After fighting through unspeakable adversity, Celtics 'enjoying the moment' with new perspective


After fighting through unspeakable adversity, Celtics 'enjoying the moment' with new perspective

Championship moments rarely occur in the first round. With a playoff format that drags the postseason out for more than two months, with playoff series taking as long as two weeks, the second season feels like just that. It’s far too early to say what exactly Friday night in Chicago will mean for the top-seeded Celtics, but a sense of a team coming together under unfathomable circumstances may prove to be the turning point in a season that a week ago appeared hanging by a thread.

It happened in three parts.

On the floor the Celtics looked every bit the part of a 51-win team that edged out LeBron’s Cavs for the top spot in the East. Brad Stevens’ small-ball approach came full-circle as the Boston guards lived in the paint against the Bulls, kicking out to open shooters for 16 3-pointers that helped the Celtics put away the game (and series) midway through the third quarter.

Avery Bradley starred for a second consecutive night, tallying 23 points while making Jimmy Butler work for his, while eight different Celtics hit a 3-pointer and the team shot 49 percent. For the first time in the series the Celtics looked dominant, like a team poised to contend with the Cavaliers for supremacy in the East.

“It felt good to play Celtic basketball again,” Avery Bradley said. “We were all smiling, having fun, and that’s what it’s supposed to be. That’s how hard we worked this entire year, to play that type of basketball.”

Isaiah Thomas was naturally somber much of the series. The well-documented death of his 22-year-old sister put a damper on the series before it began, and the MVP candidate understandably chose not to address it on the few occassions he spoke with the media. But Thomas looked more like himself as the series went on. Not only did his numbers improve, he appeared more vocal after made baskets, laughed off trash talk from Bulls point guard Isaiah Canaan, and engineered the Celtics' offense to near-perfection.

His defining moment came late in the third quarter with the Celtics nearing a 30-point lead. After a hard foul he gathered his four teammates in a huddle near the baseline and shouted that the series for the Bulls was "a wrap for these m------------!" This was the same player who two weeks earlier was brought to tears prior to Game 1, and who will bury his sister on Saturday in Tacoma, Washington. Under unthinkable circumstances, Thomas averaged 23.0 points and 5.7 assists in 34.8 minutes in the series.

“I feel like he has grown,” Al Horford said. "And we all have in a way with all the adversity that has gone on. It could have easily gone the other way, but I feel like especially tonight when we got the game in hand, in control, we all just kept on repeating to stay focused to keep it going, keep pushing. We didn’t want to give them any life and we were a focused group and we were enjoying the moment.”

Thomas' journey won't get easier. He'll have another short turnaround to get ready for Sunday's second-round matchup against the Celtics. But like his teammates did in Games 3 and 4, when Thomas flew by himself to Chicago following his return home to Tacoma to mourn with his family, they'll have another opporuntity to grow closer. Brad Stevens kept an incredible perspective on the situation throughout the series, and applauded his team for doing the same while still fighting for wins.

"Bigger things than basketball happened, and that took precedent and it takes precdedent," he said. "I was really proud of our guys for how they treated each other, how they stood together, stuck together. And how nobody pointed fingers, they were just a great support for one another, especially Isaiah."

When Thomas does return, and when the Celtics gear up for their next postseason journey, expectations will have remained the same. Though the Wizards were one of the league's best teams in the second half, and with John Wall and Bradley Beal playing on another level, it'll take more performances like Friday night - both on the court and collectively staying together - for Boston to advance. A 2-0 hole against the Wizards will feel a whole lot different than it did against the Bulls.

That sort of letdown doesn't feel like it will happen again. Though no one would have wished such tragedy to force it, the Celtics came together at a critical moment and came out better for it. Their work isn't done, and they know it. But the way they were able to handle the adversity in Round 1, anything seems possible for Stevens, Thomas the top seed in the East.

"We just try to stay the course in the day-to-day. And if that results in us winning more games or winning in the playoffs, or whatever the case may be, there’s only one goal in the Boston," Stevens said. "Seventeen (NBA championship) banners above us. We don’t have a choice. We only shoot for one thing there."

Anatomy of a comeback: Bulls use defense, new lineup to rally vs. Cavaliers

Anatomy of a comeback: Bulls use defense, new lineup to rally vs. Cavaliers

The Bulls are in no position to judge victories, but Zach LaVine, as usual, nailed it with his assessment of Saturday’s 118-116 comeback victory over the Cavaliers.

“Ugly win,” LaVine said.

The Bulls allowed an opponent season-high 73 points in a sluggish first half, trailed by 19 in the third and by 15 to open the final period.

So what happened?

Defense, and another sublime offensive night from LaVine, happened.

But it seemed fitting on a night where LaVine scored 21 of his 42 points in the fourth that he also set his career-high with five steals. The 40-point, five-steal night put LaVine in select franchise company alongside Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.

The Bulls scored 16 points off 10 Cavaliers’ turnovers in the final period, limiting them to 14 points on 26.7 percent shooting. And they accomplished all this with a lineup they hadn’t used all season. It featured Kris Dunn at point guard, LaVine at shooting guard, Tomas Satoransky at small forward, Chandler Hutchison at power forward and Lauri Markkanen at center.

“KD, we joke about a guy being a cephalopod, an extremely fast and agile being,” coach Jim Boylen said. “I thought he was all over the place. We had six turnovers in the first seven possessions of the fourth. You gotta give our guys some credit. They found some juice. We were able to get a lineup there that could work. I thought Lauri got some pop back.”

He also got some minutes back.

Boylen called the first play of the game for Markkanen, utilized him in the post once and played him two seconds shy of 33 minutes, including the entire fourth quarter. Markkanen joked about turning the ball over on that first play call, but his 17 points on 14 shots and heavy minutes in crunch time were signs of progress.

“I had no problems with that,” Markkanen said of playing the entire fourth. “It was fun to be out there.”

LaVine and Hutchison each had three steals in the fourth as the Bulls tied their season-high of 17 steals. They also added to their league-leading totals of forcing turnovers and scoring off them by registering 33 points off 26 Cavaliers’ miscues.

“I was trying to rebound, get my hands on passes, just be active. We needed more energy,” Hutchison said of his surprising star turn. “Lauri was talking to me, going, ‘You’re going to be on the ball screen this time.’ And then we kind of switched it out. We could feel them deflating.”

Dunn rallied from Collin Sexton blowing by him a couple early possessions, which led to Boylen even trying Shaq Harrison on Sexton in the third. Dunn helped hold him scoreless in the fourth.

“I love his game. He plays with passion,” Dunn said. “He was trying to bring it to me. He made a couple big-time shots in the first half. I just had to keep doing what I do. When that fourth quarter came, I got the stops I needed.”

All the Bulls did. Ugly victory or not, it counts. Boylen may not use that lineup again, but that defensive mindset can carry.

“We switched a little bit, changed it up on them,” Dunn said. “I love what the coaches did, gave them a different look. We were just locked in. You could see it in each guy’s face.”

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Zach LaVine leads Bulls to raucous fourth quarter comeback win over Cavaliers

Zach LaVine leads Bulls to raucous fourth quarter comeback win over Cavaliers

The Bulls went down big, then came up bigger down the stretch. Observations from a 118-116 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers:

This one was… a shootout? (For a bit)

Before this one, I wrote that anything and everything was possible in this game — especially given that both teams entered on the back-end of back-to-backs and had their travel delayed overnight on Friday.

A shootout wasn’t high on the list of most probable outcomes, but that’s what we got, at least early on. Kevin Love and Collin Sexton led the charge for Cleveland. Love notched 21 first half points, scoring with relative ease at all three levels (4-for-6 from three). Sexton’s full array of crisp crossovers and breakneck dribble drives were on display — he had 16 at the break.

As a team, the Cavaliers shot an unholy 12-for-17 from 3-point range (with one of those misses being a last-second heave just before the half), 68.4% from the field and at one point made 14 consecutive field goals in the first half. They won the second quarter 40-25. 

The Bulls shot 54.5%, scored 56 points and forced 12 turnovers, yet all of that amounted in a 73-56 deficit entering the third. The Cavs’ shooting numbers regressed from there, as the Bulls eventually staged a furious rally.

Credit Cleveland for playing with pride and energy in a game they could have phoned in. And credit the Bulls for rebounding from a porous defensive first half in a game they should have dominated from the start.

Lauri Markkanen bounced back

The Bulls ran plays for Markkanen to start all three quarters that he began on the floor (the first, the third and the fourth). In that order: one ended in a turnover, one a made 3-pointer of a pick-and-pop feed from Tomas Satoransky, one a missed 3-pointer on a similar action.

His increased involvement seemed intentional on the heels of a three-game stretch in which Markkanen averaged 8.7 field goal attempts per game. He finished the night with 17 points, scoring seven of those in the fourth, on 7-for-14 shooting in 33 minutes. His 2-for-8 from 3-point range sticks out, but it was encouraging to see him find his offense in other ways (on the break, facing up and off offensive rebounds).

Markkanen gave the Bulls a 112-111 lead, a lead they never surrendered, with a transition layup through contact with just under three minutes left.

A rally ends in victory

The Bulls entered the fourth quarter trailing 102-87 but claimed the lead — 108-107 — by the 4:38 mark with a torrid 21-5 run. Games of this narrative arc are a pattern for the Bulls — only this time, the late rally ended in victory.

Zach LaVine was, again, the hero. He poured in 21 fourth quarter points — finishing the game with 42 on 19-for-31 shooting — and ignited the UC throughout the game’s last 12 minutes with tough bucket after tough bucket of every variety. His last one was an and-one layup that stretched the Bulls’ lead to four with under a minute left that caused a frenzy.

Dunn bounced back after Sexton got loose in the first half and made a litany of key plays. Some that stick out: drawing an offensive foul on Love that set up the possession that initially gave the Bulls the lead, a steal that resulted in a LaVine dunk to retake it a few minutes later and the game-clinching rebound off a Love miss with seconds remaining. He was everywhere. 

The Bulls’ closing lineup consisted of Chandler Hutchison at the presumptive four and Markkanen at center, with Satoransky, LaVine, and Dunn manning the wing. Hutchison only took two shots but played his role — his length and activity were pivotal to the Bulls holding the Cavaliers to 14 fourth-quarter points. It was an encouraging performance for him.

The game swung on a coach’s challenge won by Jim Boylen that took the ‘and-one’ designation off a Love dunk with 20.1 seconds left (the foul, on Markkanen, was ticky-tack). The Bulls forced nine turnovers and held the Cavaliers to 4-for-15 shooting, outscoring them 31-14 in the fourth quarter and 62-43 in the second half. The clamps went on at the right time.

It was an absolute ride, and though against suspect competition, an exhilarating win. Reality calls with Milwaukee in town on Monday.

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