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.

Bulls' defense is trending upward, leads NBA in forcing turnovers, steals

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USA Today

Bulls' defense is trending upward, leads NBA in forcing turnovers, steals

Just over midway through the third quarter Wednesday night, Kris Dunn cleanly picked Derrick Rose’s pocket for a steal.

“I love getting steals. That’s been my game since high school. That’s what I do. I take pride in that,” Dunn said following Thursday’s practice at Advocate Center. “I think my teammates know, the coaches know, the other teams know defense is what I do. And I try to inspire that in others.”

With 17 Pistons’ turnovers, the Bulls have now forced 15 or more turnovers in all 15 games this season.

The last time they did this---in 1980---nobody on the current roster was born. Jim Boylen was in high school in Grand Rapids, Mich. No NBA team has opened a season in similar fashion since the 76ers did in 2004, per Elias Sports Bureau.

The Bulls lead the NBA in overall steals and rank second behind Friday’s opponent, the Heat, in steals per game. Dunn ranks third behind league leader Jimmy Butler, in town Friday, and Ben Simmons with 2.13 steals per game.

The Bulls also lead the NBA in forced turnovers per game at 18.8 and points off turnovers.

“I think our defense is built to force turnovers, the system that we run,” Dunn said. “We’re blitzing guys, trying to get the ball out of their hands. You have to make them make a read. Our defense is built so that after we blitz, we have a triangle (of defenders) behind. If they make a mistake in the read, it often leads to a turnover. We have a lot of good defenders on this team who can create turnovers.”

Shaq Harrison’s emergency starter status now that both Otto Porter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison are on the shelf aids in this department. He led the NBA in steals-per-minute last season and posted three versus the Pistons. Hutchison is doubtful for Friday’s game against the Heat.

“I’ve been doing that my whole life,” Harrison said of getting steals. “Every coach I’ve played for has been a defensive-minded coach and wants me to get into people. It’s been embedded into my mind to get steals and deflections and pick guys up to play hard 100 percent of the time.

“I think defense and that mentality is 90 percent toughness and heart and then 10 percent skill. Anybody can do it at this level if you truly put your mind to it.”

Despite their penchant for steals and forcing turnovers, the Bulls rank 14th in defensive rating. That’s middle-of-the-pack stuff, although it’s trending upward over the last five games. And it’s reflective of their poor defensive rebounding, occasionally poor defensive transition and inability to limit dribble penetration.

In detailing his defensive philosophy, coach Jim Boylen cited those three areas as need for improvement. That’s borne out in the Bulls allowing too many shots at the rim. What’s wild is they lead the league in offensive attempts within 5 feet but also allow the second-most in the league.

“We do not teach to steal the ball. I’m not a big out-of-position-to-steal-the-ball guy,” Boylen said. “What we have coached hard---and I guess well at times---is hand position, body position and doing your work early. I think that has put us in position sometimes to knock some balls loose or pick a couple off. But I’m not big on getting out of position to try to get a steal. It’s not who I am. It’s not who we want to be.”

Dunn said he sees “no downside” to the Bulls’ defensive’ scheme as long as it’s played with energy and communication. The Bulls have had trouble making quick and proper rotations if they don’t force a turnover, although that area too has improved over the last eight games.

The Bulls rank ninth in defensive rating over their last eight games.

“I give our guys credit,” Boylen said. “They’ve really bought into what our defense looks like now. Early, we struggled to get to the corner, to adjust and shift. I think there’s a familiarity now. There’s a learning curve in every defensive situation. I also think there’s defensive chemistry. And I think we can still grow.

“My assistant coaches have done a great job of sticking to what we believe in. We’ve coached basically the same thing since Day One. I feel we have a foundation. We need to be more consistent and play better. But we’re coaching to a system.”

Bulls Outsiders Podcast: Luol Deng is honored in win over Pistons

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USA TODAY

Bulls Outsiders Podcast: Luol Deng is honored in win over Pistons

On this edition of Bulls Outsiders, Matt Peck, John Sabine and David Watson react to the Bulls 109-89 win over the Pistons.

1:00 - Reaction to the win over Detroit

3:25 - Viewer comment on Bulls still having hope in the Eastern Conference

4:30 - Did Lauri Markkanen finally break out of his slump?

6:30 - Viewer comment on Zach LaVine and if he still fits

8:15 - Shaq Harrison balls out starting at SF

9:30 - Big Dave does Shaq highlites

11:50 - Viewer comment on James Harden or Luka Doncic?

13:30 - Viewer question on who has bigger hands- Will Perdue or Kendall Gill?

15:15 - Bulls honor Luol Deng and 2009 Bulls team

18:05 - Viewer comment on greater Bull- Joakim Noah or Deng?

21:00 - Viewer comment on Otto Porter Jr.’s return

23:30 - Reacting to Derrick Rose’s comments about load management

Listen to the episode here or in the embedded player below.

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