Avery Bradley

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

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USA TODAY

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."

Bulls lose composure in Game 5 loss to Celtics, falling one game from elimination

Bulls lose composure in Game 5 loss to Celtics, falling one game from elimination

After a long miss, a battle of strength ensued underneath the Bulls basket as Jimmy Butler, Robin Lopez and Al Horford, Isaiah Thomas dug deeper to snarl the loose ball and was fouled by Bobby Portis.

The smallest player on the floor flexed with swagger, unleashing a devilish smile before giving the Chicago Bulls hell on the other end.

Thomas broke loose during a critical stretch to help the Celtics shake the Bulls in Game 5 of their first-round series with a 108-97 win at TD Garden, with the Celtics now leading three games to two and with a chance to clinch the wild series Friday night at the United Center.

Thomas' 24 points was certainly a tangible, but the Bulls will lament losing their cool midway through the fourth quarter after every button they pushed up until that point seemed to work, keeping them in contention.

Needing a leader to settle things, the Bulls were missing Rajon Rondo, who could only aid from the sidelines as a de-facto coach. The Bulls needed calm, they needed leadership.

Instead they came up empty at the worst time, being outscored 29-16 in the fourth quarter and turned it over six times, 16 overall. The turnovers prevented them from taking a decent-sized lead in the first half and doomed them in the end.

"We got off to a really good start then obviously they took over the last ten minutes," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. "I love the way our guys competed."

It was part of a Bulls unraveling when they needed to keep their composure, after they kept their composure for the better part of 40 minutes in a hostile environment.

Dwyane Wade picked up a technical, followed by Robin Lopez' complaining about being caught in a leg hold from Jae Crowder earned him one as well. Lopez' sarcastic clapping at official Ed Malloy did him in.

"I was trying to be supportive of my teammates; I was trying to be supportive of Mr. Malloy," Lopez said. "I think he misconstrued it; I think he took it the wrong way."

Wade warned his teammates there would be a game where very little would go their way by way of the officials, and his team would have to play through it. Wade said he commented to official Danny Crawford that Thomas was getting a lot of calls and that's why he was tagged with a tech.

"Well I've definitely been a 1 seed before, playing against an 8 seed and I understand what it means, especially on the road," Wade said. "It's a lot of these guys' first time in it, that we're not going to get a call on the road, to our liking. Not saying we don't get any calls, but to our liking, the home team is gonna get a little more cooking than you, and the emotions run high in the game."

Considering the Bulls rarely lost their cool, even in instances this season where more fire would've been good to see, Wade was encouraged by the passion and investment.

Even if it cost them.

"I'll take that. I'd rather see that than see nothing," Wade said. "It shows that people care. I'm fine with everything that happened."

[VIVID SEATS: Get your Bulls playoff tickets right here]

At the end of it, the Bulls were behind 104-89 with four minutes left and Al Horford again continued his low-key but effective play with a dunk by twisting Nikola Mirotic with a fake that opened up the baseline and sent the Garden crowd into a frenzy, part of a 21-point nine-rebound, seven assist performance.

Reserve Kelly Olynyk scored a playoff-high 14 points and five rebounds in 20 minutes as the Celtics routinely used one big with four wing players all night, giving the Bulls fits again.

But that four-minute stretch was costly and now the Bulls find themselves one game away from playoff extinction.

Thomas' circus layup and foul put the Celtics back on top and he looked ultra aggressive from the start of the fourth, as Jimmy Butler got a rare rest in the opening minutes but it didn't translate, as he went scoreless on just two shots.

He took what the double teams gave him and will probably lament putting up just 15 shots, especially after he finished the third with a flurry, including a buzzer-beating 30 footer in front of the Celtics' bench.

Wade scored 26 with 11 rebounds and eight assists in 34 minutes, and the Bulls even shot 50 percent from the field, but put up just 74 shots. Lopez scored 14 and Butler 14, but Butler missed both of his attempts in the fourth and didn't get aggressive.

Lopez again made the parquet floor his own, going through a stretch in the third where he was hitting 20-footers and even manipulated the defense when it was scrambling to find Butler for a triple near the top of the key that was the most open look since Rondo injured his thumb.

Hoiberg went to his bag of tricks by pulling out Anthony Morrow for significant minutes in the first half, and unlike the last two games neither team could get away from the other.

Morrow scored eight in 16 minutes and Canaan scored 13 in 36 minutes, holding Thomas to just one of 10 shooting before Thomas managed to break loose later.

The Bulls repeatedly answered the Celtics' surges with calm execution and shot-making, hitting 53 percent in the first half. Keeping Thomas in check was the objective and although he made some pretty passes in traffic his teammates couldn't convert on wide-open shots, shooting 24 percent on 25 3-point attempts.

Thomas didn't get his first basket until the last minute of the first half, a triple off an offensive rebound. It was Avery Bradley who helped carry the Celtics when Thomas needed assistance, scoring 17.

In the end the Bulls needed assistance from somewhere, and it was nowhere to be found, as they head back to Chicago with their bodies wounded and spirits fractured.

Still in mourning, Isaiah Thomas dictates pace, delivers for Celtics

Still in mourning, Isaiah Thomas dictates pace, delivers for Celtics

Brad Stevens opted for a smaller lineup in Game 3 against the Bulls, hoping his Celtics could stretch the floor to open up an offense that struggled with spacing in Games 1 and 2 losses.

The plan worked, as the Celtics hit 17 3-pointers and were able to switch with ease defensively. But it was the smallest player in that lineup who ultimately made the biggest difference. Isaiah Thomas didn't post gaudy numbers, and the King of the Fourth scored just two points in the final period.

Instead the Celtics leader, still in mourning, was masterful in a game his team needed already trailing 2-0 in the best-of-seven series. Thomas' 16 points were the fewest he had scored all season playing normal minutes, and he made just 7 of 18 attempts from the field. But he also handed out nine assists, his highest total since late January, controlling the Celtics offense that looked far more like itself than it had in the first two games, scoring 104 points on 48 percent shooting in a blowout victory Friday night in Chicago.

"Isaiah is such a tough guard. Once he gets into the teeth of the defense, when he kicks it out and we're making the next pass and the next pass and everyone's touching the ball, that's fun basketball," said Avery Bradley, who added 15 points and a career-high seven assists. "Everyone’s playing with confidence, everyone understands they need to take the shots that's coming their way, and it's fun basketball."

With Rajon Rondo sidelined, Thomas took advantage of a Bulls defense that continued to pressure him whenever he received the ball. Whereas in the first two games Thomas looked rushed and forced a handful of shots – he went 6-for-15 in Game 2 – Thomas was patient in finding open shooters and cutters off those double-teams. He didn't pass more often; he simply made better passes. His teammates mirrored his efficient play, too. In addition to his nine assists, Thomas had three secondary assists as well.

With Stevens opting to play small with four players on the perimeter, it allowed Al Horford more room to operate inside. That meant pick-and-roll action with Thomas, and the pair sliced up a Bulls defense that had no answer in Robin Lopez or help defense because of the floor spacing. During the Celtics' decisive 20-7 scoring run in the third quarter, Thomas assisted on all four Horford baskets, three of which came at the rim.

"I though Isaiah was great," said Horford, who received assists from Thomas on six of his eight field goals. "I feel like he really was reading the defense, just making the simple play and knowing when to shoot, knowing when to pass."

Thomas' shot was off for a second straight game – he was 3-for-10 in the first half despite four assists – and the constant double-teams and hedging didn't allow the league's second leading scorer much room to work.

But his two biggest shots came during that third-quarter run when Thomas hustled to catch the Bulls defense out of order following missed shots. He buried a triple over Jerian Grant on the right wing and on the next possession connected from the top of the key to push the Celtics' lead to nine. Later in the quarter a Thomas hesitation layup past Dwyane Wade put the Celtics up by double-digits for the remainder of the game.

"We put our offense in Isaiah's hands but he has to make the right play, whether it be driving and kick, scoring opportunity," Crowder said. "We put it all in his hands to make a play and he did a great job tonight."

That Thomas even took the floor Friday night was impressive in its own right. The All-Star point guard had spent the previous two days in Tacoma, Washington, with his family mourning the loss of his 22-year-old sister, killed in a car accident last Saturday morning.

Thomas has understandably opted not to speak with media since the series began Sunday evening. The Celtics released a statement on Wednesday from Thomas in which he called it "without question the hardest week of my life." Stevens said that Thomas was feeling better after returning to the team Thursday night before Game 3, and that both Thomas and the team were happy he traveled home during the team's off-days.

"For me it's all about, we have to maintain the perspective that there's gonna be some real ups and downs, and that’s just part of it," Stevens said. "And we're here to support him and we're gonna do our jobs and coach and play basketball, but we understand that there is a bigger picture and we are here as his support network that's in Boston. There's going to be times, as you all know, as you go on certainly time provides some healing, but you're always going to have days.”

No one can be sure how Thomas is feeling, save for those closest to him. But for one night in Chicago, the 5-foot-9 point guard stood tall and turned in a performance that his team needed. How the series plays out from this point – the Celtics still need to win Game 4 on Sunday to avoid a 3-1 hole – will be dictated largely on how Thomas plays.

He looked like a new player in Game 3 - Crowder added that Thomas' trip home acted as a "fresh start" - and more like the MVP candidate who, if he continues this play, can lead the top-seeded Celtics back from the hole they put themselves in.