly defended by Butler in the last few minutes, he had a hard time finding space — which could mean doom for the Celtics if they can't get him loose in the last few minutes of close games.

"It's just a different look for him," said Bulls guard Dwyane Wade, a man who also saw some time chasing Thomas around. "Obviously, he scored more than 30 points, he's a handful on the floor. It's just mixing up, giving him different looks with different guys. If it takes two or three seconds away from their offense, it takes the ball a little further out, then we won that battle."

Butler took Thomas after Rajon Rondo picked up two fouls in succession, leading to an 88-87 Celtics lead with 5:41. From that moment, the Celtics mustered just one score and two free throws, while the Bulls went on a 12-4 run until the 1:17 mark to give themselves some breathing room.

Of course, since these are the Bulls, nothing comes easy. A nine-point lead with a minute left turned into danger time in the last 10 seconds, as a review went against them along with an offensive foul on Butler for freeing himself against Celtics irritant Marcus Smart.

But Butler hit two free throws with 3.3 seconds left as the Bulls had a two-point lead to finally close the door and sending the Bulls to the second road win in these NBA Playoffs.

He had help from Portis, who played like a lottery pick when Nikola Mirotic played with a scared rookie. Portis flexed after a big block on Jae Crowder and played the biggest game of his career in his playoff debut, scoring 17 with eight rebounds and hitting back to back triples in the third quarter when the Bulls were reeling.

They shook off a first half where they mustered just 38.5 percent shooting with 11 turnovers along with going two of 14 from the 3-point line.

Many times the Bulls were at their best when shots caromed waywardly off the rim and found its way to Robin Lopez, or Taj Gibson early in the season. Lopez and Portis were all over the glass as the Bulls were under 40 percent for most of the night, but the relentless attacking wound up in keeping the Bulls within striking distance as the Celtics couldn't get away in the first half.

"Obviously we knew that was an advantage of our going into the series, I think everybody did a great job of keying in on that aspect," said Lopez, who finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds in 34 minutes.

The Bulls dominated the boards overall with a 53-36 advantage, as 20 of those came on the offensive end with 23-15 advantage in second-chance points. Hoiberg made a critical decision when Rajon Rondo picked up his fifth foul guarding Thomas, subbing in Jerian Grant and moving Butler to Thomas. Grant had been one of eight from the field but hit a big triple from Butler to make it a 95-88 game with four minutes left.

From there the Bulls held on for dear life and suddenly have more than new life in their attempt to show this is not an ordinary 1-8 first-round matchup.

Three Things to Watch: Bulls square off against LeBron and the Cavaliers

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Three Things to Watch: Bulls square off against LeBron and the Cavaliers

Here are Three Things to Watch in the Bulls' Tuesday night tilt against the Cavaliers on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. with Bulls Pregame Live.

1. LeBron James will be on your television

Love him or hate him, LeBron James is must-see TV. Now in his 15th NBA season, James has shown no signs of slowing down. Despite playing just one preseason game (against the Bulls), James has shown anything but rust in three games, averaging 25.0 points on 60 percent shooting, 8.3 rebounds and 6.3 assists in nearly 37 minutes. He's a threat every night to do something you've never seen on a basketball court, His Airness included. Justin Holiday and Paul Zipser will have their hands full against the game's best player.

2. Lauri Markkanen, Week 2

Small sample size alert! But through the season's first week Markkanen and Ben Simmons are the only rookies averaging a double-double (Dallas' Dennis Smith has played just one game, averaging 16 points and 10 assists). While the Bulls have struggled through two games, Markkanen's net rating is third best on the team and he leads the Bulls bigs in rebounds per game and rebound percentage. Markkanen has shown some versatility offensively, and his 7 free-throw attempts have been a nice surprise as well.

3. Don't forget: The Bulls swept the Cavaliers last year

OK, so expecting a victory Tuesday night in Cleveland isn't smart. The Bulls will be underdogs just like they were in each of the four games last season, all of which were Bulls winners. It was the first time in 52 division series that LeBron James had been swept, which is pretty remarkable considering the Bulls were the No. 8 seed and the Cavs coasted to a third straight NBA Finals. We're not over here predicting a win. But just remember: the Bulls have fared well against James in the regular season.

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

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.”