BOSTON — The frustration has set in and taken hold.
Marcus Smart was still barking at the fan he had just flipped off. Jae Crowder was doubling out of desperation, as the entire defense slept on an opening lane.
As the Bulls celebrated a Cristiano Felicio slam in transition, Isaiah Thomas punched his chair. The Celtics were down 102-86 with 6 minutes left. They did not recover.
The Celtics knew what was looking inevitable the entire quarter. Like every Robin Lopez offensive rebound, this one was just out of reach and they would never recover. The Bulls hammered every last nail in the coffin until the buzzer sounded with a 111-97 win.
The first half was defined by the triumphant return of playoff Rondo, as Rajon picked apart his former team on both ends. Rondo finished with 8 points, 7 rebounds and 9 assists in the first half. He couldn’t close the triple-double, but still shined with 11 points, 9 rebounds, 14 assists and 5 steals.
His opponent Thomas missed a career-worst 6 free throws and committed a game-high 5 turnovers. Thomas was able to elevate to the moment on the adrenaline of the circumstances in game 1, but for the most part ran into trouble in game 2. Thomas finished with 20 points and was tied for third on the team in rebounds with just 4.
Jimmy Butler’s 10-point third quarter stimied an early Celtics run that brought them back to a one-possession game. Whenever the Celtics came knocking, Chicago bull-rushed them.
“They’re doing a great job of flying all over the place,” coach Brad Stevens said. “Rondo is on (Isaiah Thomas) at the start of a lot of possessions, but they haven’t been afraid to switch, they haven’t been afraid to full-rotate on other guys, they haven’t been afraid to show more help off of other guys and fly around.”
The Celtics kept finding themselves in holes and felt pressure to quickly climb out of it. Their zeal in desperation led to more failures than triumphs. When CelticsBlog asked Stevens if he felt the team was rushed by the Bulls flying around, he admitted it got to his team.
“A little bit of that. A little bit of that. I think we’re sped up a little bit by their defense, too. I think that their length and their ball pressure and (Dwyane) Wade and (Jimmy) Butler and Rondo and their bench and the bigs are just really up and active in utilizing their length on us.
“So we’re going to have to be better spaced and we’re going to have to get the ball side-to-side in an appropriate fashion and then attack from there. And hopefully we’ll be more patient on Friday.”
Even on plays where they were almost too patient, they couldn’t convert on those empty possessions. Al Horford said he couldn’t find his rhythm on offense, one of the many reasons the Bulls dominated in transition.
National TV Rondo is the best. pic.twitter.com/1tnpwlfi8c— Jared Weiss (@JaredWeissNBA) April 19, 2017
“The biggest thing for us to start the game was sustain their hit, their initial hit and run,” Dwyane Wade said. “The one thing we know about our point guard (Rondo), he like everybody to go.”
As the Celtics suffer an identity crisis in the midst of Isaiah Thomas’ family tragedy, the Bulls find themselves coming into their own.
“You play 82 games to learn a little bit about yourself and one thing I learned about this team is through adverse situations, this team sticks together,” Wade said,
Crowder, Horford and Stevens all emphasized the Celtics will stick together and find themselves in Chicago in Game 3. After going down 0-2, the clock is ticking louder than ever on this up and coming team.