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.

NBA Draft: Cam Reddish out to prove doubters, show he's a total package

NBA Draft: Cam Reddish out to prove doubters, show he's a total package

It's never easy being the third wheel. Ask Chris Bosh and Kevin Love, or more currently Klay Thompson. When Cam Reddish signed his Letter of Intent to play for Coach K at Duke, he was joined by a class that included RJ. Barrett and Cam Reddish. He and Barrett were expected to take on the scoring load and lead a freshman-driven Blue Devils team.

But two months after Reddish, Barrett and Jones signed on officially, Zion Williamson committed to Duke and turned everything on its head. On paper, it made the Blue Devils the No. 1 team in the country. It gave them a fourth five-star prospect and arguably the best player in the country. We all know what happened with Williamson; he turned in one of the greatest seasons in college basketball history and will be selected first overall by the Pelicans in a month. Barrett was excellent, too. The oft-criticized wing was an All-American, led the Blue Devils in scoring and cemented his status as a top-3 pick.

Reddish's freshman campaign couldn't have gone more differently. He was inconsistent throughout, finishing his lone season in Durham averaging 13.5 points on 35.6% shooting and just 33.3% from beyond the arc. Even his 3.7 rebounds and 1.9 assists were a far cry from what was expected of a recruit many had ranked ahead of Williamson when the season began. He showed flashes, to be sure, like his 22-point effort against Kentucky, his game-winner at Florida State and his 27-point outing against North Carolina in the infamous Zion-shoe-blowout game. But those flashes weren't enough to save a subpar season that saw his draft stock tumble throughout the fall and winter.

Then again, Reddish was the third option behind two of the most profilic scorers in the country. Barrett had a 32.2% usage rate - 25th highest in the country - and Williamson was a focal point every night he stepped on the floor. In a sense that should have created more open looks for Reddish as defenses keyed in on those two, but in reality it limited his opportunities and made it difficult for him to project at how he would be used on game-by-game basis.

Reddit wasn't making any excuses for his poor season when he spoke to the media on Thursday at the NBA Draft Combine. But he did say he's looking forward to opportunities in the pre-draft process to show off his entire arsenal that made him a top-5 prospect and a potential top NBA pick coming out of high school.

"I feel like I can do everything. I feel like I was more of a shooter this year (at Duke). I don’t really want to think of myself as a shooter," he said. "So I feel like if I just go out there and play my game, I can do a variety of things."

Two key statistics back up Reddish's claim. First, he was excellent on off-the-dribble jump shots, averaging 0.903 points per possession on 62 attempts. That ranked in the 71st percentile nationally. He also dominated in the small sample size of pick-and-roll actions he induced, averaging 1.114 points per possession (91st percentile nationally). It lends credibility to the notion that Reddish is capable with the ball in his hands. Reddish's usage rate was 15th in the ACC, so it's not as though he never touched the ball. But between the Williamson/Barrett combination and the lead point guard in Jones, he was rarely the main (or second) option.

Playing off the ball was certainly new to Reddish, who like so many NBA prospects deal with a new role in not being the go-to scorer once they arrive in the Association. Reddish got a dose of that as a college freshman and struggled to adjust. He was unguarded on 45 percent of his catch-and-shoot attempts and yet ranked in just the 27th percentile nationally at 0.847 points per possession. Worse, he was in the 33rd percentile on spot-up jumpers on 193 possessions. The looks were there. He rarely knocked them down. He also shot just 51 percent at the rim, a troubling number, and that statistic includes freebies in transition that Duke thrived on during the season.

On talent and potential alone, Reddish is still a top-10 pick. He told reporters Thursday that he's hearing he'll fall somewhere in the 3 to 10 range, which sounds about right (though it'd be a shock to see him go before Barrett at No. 3). He still has prototypical NBA wing size - he measured 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-0.5 wingspan - and is an above average ball handler. But there's no denying his good traits combined with his poor showing at Duke make him a swing-for-the-fences, boom-or-bust pick.

For the Bulls, it might be time to pull the trigger on that kind of player. Both Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. fell into their laps at No. 7 the previous two seasons - that's not to say they shouldn't be applauded for the picks, just that they were expected. But in this year's draft class, players in the 4-14 range all fall into a similar tier. In the Lottery, there will be safe routes to take (De'Andre Hunter, Rui Hachimura), selections for need (Darius Garland, Coby White) and there will be high-risk, high-reward options (Reddish, Sekou Doumbouya, Jarrett Culver).

But the Bulls could do worse than coming out of this year's draft with a player who 7 shorts months ago was a potential pick to go No. 1. He'd have lower expectations playing on a second unit and could spread his wings a little behind Zach LaVine and Otto Porter. Having that freedom on a second unit could be what unlocks that untapped potential that was missing at Duke a year ago.

Is this the year for Bulls to think outside the box at No. 7?

Is this the year for Bulls to think outside the box at No. 7?

With the majority of mock drafts coming out after Tuesday’s lottery having the Bulls selecting North Carolina point guard Coby White with the seventh overall pick in the June 20 NBA Draft, it had me thinking about whether this might be the year to take a chance on a high risk/high reward pick.

Yes, Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson has made it clear he plans to bring in a point guard to challenge incumbent starter Kris Dunn, but with so many options in free agency, are the Bulls still inclined to go in that direction with their first round pick?

Before the lottery, the odds of the Bulls being in position to select either Ja Morant or Darius Garland looked pretty favorable if they stayed in the top-5. But after dropping all the way to No. 7, it’s almost a certainty that Morant and Garland will be gone, leaving White as the highest rated point guard available. White showed tremendous speed and scoring potential in his one season at North Carolina, but he has a lot to learn about directing an offense at the NBA level and will need to get stronger.

If Dunn returns for the final season of his rookie contract, there’s a good chance he moves into a backup role behind a veteran free agent, so maybe this isn’t the year to draft a developmental point guard.

So then, what do the Bulls do at No. 7?

Maybe it’s time to take a flier on a high upside athlete, something they really haven’t done since the infamous LaMarcus Aldridge-Tyrus Thomas draft night deal in 2006. This year’s draft contains a number of players who didn’t live up to expectations in their one collegiate season, but rank high on the athletic testing charts.

I had a chance to talk with a number of players at the draft combine in Chicago, and one who impressed me is USC guard Kevin Porter Jr. Scouts love the athleticism of the 6-foot-4 Porter Jr., but he underperformed in his one collegiate season, averaging just 9.5 points on 47 percent shooting from the field in a mostly reserve role.

Porter Jr. missed seven games because of a thigh injury and also had to serve a team suspension for “personal conduct issues.” But he’s not lacking in confidence, telling me he was a top-5 prospect at the start of the season and will be able to work his way up draft boards after teams get a chance to interview him and put him through individual workouts. Porter Jr. also mentioned comparisons to last year’s NBA MVP James Harden, mostly because they’re both 6-foot-4, played at PAC 12 universities and are left-handed.

No one is predicting Porter Jr. will ever come close to the unique scoring talent Harden displays on a nightly basis, but he definitely looks the part of an NBA player with a strong upper body and impressive leaping ability. Don’t be surprised if he winds up being a top-10 pick on draft night.

Other players projected for the late lottery include Indiana shooting guard Romeo Langford, Kentucky SG/SF Keldon Johnson, North Carolina small forward Nassir Little, French forward Sekou Doumbouya and Oregon 7-foot-2 center Bol Bol.

Much like Porter Jr., Little was considered a top-5 pick at the start of the college season, but never earned Roy Williams’ complete confidence at North Carolina, and struggled to find consistent minutes and shot attempts. He shot the ball well at the combine and projects as an elite defender at the NBA level. The Bulls really aren’t in the market for another small forward with Otto Porter Jr. and 2018 first round pick Chandler Hutchison already on the roster, but the wing positions offer the most talent in this draft.

Bol is a fascinating prospect with many scouts saying he’s one of the best pure shooters in this draft as a 7-footer. Problem is Bol suffered a foot fracture early in his freshman season at Oregon, the same type of injury that cost Joel Embiid his first two NBA seasons. Any team that drafts Bol will have to understand the risk of further injury, and the likelihood he won’t be able to contribute much in the 2019-2020 season.

If the Bulls stay at No. 7, White is the most logical pick, but they could go with a player that drops unexpectedly, like Duke forward Cam Reddish or Texas Tech shooting guard Jarrett Culver. The Bulls have always been aggressive in scheduling personal workouts and interviews with all the prospects in their draft range, and this year that process will take on more importance than ever.

Remember, Donovan Mitchell was one of the most impressive athletes at the combine two years ago, but stayed on the board until the Utah Jazz worked a trade with Denver to get him at No. 13. Now Mitchell is one of the best young guards in the NBA. Kyle Kuzma also moved into the first round in 2017 with a strong combine showing and is thriving as a productive two-way player with the Lakers.

It’s up to Paxson and his staff to find which player has the most long term upside and maybe come up with their own version of Mitchell or Kuzma next month.

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