Brad Stevens exploded in fury on the sideline as the Celtics were ready to head to the locker room. Love it or hate it, the referees took the game out of the players’ hands. For a small graze of the elbow by Marcus Smart on Jimmy Butler, they put the latter on the line with the game on the line. There was no time left, and seconds later Al Horford’s baseline jumper out of the timeout flew over the net. It was joy to agony in under one second of game time, and the Celtics now go into the break off a 104-103 heartbreaker.
Boston scorched into Chicago for their last game for eight days like a ball of fire. Winners of 11 of their last 12, it took Fred Hoiberg’s team three minutes to burn out and call a timeout. Horford propelled an early inbounds pass to Smart past half-court as Amir Johnson rushed past Chicago’s entire defense, slamming down an alley-oop to put the Celtics up 8-4 early.
It was a potential playoff preview between the East’s two and seven seeds, another chance to see Rajon Rondo in another uniform, and a gritty battle between two of the best guards in the NBA in Butler and Isaiah Thomas.
Stunningly it wasn’t them who led the initial charge, only scoring five and two points, respectively, in the first quarter—it was their bench units led by Smart and Rondo.
Johnson terrorized Robin Lopez and Chicago’s front line in the early minutes as the Celtics bolted out to a 13-7 run. Avery Bradley and Jaylen Brown were missing for the C’s again on the rear side of a back-to-back while the Bulls sent Dwyane Wade into all-star week early. Johnson pushed ahead of the defense for 10 points in under six minutes, mixing up Lopez with spin moves and a soft floating touch on the low block. Chicago’s defense looked in vacation mode.
Horford posted up on a double team, passed out, then got the ball back from Thomas and faced up on Lopez to hit a three; Gerald Green then came in and hit a spot-up three. Boston was in command.
Then Rondo checked in.
With a clear statement that it wasn’t over, Rondo grabbed a Jae Crowder miss and hoisted it across the whole court to Butler for an easy fast-break score. Chicago was within seven, and Thomas hit the pine when Smart took over to lead a fast-paced offensive effort with Terry Rozier, James Young, Kelly Olynyk and Tyler Zeller.
Olynyk and Zeller worked a few outstanding high-low passing sets from big to big, with the latter rushing to the rim and scoring from four points from tough angles. The unit as a whole scored 20 points on 7-7 shooting to start the second quarter after Rozier got stuffed by Rondo. It was crucial for Chicago, who then countered with a slashing bench unit of Doug McDermott, Denzel Valentine and Bobby Portis who were able to penetrate the defense scoring 15 on 6-11.
With the benches’ work done, Thomas and Butler stepped in and squared up with a duel that basketball is all about. Thomas carved up the Bulls’ defense, drawing fouls for himself and spotting up to hit three three-pointers over the final 6:47 and rack up 13 points over that stretch. Boston needed it—Butler emerged to score 13 over 4:46 with a mix of crafty dribbling and turnaround jumpers. The Celts led 58-52, Butler saving the Bulls’ 0-4 shooting effort outside of him down the stretch and helping them charge back into the third.
Chicago’s greatest early issue continued to revolve around perimeter shooting until Jerian Grant stepped on the court in the third quarter and lifted them off their feet. The Bulls owned the frame, outscoring Boston 29-20 in large part due to a surge in shooting, offensive rebounding, and transition play.
Michael Carter-Williams sparked the first run, drawing in the defense on a slow drive before kicking to Grant from three who was so wide open that Carter-Williams jogged away in early victory. Next possession he fell victim to Thomas’s foul-drawing strategy around picks, which surrendered three points from the free throw line. It was another quick response by Boston, but Chicago’s offensive effort persisted.
After a wild streak of blocks by Horford on Gibson down low then the rim on Johnson, the Bulls took their first lead with Lopez laying in his own miss on a pass to the post from Grant on the run. Set up by big shots from Grant himself and a corner three from Butler rising up over Thomas’s head with a high jumper, the Bulls extended their lead with an 11-3 run.
The Celts trailed by five late in the third and got to chipping away. Crowder switched onto Lopez and charged by him to make it 75-70. A few possessions later, Jonas Jerebko had an up-fake and dribbling journey to a layup that apparently made Olynyk swoon, because two possessions later he emulated the same move and followed it up with a three on the wing.
Despite that string of offense, Chicago’s was still working, crafting space in the mid range area with heavy dribbling and finding Lopez and Portis for open makes. Chicago led 81-78 after three, opening the door for a sloppy start, then another epic basketball duel.
An early drive to the free throw line by Smart put the Celts right back on the Bulls’ level, followed by a bevy of misses for both teams through the first stretch of the quarter (1-5 combined). Thomas time, or Olynyk time, began with K.O. ducking between two defenders in the low post on a pump fake and scoring through the foul. The Celtics were back in control before the madness began.
Butler drilled a big three, pulling within 88-84, and Thomas responded as Butler picked him up in the corner twisting the ball around on a quick dribble and kicking to Olynyk who dribbled and hit from the elbow.
Portis charged to the bucket off an inbounds for an easy floater before Thomas drove and drew in three defenders with Olynyk trailing, who hit a big three. The plays kept coming; after Butler hit a cutter for two with a nice pass the Celtics kicked to Rozier on the turnaround for a wing three.
A play later, after a quick stop, Thomas picked up the ball and drove coast-to-coast, pulling about four changes in movements on Grant at the rim and laying in the ball straight under the rim. Boston was on an 8-2 run up 94-92. Seconds later Butler hit a turnaround in the low post to tie it.
The madness wasn’t over, Butler stuffed Thomas into oblivion driving baseline, but after an excellent kick to him on the trail he pulled an Olynyk and pumped fake on no opponent before bricking an elbow jumper. Next play, Horford set a flair screen for Thomas who drilled a three from the wing.
Chicago pulled to the FT line to get within one, Thomas responded with a baseline make and Grant got the shot of a lifetime up high on a switch onto IT above the arc and rimmed out. Thomas drew two fouls off a high screen and hesitation move down low on Gibson. He swished four straight free throws.
It was 103-102 after McDermott hit a free throw on a screen foul.
Smart defended Butler perfectly next possession, broke through a screen and pulled the ball right out of his hands on the dribble around the attempt.
Thomas missed the next shot looking to put it away. Four seconds remained, and Smart grazed Butler’s elbow on a spot-up from the wing, sending him to the line with 0:00:09 left on the clock.
The Celtics were already running off the court as Butler’s shot bricked. It looked like Smart had beat him again, but the referees reset the clock and sent Butler to the line, who walked off with a blank stare after hitting both to go ahead 104-103.
Out of two timeouts Horford caught the inbounds on the baseline, pulled up and missed the basket as Boston lost in devastating fashion.