CHICAGO – The people in red had it dialed down Friday night. From the defeatist body language several Chicago Bulls dragged onto the court for the opening tap, to folks in the stands realizing this accidental postseason team had overstayed its welcome, the United Center turned into a house of boos.
Officially it took six games. But for all practical purposes, the Bulls were swept out of the playoffs, going 0-3 at home and losing four straight after point guard Rajon Rondo suffered a fractured right thumb in Game 2.
The guys in green, on the other hand, had it dialed up, way up, in their ostensibly breezy 105-83 victory to advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Boston Celtics, who will play host to the Washington Wizards in Game 1 Sunday, crammed a full range of emotions into 48 minutes of focused and professional basketball.
Much of the night, they’d hollered and pointed and made sure no one strayed from the close-out mission at hand. Frankly, as animated and vocal as they were in their Celtics green, juxtaposed against the red backdrop of listless opponents and disheartened home fans, it was unmistakable: Boston meant business.
That never was more apparent than deep in the third quarter, when point guard Isaiah Thomas pulled his four teammates into an impromptu huddle on the baseline and screamed, “That’s a wrap for these [expletives]!”
Everything was going Boston’s way at that point and Thomas – who got turned emotionally and mentally topsy-turvy when his 22-year-old sister Chyna died in a one-car accident back home near Tacoma, Wash., on the eve of this series – was roaring in the moment.
Not long after, with several minutes left but the outcome clear, most of the Celtics’ rotation players sat back and enjoyed what they had accomplished. Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, Kelly Olynyk and Amir Johnson joked and cheered from the bench for the deep reserves. Gerald Green and Jae Crowder sat on the floor, with Al Horford a few seats over by the coaches.
And there in the middle of it all was Thomas. Smiling. Laughing. With the burden lifted ever so briefly, a towel on his shoulders and a job well done, he could let go.
Except Boston coach Brad Stevens still was wrapping up his postgame remarks from a podium down the hall when Thomas emerged from the visitors’ locker room. His face and even his baseball cap shrouded by a hoodie, with Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge striding behind him, Thomas was off on a sad mission: Flying from Chicago to Tacoma to attend his sister’s funeral at noon Saturday.
It would be his second trip home since the accident. Win, go home and grieve doesn’t have the same ring to it as a playoff slogan of “Win Or Go Home.” But it’s what Thomas is about and thus, what the Celtics are about right now too.
“I said this a couple of times, bigger things than basketball happen,” Stevens said. “I was really proud of our guys how they treated each other and how they stuck together. Nobody pointed fingers [when Chicago grabbed a 2-0 lead in the haze of the Celtics’ emotions] and they were a great support network for one another, especially Isaiah.”
The series was a maelstrom of fits and starts and pivot points. The death of Thomas’ sister played some part in the first two games. Losing Rondo stripped the Bulls of their swagger, as well as their only point guard reliable at both ends.
Winning Games 3 and 4 in Chicago got Boston back on a good path, but so did taking to the road at that point, period.
“We lost two and I just felt like the team was separating a little bit,” Crowder said in the Boston dressing room late Friday. “I felt good about coming to Chicago and playing because it gives us a chance to just be together. And continue to be a group like we’ve been all year. It’s just us, y’know.”
It was mostly them in Game 6 as well, along with a handful of Boston fans who were clustered in the corner closest to their team’s bench. The Celtics focused early, growled in the middle, reveled late ... and then locked in quickly afterward, with the next round bearing down.
Still, Stevens kept his canvas large.
“I’m not defined by this stuff,” he said. “Certainly advancing is meaningful because I want everyone in there, players and coaches, to experience the high of this. We’ve been through it enough that we are not going to ride the emotional roller-coaster of the lows and we have perspective on the highs.”
Consider Johnson, the big man who started 77 games for Boston this season only to finish this series with three consecutive DNP-CDs when Stevens flipped Green into the starting lineup. That shifted Horford to center and spread Chicago’s Rondo-less defense even thinner.
Johnson didn’t blink and really, how could he? The Celtics were immersed for the past two weeks in a reminder of what’s important and what’s just sports.
The schedule didn’t allow teammates who might have accompanied Thomas to the funeral to go. But as tight as the Celtics have grown, they will be there regardless.
“Big time. Our hearts are definitely with Isaiah,” Johnson told NBA.com. “He’s a big, big part of this team. We’ll definitely have thoughts about him and his family.”
Thomas scored 12 points in not quite 26 minutes and missed six of his seven 3-point attempts. But he had six assists, finding Horford for that alley-oop in the third quarter that all but broke the Bulls’ backs. And he enjoyed himself – the contact, the chatter with Chicago’s Isaiah Canaan, the close-out most of all – even as he lost himself.
“Basketball is basically his sanctuary,” Johnson said. “His getaway. He put his blood, sweat and tears into the game and it showed on the court. He gave us everything he has, he still does. He’s just a lion.”
Avery Bradley starts next to Thomas in the Boston backcourt, grew up in Tacoma and played on the same AAU team, too. His family members will attend the funeral in his place, while he preps to face the Wizards and bring his friend up to speed as swiftly as he can Sunday.
“I know it’s going to be hard on Isaiah, but it’s our job as his teammates and his brothers to make sure we’re there for him,” said Bradley, who led the Celtics with 23 points and was the first line of defense against Bulls forward Jimmy Butler. “One thing I know about Isaiah is, his mindset is to play for his sister. Continue to play the way he’s playing. Just have fun and appreciate every day that he’s able to wake up. All the little things for him. I know that’s really important – he looks at life different.
“I look up to him, the way he handled this situation. A lot of people criticized it and [said] what they wanted to say, but I respect him a lot. ... I’m there for his family, we all are, and we’re praying for him. I know he’s going to continue to play hard for his sister.”
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