Bulls come up big defensively, beat Celtics 102-96

The Bulls held their opponent to under 100 points for the second-straight game.
by Sam Smith
Remind Me Later
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Nikola Vucevic scored 29 points and grabbed nine rebounds while Coby White added 19 points and seven assists as the Bulls defeated the Boston Celtics on the road 102-96. It was one of the Chicago's best defensive performances of the season as they held Boston to 18 points in both the second and third quarters. Boston's Jayson Tatum had a triple-double ( 14 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists) but was held to 3-of-17 shooting on the night. The Bulls (24-33) will look to make it three straight victories when they play the Cleveland Cavaliers (20-37) Wednesday night on the road.

Norm Van Lier would have been proud.

It was 48 minutes of intensity. The Bulls are talking defense again. Not just being defensive. And it helped produce—along with 29 points and nine rebounds from Nikola Vucevic—a gritty 102-96 victory over the Boston Celtics.

And when the red hot Celtics, winners of six straight and eight of nine, erased a seven-point Bulls fourth quarter lead to tie the game at 90 with 3:25 left, the Bulls didn't turn green this time. "Our MO (modus operandi, not Cheeks) has been we can't finish games," acknowledged Coby White. So the Celtics went to their stars, Jayson Tatum coming off a 44-point game and averaging 34 the last five and Jaylen Brown coming off a 40-point game and averaging 28 the last five, to close out the underdog hopefuls. Instead, it was the Bulls who were the bulldogs.

After Vucevic, coming out of a timeout, gave the Bulls a 92-90 lead with a 15-foot baseline turnaround jump shot, it was star time. They turned out to be Garrett Temple and Patrick Williams with a little (OK, a lot) of help from their friends.

Need anybody? Could it be anybody? Just try with a little help from your friends.

"It was a great team effort, (Daniel) Theis, Vooch, Lauri (Markkanen) and the guys who (also) were on (Tatum) when I was out of the game," said Temple. "Just try to crowd him, make it tough and get my hands on some basketball when he was trying to shoot."

Highlights from Chicago's 102-96 road win over the Boston Celtics on Monday night.

Temple wouldn't let Tatum beat them, who did have a triple double with 14 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists. Temple was relentless with the Bulls constantly trapping and double teaming (if Semi Ojeleye can beat us, fine). And when the game's crucible came, it was first Temple stripping Tatum on a drive and retrieving the ball. Then it was Williams, initially beat off a screen. But then recovering to swipe the ball away from Brown as he went into his step back move.

Vucevic then played pulling guard on a White driving score for a 94-90 Bulls lead. And on the next possession, former Celtic Daniel Theis picked up the 3-17 shooting Tatum on a switch and forced him to miss a jumper short. That led to a full court Temple pass to Williams for a 96-90 Bulls lead with 1:41 left. White then closed it out with four clutch free throws.

"I know (Tatum) likes to bring it down and try to get fouled," related Temple, closing in a defensive oriented lineup with Theis. "So when he brought it down and I was on his right side, I just slapped where I thought the ball was. I got my hand on all ball. Then Pat next play down he was in a help situation. I think Jaylen Brown had done that fake spin a couple times on him, so he knew it was coming and was able to reach in and get the ball right before he shot it. Those plays were really big for us defensively in the fourth.

"Defense can win games," said Temple in his fourth game back after a month out injured. "The old saying still holds true. Obviously, we lost a big piece in Zach (LaVine, out with NBA health and safety protocols), 28 a game. But if we're able to guard like we're capable of, like tonight, we have enough on the other end to score. Vooch did a great job for us keeping us in the game in the first half offensively. Then it opened up shots for Coby (19 points), myself (13 points). The biggest thing is if we defend, we grind, we guard like we're capable of, then we can win any game we play."

Garrett Temple defending Jayson Tatum

Garrett Temple and the Bulls defended well against Boston's Jayson Tatum, who went just 3-of-17 shooting on the night.

And so with 15 games left at 24-33 and tied for the last play-in spot with streaking Washington, it will have to be something of a Pythagorean theorem type formula for awhile. In this current 10th place triangle with Washington and Toronto, the Bulls may look like the short side without LaVine. So just try twice as hard.

"With coach we talked about especially with Zach being out, I'm going to have to be a little more aggressive offensively and create opportunities for us," said Vucevic. "In the post, they weren't double teaming me at first. So I was able to get some good looks. And then once they tried to help more aggressively, it opened up a lot for us and we've got a lot of shooters on the court. So there's a lot of space and we were able to use that whether shooting off the pass or driving and creating for others.

"We put a big emphasis on the defensive end because the games we were losing we were just giving up too many points, 115, 120," Vucevic noted. "It's going to be hard to see somebody score that way and try to win games night in and night out."

Nikola Vucevic led the Bulls with 29 points and nine rebounds in the win over the Celtics.

It was the second consecutive game the Bulls held the opponent under 100 points after the 106-96 victory over Cleveland Saturday (the Bulls face a rematch in Cleveland Wednesday). It's only two games after going 3-9 since the trade for Vucevic. But like Eliza in My Fair Lady—and, really, doesn't the NBA need more show tunes references—the Bulls may have got it.

"I don't mean this maybe how it's going to come out, but the trade kind of really messed up our team a little," said Bulls coach Billy Donovan. "There's no way around it, but I think it took a toll on us. I don't say that in a negative way. What I mean by that is everybody kind of got out of their normal rotation, their normal of how they were playing, how they were being used. It's going to be really good for us and is going to help us. But with the limited practice time, we kind of lost our way a little bit."

That it cost a chance at the playoffs this season? It's too soon to say, and there's certainly still a chance.

"I think we lost a little bit of our competitiveness," Donovan said. "Not because we didn't want to compete and play hard. It was really more guys had to figure out their roles and what to do in their role and I think what happened is when you are thinking a lot it takes away that edge."

Billy Donovan speaks to the media following Chicago's win in Boston on Monday night.

Like Horace said, "Don't think, just do."

No, not Grant, the other one, the Roman lyric poet.

Though "Straight up bitches; that's what they walked off like" from the Last Dance was awfully poetic.

Defense isn't so much poetry as perseverance. And this time the Bulls did persist despite a Chris Bermanesque stumbling, bumbling and mumbling start, trailing immediately 16-9, soon by nine and 30-24 after the first quarter and by 12 midway through the second quarter.

"We shot the ball really poorly in the first half, but our defense kept us in it," noted Donovan. "It would have been a game, I think, with the way we shot the ball in the first half you don't give that kind of effort defensively instead of it being 48-42, maybe it's 68-42. Once we settled in offensively and the ball started to go in the basket, it was good to see us maintain that defensive effort. Really for the entire game."

And now without LaVine the Bulls have a plan.

It's to play to a slower pace, playing bigger with Vucevic and Theis, which hampered the smaller Celtics. Which will ultimately be their Achilles heel. And perhaps a lesson to never dip anything when you're only holding the heel. The Celtics aren't going anywhere in the playoffs with all those little guys running around shooting. The Bulls were 18-4 in second chance points with Celtics mostly jumping into Theis's underarms.

Play big and slower, move and share the ball as the Bulls again had 30 assists. And go to Vucevic, whom White noted, "is a bucket-getter."

Nikola Vucevic

Nikola Vucevic shoots over Boston's Tristan Thompson in the first-half against the Celtics.

Vucevic had nine points in the first quarter and 17 by halftime with the Bulls still trailing 48-42. It was almost much worse if not for a late second quarter run from the reserves with Markkanen with nine points overall taking advantage on inside mismatches and Thad Young with 13.

White also got a nice halftime assist from his brother, Will, who played college basketball and now is an assistant coach in college.

"I knew I had missed (Theis on rolls to the rim) in the first half," White related. "When I came back to the locker room I checked my phone because I knew my brother texts me every halftime and he said those exact words. 'You got Theis on the slip every time because they're switching the first screen on the double drag.' So when I came out in the second half, I already knew that they were switching. So when he slipped it, all I had to do was throw it to the rim and I knew he was gonna get it."

Theis got a couple of baskets, but White opened up for 10 points as the Bulls outscored the Celtics 32-18 in the third, the second consecutive quarter the Bulls held the Celtics to 18 points. It also seems like even when LaVine returns, which doesn't seem imminent according to Donovan, White has reclaimed his starting job averaging 18 points and 7.7 assists starting the last three games.

Theis seems settled alongside Vucevic for defense, and then there'll be developments and decisions for Donovan. He relies on Temple and lately has on another good defender, Troy Brown Jr. Lineups and rotations, as Dylan said, they are a changin'.

It wasn't about the NBA?

"No one said it would be easy," White agreed. "I feel like this year it's been hard. But I feel like I've learned a lot over the course of the season. So I'm just going to continue to keep learning and continue to play as hard as I can when I'm out there. I'm just trying to come out here and compete on both ends of the court and help my team win the game."

The Bulls have seen winnin' time slip away oh so many times this season.

And so it seemed again even as Temple's three gave the Bulls an 85-78 lead with 8:17 left. But Tatum finally made a few plays, the Bulls missed a few threes and it looked like it would be nine straight losses in Boston. But in addition to the stops against Tatum and Brown, there was White overplaying Brown in the post and stealing a Tatum pass with 1:12 left that basically led to Celtics timeouts to try to come up with turnovers. But the Bulls apparently practiced the inbounds pass, and White ran to it and got fouled, converting all four of his attempts to never give Boston a shot.

"We defended the way we need to defend," said Donovan. "We helped each other and we had a presence at the rim, we were very aggressive with the players we needed to be aggressive with. And we came up with a couple of good stops at the end."

Stormin' to the close, as it were.

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The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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