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.