By the numbers it looks like the series has gone to form but it certainly feels like the Bulls lost more than control of it with their 104-95 loss to the Celtics at the United Center Sunday evening.
The series is tied at two games apiece but it certainly has the feel of a Celtics advantage, and not just because they have two of the last three games in their building in a series that hasn’t seen a home team win a game.
It looks as if the Celtics have figured the Bulls out, taken their best shot and delivered some serious blows of their own, in the form of a 5-foot-9 dynamo who produced a signature moment of his own when his team needed him desperately.
If Isaiah Thomas isn’t the best player in this series, he was certainly the freshest star when it counted, spearheading a 15-2 run to finish the third quarter when the Bulls made a resounding comeback to look as if they would ride a wave of emotion to an improbable 3-1 lead.
Thomas scored or assisted on the next 20 Celtic points, getting into the lane at will along with finding shooters and buckets inside, the biggest stretch of his 33-point night, as he added nine assists on 10 of 21 shooting and hitting 12 of his 13 free throws.
Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg thought the loose officiating played a part in Thomas breaking free, but fighting uphill from down 45-25 midway through the second quarter probably left his team physically spent.
“We got off to a poor start from the get-go, down 10 right out of the shoot,” Hoiberg said. “We had to spend a lot of energy getting back in it.”
It didn’t matter that the Bulls missed a grand opportunity to exploit one of the most vulnerable defensive players in the league in Thomas, as they refused to attack him after he picked up his fourth foul early in the third.
The Bulls felt like they put him in pick and rolls repeatedly without going away from their offense, which was working at the time.
“Trying to force them into a switch, our flow was really good,” Hoiberg said. “We came out the gate really good in the third quarter, didn’t finish it the way we wanted it to.”
[TICKETS: Buy your Bulls playoff seats here]
He kept attacking the Bulls, jumping on the expressway known as the Bulls’ paint and finishing multiple times against taller defenders to restore order and press the lead back to 10 at the end of the third.
The Bulls were gassed and didn’t seem to have much left offensively in the fourth, with Jimmy Butler literally doing everything on his way to a 33-point night with nine assists and five rebounds. After a game where he didn’t go to the foul line at all, he took every bump and every bruise on his way to 23 free throws in 46 minutes.
“I want to win. So if I gotta play the whole game, if that’s what the coach asks me and my teammates think I can do that, I’m cool with that,” Butler said.
Nikola Mirotic and Isaiah Canaan scored 13 with Dwyane Wade adding 11, but it was Wade’s missed fast break layup that resulted in an Al Horford 3-point play after a dunk that made it 92-80 midway through the fourth, ending a relatively serious Bulls’ threat.
The quality of shots Wade and Butler got again faltered without Rajon Rondo or a reasonable facsimile at point guard who could create, and it’s starting to take its toll.
“It’s a little different. Obviously with Rondo out he isn’t setting Jimmy and myself up,” Wade said. “I like having the ball, but it affects the offensive rhythm. We have to figure it out and do what we need to do to make more shots.”
Horford scored 15 with 12 rebounds while Brad Stevens’ adjustment from Game 3, Gerald Green, scored all 18 of his points in the first half, helping the Celtics take control as they again gouged the Bulls from the 3-point line in the opening moments—starting with Thomas’ patience against an aggressive Bulls defense.
The game was an instant replay early, with the Celtics jumping out to an 11-4 lead and methodically increasing it throughout. Hoiberg gave his struggling point guards another chance, but Grant and Carter-Williams were again not up to task, with Hoiberg pulling them in favor for Canaan.
Canaan hasn’t played meaningful minutes in months and certainly has been little more than an afterthought since early April but provided a spark in 33 minutes, being a plus-20 and at least bothering Thomas on defense.
“It’s amazing. You tell someone to stay ready on a night like tonight,” Wade said. “We needed something different and he picked it up. He made shots for us. This is a guy that worked behind the scenes for his opportunity. Hopefully going forward he is a big part of what we do.”
Canaan took a charge on Thomas and then hit a triple, bringing the deficit to five midway through the period. The Bulls took their first lead with a Robin Lopez duck-in hook shot at 65-63 before Thomas sliced inside for two layups on consecutive possessions.
Lopez began picking away at the Celtics on the glass, but only played 22 minutes as Hoiberg opted to go away from him and switch to a smaller lineup. It was a tactic that backfired, as the Bulls lost their advantage in paint scoring with each scoring 48 after the Bulls had dominated that department in their first two wins.
Among many things the Bulls tried, competing was their best counter and it’ll have to be that in spades from here—because it looks like the Celtics have all the big faces, even if it’s in a small package.