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It was one of the less common than not instances in which the Celtics executed on both ends in crunch time and actually pushed away an oncoming stampede.
"Guys were sharing the ball, guys were executing, getting into the right spots at the right time," Isaiah Thomas said describing the late game performance. "And we played, overall, a pretty good game against a really good Chicago Bulls team. Hopefully we can build on that and get some momentum and get some more wins."
The team’s defense was effective, but the Celtics continue to count on Isaiah Thomas to lead the charge late in games. For a team that was labeled as without a star, it seems its Nebula is growing into a White Dwarf.
When Jimmy Butler led the Bulls all the way back to a one-point deficit, Thomas was given the ball with the responsibility of making a decaying Celtics offense come back to life. After Jared Sullinger missed his fourth midrange jumper of the half, the Celtics received a gift.
Nikola Mirotic beat Kelly Olynyk down the lane in transition for what should have been an easy layup to take the Bulls’ first lead of the game. Derrick Rose rifled in a Magic-esque bounce pass, but it caromed off of Mirotic’s hands and went out of bounds.
Thomas took the inbound, quickly went up court, faked a post-up on Aaron Brooks to open up the baseline and attacked the rim. The rest of the game focused on getting Thomas good looks at the rim.
"Just wanted to be aggressive and get to the hoop," Thomas said. "Like I said, I thought we were settling for a lot of jump shots that we weren’t making and they were the more aggressive team. I just tried to make something happen, get in the paint and see what I had."
The Celtics dominated the first half with flashes of brilliance from Winter Storm Jonas Jerebko and should-be-starter Kelly Olynyk. Although Jimmy Butler responded to Dwyane Wade stealing his All-Star starting spot by doing his best vintage Wade impression en route to 28 points and 13 rebounds, the Celtics maintained a consistent double-digit lead.
Their defensive effort was persistent, as they forced the Bulls into mediocre shots on most possessions and handled Pau Gasol decently with a frequently changing rotation of bigs.
"Well we were guarding them. That was pretty clear," Stevens said post game. "Usually when you guard, you’re locked, you’re engaged. And then good things can happen offensively. We were pretty focused on defending at a better level than we’ve defended in the past week or 10 days."
Their lead continued after halftime as Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley took over scoring duties.
But then vintage Derrick Rose showed up to the party. The former MVP scored 16 points in the third quarter on 6-for-9 shooting. He scored in every way, hitting both of his deep jumpers from the left elbow and scoring on three of his four shots at the hoop.
Rose’s explosion late in the third quarter narrowed the Celtics lead to 90-82 entering the fourth quarter. It seemed like the Bulls were finally turning the tide before Tyler Zeller broke through.
Zeller’s persistence on the pick-and-roll and hustle on the offensive glass helped the sputtering Celtics offense maintain its lead through the early fourth quarter. He grabbed a pair of offensive rebounds in the run as part of the Celtics’ collective 15 rebounds. This was two more than the Bulls, the top rebounding teams in the league.
The Bulls made another run to grind the lead down to one. But the Celtics responded with a 10-2 run down the stretch before the Bulls started intentionally fouling. Every time the Celtics found themselves with their backs against the wall, they successfully punched their way out.
The Celtics will attempt to travel to Philadelphia at some point this weekend to play their newly scheduled Sunday evening game. But Winter Storm Jonas threatens to ruin those plans.
"If there’s a window that opens up for us to travel [Saturday] night, we will," Stevens said. "If not, then we’ll just figure out how to get there Sunday as quickly as possible. Obviously, the NBA and we want to be there overnight. But like we talked about before, safety is the number one issue and we’ll make sure that’s prioritized. Certainly not a lot of people traveling into Philly and DC like we are this weekend."
Besides a few crazy Celtics fans, of course.