They call Isaiah Canaan “Sip” around the Bulls. Which perhaps is apropos since he occasionally gets a sip of the game while most of his teammates enjoy big gulps. The buoyant and playful Canaan is a big time team favorite, though not just because he’s never been much threat to get anyone’s playing time.
“Of course I would have loved to have been playing,” Canaan was saying late Sunday night after the Bulls 104-95 loss to the Boston Celtics to even the playoff series at 2-2. “But you can’t really worry about that. You have to worry about the next day, how you can get better and when your name is called be ready to go.”
His name was shockingly called in likely the season’s biggest game, and the rarely used six footer from Mississippi—Sip is for that—almost saved the Bulls season with 13 points, three of the team’s five three pointers and the best point guard play the team has gotten since Rajon Rondo’s injury.
“They always preach about staying ready,” said Canaan. “With a long season you never know what can happen. I have good teammates. They kept me locked in the whole season. Kept pushing me and telling me the opportunity was going to come and you have to be ready when it is; it’s the biggest stage in the playoffs and I just tried to go out and give my teammates some energy.”
After Jerian Grant starting and Michael Carter-Williams in reserve were ineffective, Canaan shot into the game and helped ignite the Bulls from a 20-point early second quarter deficit. His steal from Marcus Smart triggered a near second quarter fight and the best spirit from the Bulls in the last two games. Canaan’s three pointer midway through the third quarter closed a run that got the Bulls within 63-58 and sent Boston into a timeout with the United Center crowd in a frenzy. Canaan pounded his chest and his teammates rushed from the bench to meet him at midcourt. It was the Bulls’ highlight of the game.
The Bulls would go on to take a brief 65-63 lead before Isaiah Thomas led the Celtics back to a 79-70 lead after three. Most of Thomas’ success was when Canaan, playing 34 minutes after rarely playing the last two months, had to rest.
“They came to me yesterday at practice and said to stay ready and if your name is called to go out there and play as hard as you can and that’s what I try to do,” said Canaan. “I just try to keep the faith and believe in myself. We have good leaders on this team. Rondo and Jimmy and D-Wade. I’m constantly talking to them on how to stay ready and how to stay locked in and they did a good job helping me with that and get through it."
“I would liked to have won,” Canaan acknowledged. “I was worried about my wind. God helped me out as much as possible tonight. Looking forward to the next game and getting that rhythm and everything back.”
Though coach Fred Hoiberg said there’s no decision yet on who will start Game 5 in Boston Wednesday, Bulls star Jimmy Butler left no doubt his preference.
“He’s going to play,” said Butler. “As long as he does that, guard, shoot the ball when he’s open, he’s going to stay out there on the floor. He hasn’t been playing, but he is ready to go. He’s in shape. That’s all we can ask. We want him confident. Don’t settle. See what you can do better and help us go get this one Wednesday.”
Talk about an unforeseen adjustment as Hoiberg went through 10 players in the first quarter with the Bulls trailing 30-18. Canaan was the 10th. He’d played just at the end of six blowout games since the All-Star break. A second round draft pick who played with the Rockets and 76ers, he was signed as an emergency fifth guard. He played regularly in November, averaging 6.6 points in about 21 minutes. But by the first week of December, though he didn’t play badly, he was out of the rotation and often inactive as the Bulls sent Rondo to the bench and experimented with other guards. Canaan never got back.
Still, he was a relentlessly upbeat personality, never missing the three on three games, always working with teammates, always with a smile and a laugh.
“It’s amazing,” said Wade. “You tell a guy to stay ready. You keep telling him to stay ready, you keep telling him to stay ready. And the opportunity still doesn’t come. But a night like tonight where we needed something a little different, he picked up 94 feet and went out there and made shots for us. That’s a guy who worked hard behind the scenes for his opportunity and his opportunity came and hopefully going forward he’s going to be a big part of what we are going to try to do.”
Canaan admits there were some tough times since he’s one of those year to year guys in the NBA, sticking around on minimum contracts. Never playing with other guards sputtering was not a good sign.
“It helps me knowing what I did tonight I am capable of doing that every night. I believe in myself and I have teammates who believe in me as well. I try to push them every day in practice the way they push me. So it motivates me and gets me ready to go. It is tough. Many nights I couldn’t sleep wondering what happened. I just stayed with it. My teammates believed in me the whole time and kept me locked in and ready to go and kept me motivated and I tried to go out and take all that out on the Celtics."
“I love these guys,” Canaan says. “I try to bring energy to the team whether on or off the court. It’s a long season; ups and downs. I try to keep everyone on the positive side and keep locked in as much as possible.”
Now it looks like Canaan will get the call to try to limit the explosive Thomas. Canaan was the first Bulls guard in this series to essentially pick up Thomas in the backcourt and make him work. Canaan had a crucial steal against Thomas with 6:32 left in what was the Bulls last chance.
The Celtics were leading 89-80. Wade ran out, but missed the layup. Boston came back with an Al Horford three-point play for a 92-80 lead and too much to recover from for the Bulls. But Canaan isn’t likely to be fodder for the rest of this series.
“That’s my calling card, play as hard as I can, pick up on defense, try to make his night miserable,” Canaan said. “Try to take as much time off the clock when they are trying to run the offense. If I’m doing that I’m letting our defense get set on the back end and once our defense is set we are tough to score against. So I try to make it as difficult as I can.
“Everybody’s journey is different,” said Canaan. “As long as you keep the faith, come in and keep working every day, find ways to get better, you’ll be ready when your name is called. Everything happens for a reason. I believe in that. I always said when my name is called I was going to be ready to go.”