Maybe Dwyane Wade is right; after all, no one’s been in these things more than he has. Maybe despite the awkward path, two road wins for the Bulls followed by two road wins for the Boston Celtics, that it’s appropriate destiny that the Bulls have reached this destination after Wednesday’s 108-97 loss to the Celtics.
The Bulls, trailing 3-2 in the series, came in as the long shot, and it’s time to make a few more long shots. Or forget their shot at a successful post season.
“I thought we played very well on the road, in the midst of all that (two technical fouls, frenzied home crowd) for about 44 minutes,” said Wade, who revived with 26 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists. “It's about figuring out that four minutes, that span, of how to be better. We're in a good place. It's just weird because we won two here and they came and won the next two. We're right where we should be, Game 6 going to Chicago. It's up to us to win a ballgame and bring it back here.”
And so this perplexing, puzzling and often painful season, a basketball riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma played out perhaps as expected, assuming there can be anything to expect in this season from this Bulls team.
Isaiah Canaan made his first career playoff start and was more effective in the fourth quarter than Jimmy Butler; Canaan finished the game with 13 points, one fewer than Butler, and did the best harassing job on Boston star Isaiah Thomas, who was one of 10 on threes. Anthony Morrow led the reserves in scoring with eight points. He and Paul Zipser were the only Bulls with positive plus/minus ratings. Wade and Robin Lopez drew technical fouls in a fourth quarter Bulls collapse, Wade became the point guard when Zipser wasn’t doing it and now the Bulls have to win two straight games over the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seeded team to continue with their season.
So will Rajon Rondo give it a try?
The Bulls haven’t scored 100 points in the last three games after averaging 108.5 in the two wins with Rondo to open the series. There’s a chance Rondo could give it a try in Game 6 Friday, though it’s problematic given he, well, has a broken thumb and torn wrist ligament. He’s dressing well, though.
“Obviously, it’s tough (without Rondo),” Butler conceded. “The way he knows everything, the pace he plays at, the way he gets us in all of our actions. But we can’t sit here and use that excuse. We’ve been talking about that the last three games; eventually we’re going to have to deal with the fact he’s not out there and we’re going to have to win without him. I hope he is (back), but you have to be able to embrace the fact he is not.”
The Bulls can go through the matchups and the adjustments and what they did well and what they might have to change. In Game 4, Butler was big when needed. In Game 5, it was Wade breaking out for his best game of the series. Though the Bulls featured Wade by having him play more point guard, thus forcing him into position to exert himself more. It left Butler off the ball more. And the Celtics’ game plan clearly was to see if someone else other than Butler after 33 points in Game 4 could beat them. They had their best defender, Avery Bradley, up and bumping Butler and then sliding a big man over whenever Butler made a move.
Butler also had eight rebounds and six assists and was two of four on threes. He was scoreless in the fourth quarter with two shots. Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said the Bulls need to “do a better job” of getting Butler the ball in the fourth quarter. Though it was six fourth quarter turnovers, half by Wade and Butler, that really blunted any Bulls offense. And it was two tired teams who combined for zero of 12 threes in the fourth quarter.
But it also was the dilemma the Bulls have faced in this series. The Celtics outrebounded the Bulls in the fourth quarter and had two crucial offensive rebounds while the Bulls had none. Lopez had 14 points and was six of seven shooting as the Bulls finally searched him out after halftime when they took an 81-79 lead after three quarters.
But down the stretch given Lopez’ limited mobility, the Celtics constantly put him in screen rolls with Thomas and Al Horford. That was the decisive sequence with a 13-0 Boston run after the Bulls were within 91-89 with 6:27 left in the game.
Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg has been second guessed for not having Lopez in games late. This time he had to go back to Lopez with Bobby Portis and Cristiano Felicio ineffective and uncertain. But then the Celtics stretched out their pick and roll, giving Thomas a running start with Horford out high. It’s been the most troubling formation for the Bulls in this series. And Horford had 11 fourth quarter points, seven in that 13-0 run. Horford ended with 21 points while Thomas and Bradley had 24 each.
“In the fourth quarter they got into the paint,” said Hoiberg. “I thought Horford was excellent in the fourth. That was the adversity we didn’t handle great in the fourth; you have to fight through.”
The teams actually are pretty close in talent for No. 1 and No. 8 seeds. The Celtics in this game did a better job than the Bulls of trapping each team’s main scorer and seeing if anyone else could beat them. The Bulls could get just Wade going with Butler harnessed. Though Thomas had 24 points, Canaan held him enough as Thomas shot six of 17 and one of six in the first half when Boston led 52-50. Canaan finally was the one to bounce around Thomas and make his shots difficult.
But the Celtics had Kelly Olynyk come off the bench for a career playoff high 14 points while the Bulls had to dig deep for Morrow, who shot three of five. The Bulls need one of those players who alternated with big games earlier, Zipser, Portis or Nikola Mirotic. They were a combined five of 13 for 14 points, three players matching Olynyk’s total.
“Dwyane had 18 shots, Jimmy had 15 shots,” noted Hoiberg. “You want your two best players out there getting (the most) shots. I thought Dwyane was very aggressive getting to the free throw line, 10 times, rebounded well. We used him basically as our point guard with Canaan out there and I thought he played great. Bradley does a great job crawling underneath Jimmy. But with Dwyane bringing the ball down the floor a lot of times he facilitated and he did a good job getting into the paint and making the right read.”
Though, as we know, he’s not a true point guard and the game slows down at times. It did for the Bulls after an ambitious start in which Canaan was pushing the ball up and Wade was getting his shots. The Bulls led 14-6 when Lopez drew a second foul and had to sit, and Boston surged ahead 23-20 after one quarter despite three of 12 three-point shooting. The Celtics were nine of 40 on threes for the game and went to the free throw line more, driven by the home audience. Can the Bulls turn around that aggression back in the United Center?
It really was a winnable game for the Bulls in a tough place to play and with Rondo still out.
Canaan did the best the Bulls have done this series getting Thomas to give up the ball or prevent Boston from getting it to him. So Bradley held it together for them early, though often after Bulls turnovers, 10 in the first half. That really is the Celtics main strength after Thomas, the way their perimeter players can get the ball loose and score. Hardly anyone else but Thomas can make a play. It’s why Canaan suddenly has become crucial. Michael Carter-Williams got a brief look in the second quarter and the Celtics went on a little run. He never got back in, thus leaving Canaan as the only theoretical point guard the team was playing with Jerian Grant not in. Canaan isn’t a distributor; he is more a point pest on defense.
The Bulls had Zipser bring the ball up much of the third quarter to deliver it to Wade or Butler after halfcourt, and it was working well enough.
“Wade had it going and we went to Dwyane a lot of times with that small ball screen (to go at Thomas),” said Hoiberg “We had Jimmy on the other side. They trapped (Butler) got the ball out and our guys for most part made the right plays.”
And so it became Wade’s game.
“For me today it was the first game I really ran point guard for majority of time in my 34 minutes I was out there,” Wade noted. “I just was going to be aggressive whether I got turnovers, whether I was going to shoot the ball, whether I was going to pass the ball. I just had an aggressive mindset. That’s the way I have to be. We’re down our point guard who is going to set everybody up.
It will have to be Butler as well since the handoff of scoring batons is not quite enough. Butler was just zero for one on free throws in the game, his second game in the last three with zero free throws scored.
Still, it was more than that as Wade had two big turnovers back to back with the Bulls ahead 85-84 early in the fourth quarter followed by a Wade miss, a Felicio three second call and a Butler turnover on an inbounds pass. That sequence enabled Boston to ease out to a 91-85 lead. It was Canaan who bailed out the Bulls then with a hard drive for a score and a finger roll after he goaded Thomas into a miss. The Bulls were still right there, trailing by two with six minutes left.
But it was the defense—and the emotion—that failed.
Horford rolled in for a three-point play on a Thomas pass, Portis missed an open three and then Thomas made a pull up. Butler drove and missed. Lopez was called for a foul in tight against Horford and lost it some and was called for a technical foul. Another three-point play with free throws; 99-89 Boston, just like that.
“I was trying to be supportive of my teammates,” explained Lopez. “I was trying to be supportive of Mr. (referee Ed) Malloy. I think he misconstrued it. I think he took it the wrong way. I didn’t think I said anything too egregious.”
Canaan then lost the ball and Boston got two offensive rebounds that led to more Horford free throws. And like that in 120 seconds it was over, the Celtics leading 104-89. Yes, talk about going cold.
With Butler answering media questions at his locker, Wade walked out of the shower and yelled to Butler that there was no hot water in the showers. A flashback to the old tricks of Red Auerbach in the Boston Garden. This sure was splashing cold water on the Bulls hopes.
“A lot of guys’ first time in this,” said Wade. “There are games where you’re not going to get a call to your liking. Not saying we didn’t get a call, but to our liking. The home team’s going to get a little more cooking than you. Emotions run high in the game. Unfortunately, we got a few techs at the end. I’d rather see that than nothing. It shows that people care.
“We had 10 more turnovers than them and (fewer) offensive rebounds,” noted Wade. Things like that hurt you. You play hard and great defensively and they get second chances. I thought we did a good job offensively and I thought our energy was great, but it’s the playoffs and those guys want it. You could see a few rebounds where they've come from the three-point line and taken it from us. It has to mean more to all of us. We all, me being the first one, let it happen and we all have to do a better job of understanding in this moment. Value the ball a lot more. Now that I'm the point guard it has to be led by me. I only had four turnovers, but I had a few bad ones in a row that led to points from them. We just have to be better.”
They get at least one more chance at that.