Bulls dominate Celtics, fans return to United Center

Zach LaVine and Coby White scored 25 points each while Nikola Vucevic knotched a triple-double as the Bulls cruised past the Boston Celtics 121-99 at the United Center. This was the first game this season where the Bulls opened their doors to fans. The Bulls (28-39) will look to keep it going on Sunday night against the Pistons (20-47).

There's a formula these days in the NBA for excellence, and it generally involves great scorers and a facilitator capable of generating a triple double with points, rebounds and assists. Like Harden, Durant and Irving with the Nets; Embiid, Simmons and Harris with the 76ers; Giannis, Holiday and Middleton with the Bucks; Paul, Booker and Ayton with the Suns: Leonard, George and Ibaka with the Clippers: James, Davis and Schroder with the Lakers. And, oh yeah, LaVine, Vucevic and White with the Bulls.

Tatum, Brown and Walker with the Celtics Friday likely took note as the Bulls dominated throughout a 121-99 victory to win the season series from the Boston Celtics.

Finally again playing before several thousand fans in the United Center for the first time in more than a year because of Covid complications, the Bulls got 25 points each from Zach LaVine and Coby White and a triple-double of 18 points, 14 rebounds and ten assists from Nikola Vucevic to dominate the game. The Bulls led by 20 points after three quarters. And when Boston made a mild rally to get within 100-92 with about five minutes left, the Bulls merely shrugged as LaVine, White and Vucevic combined for a 12-0 run and a Tacko Fall appearance.

Talk about lighting up the new symbol of success in Boston.

"We huddled up and we said, ‘Let's put a stop to this. We understand what we've got to do,'" related LaVine. "I had the (baseline driving) dunk. Coby made a big three, made a layup, Vooch scored. We closed the game out really well as a unit. Not just one person. As a group we closed it out.

"We're playing really well, we're really competing," said LaVine. "We know our backs are against the wall right now, so obviously I wish we played like that from the get go. I think we'd be looking at a totally different scenario. But this is the position we put ourselves in."

Highlights from Chicago's dominant 121-99 win over the Boston Celtics

Well, actually part of the issue was Vucevic was in Orlando, White was on the bench as a recovering combo guard and LaVine kept turning around to yell, "Charge!" only to see guys reaching for credit cards.

That's changed, and perhaps the biggest confusion Friday night in the ESPN nationally televised game was the announcers talking about the Celtics as the possible title contenders.

"I think the last two games are good examples that we can do it (defense)," said Vucevic about back to back 99-point yields against teams set for the playoffs and play-in tournament. "I don't think it's been really anything special that we've changed as far as Xs and Os or anything like that. It's just our focus, our effort, us being in the right place at the right time, helping each other, covering each other.

"It feels great to play with other guys who can really score the ball," Vucevic added. "Zach, obviously, we know how great of a scorer he is. I think Coby, he has potential to be a good scorer at this level. It puts so much pressure on the other team's defense and it opens up a lot for us offensively. And when we're efficient and we're playing well as a team and moving the ball and we get good looks, it's hard for defenses. They can't just focus on one guy and take one thing away. They have to focus on multiple players."

Nikola Vucevic shoots a hook shot over former Bull Luke Kornet.

It could be short lived as the Bulls, now 28-39, remain three games out of the final play-in tournament spot with five games remaining. After playing the tanking Pistons Sunday, the Bulls are scheduled against the Nets twice, Toronto in 12th place and Milwaukee. It's still uncertain if those teams will need or aim for wins for position or rest to close the season, particularly the Nets and Bucks. Though if the Bulls could win out, they'd especially put pressure on a slumping team like Indiana in ninth. The Bulls hold the tiebreakers over Indiana, Washington and Toronto.

But if the Bulls spent too much of the season in search of an identify, they may finally have found it in their own actual Big Three with Vucevic's versatility, White's catch-and-shoot and LaVine's flying circus.

We've heard such promises before, but those are the elements of NBA success these days. And they're only just starting to play together in LaVine's return from missing 11 games with Covid, White back in the starting lineup only when LaVine went out and Vucevic still uncertain which lake it is.

"Obviously, Zach and I are the leaders on the team and we're the ones who need to take this team to where it can be," said Vucevic. "We never really had a chance to play together for an extended time. When I first got here, he had little bit of an ankle injury. And he missed time because of the health and safety protocol. Never really had time to kind of mesh. We're really excited to be out there playing together and really want to finish strong and hopefully it gets us to the play-in game. I think him and I fit well together. There have been signs of that already where it shows how we can be efficient. I think we're just going to continue to grow as a duo.

"(With Coby) we've been able to really build a good chemistry out there over the however many games he has been starting," Vucevic added. "He's a player who can be very, very good for a very long time in this league. He's very talented. He can shoot. He can drive. I think all three of us add so much offensively to the team. We can all shoot. We can all create. All three of us can pass. So there's so much we can do and it's hard to defend that way. I think the lineup we had the last two games is the starting lineup that can be a very good lineup for us."

Coby White scored 25 points and hit seven three-pointers in the win over Boston.

The Celtics likely would agree as they has few answers after the only real competition of the game, a 30-28 Bulls lead after one quarter.

Though it was already clear the Bulls bully ball was too much for Boston, which lacks size and physical intimidation. They probably could use a banger like Daniel Theis. Oh, right. Never mind.

Kemba Walker finished with 33 points, and Evan Fournier held the Celtics together with 13 of his 17 points in the first quarter. But the Bulls again made Jayson Tatum look like a mistake from the 2017 draft class, harassing him into three of 15 shooting for nine points. That was after Tatum made three of 17 against the Bulls last month in a Bulls win in Boston.

"It was 99 points for Charlotte (Thursday) and Boston had 99, so I think we are defending." said Bulls coach Billy Donovan. "I think you have to give Patrick (Williams) and Garrett (Temple) a lot of credit just in terms of their effort. Patrick started off on (Tatum), but Garrett guarded Walker and then had to guard Tatum. As much as we could do to show him a crowd. When he does put the ball on the floor in trying to attack the basket, send people at him."

The trapping and double teaming from various angles took Tatum out of the game as he and basically all his teammate began to settle for threes. They made 11 of 39 compared to the Bulls 18 of 40 on threes. The Bulls big guys with Lauri Markkanen playing some small forward shut down the driving lanes and Theis added nine points and eight rebounds.

Boston coach Brad Stevens tried first Luke Kornet and then Fall to counter the Bulls size. But the Bulls apparently were also too physical as Celtics players retreated farther and farther from the basket. The Bulls took a 60-46 halftime lead as White made four three pointers in the second quarter. The Celtics similarly sent help at Vucevic, but he adroitly found shooters who made their shots. Vucevic also had a pair of steals and a block.

Billy Donovan takes questions after Chicago's victory over the Boston Celtics on Friday.

"Zach and Vooch together playing the two-man game, Coby has really been the recipient of a lot of Vooch's post-ups where he's gotten doubled or teams have come down and the ball has gotten kicked out to him," explained Donovan. "If we can generate catch-and-shoot situations for him, I think that really enables him to score at a very, very high level. And then it really puts the defense in a bind. Are you going to double Vuc and give up potential kickout threes to him or Zach or some other guys? Or are you going to play Vuc one-on-one? They went down and doubled him a lot tonight. The ball found Coby, and I thought he really made some big shots."

Actually, he did, seven of 12 threes also with seven rebounds, five assists and just two turnovers as Vucevic did more of the passing to get his second triple double of the season and first with the Bulls. Vucevic now with four in his career in apparently making a move on Russell Westbrook.

Walker made some threes to keep the Celtics within 80-66 until the Bulls put a 9-2 run on them to lead 94-74 after three quarters and leave the national TV audience wondering if that was a new Magnum PI episode on CBS.

The Bulls bench had a bit of a slog to open the fourth quarter as Boston ran off eight straight and made it 98-90 midday through the quarter. We've seen this Bulls movie before. Though not with Zach, Vooch and Coby starring.

"That's where the competition really begins; you knew they were going to make a run," said Donovan.

So Billy ran to get Zach, Vooch and Coby and before too long Zach was gliding down the baseline for a slam dunk, Vucevic passed to White for a three, White drove for a score, Vucevic made a layup and LaVine rose up for one of those he's-got-no-space threes. And with a few Boston turnovers and the Celtics being the nervous guys this time, the Bulls easily got their lead back to 20 with three minutes left.

Seriously, Mr. Van Gundy, you said that's a really good Boston team?

Not too bad of a Chicago team. At least this latest version.