Bulls take down the Celtics, 104 to 103

Sometimes a good thing can come of foul play, at least if you were the Bulls Thursday when Jimmy Butler made two free throws with nine tenths of a second left for a Bulls 104-103 victory over the Boston Celtics.

Who were crying foul.

“Horrible call,” moaned Celtics star Isaiah Thomas afterward, long refusing to leave the court and staring down officials. “A game we should have won.”

A murder most foul of their hopes, the Celtics suggested.

It really was a game either team, obviously, could have won, and it would be the Bulls this time with another big Butler close with nine of his 29 points in the fourth quarter, the Bulls like with the win against Toronto Tuesday closing it out at the free throw line. The Bulls last 10 points in the final five and a half minutes were all on free throws, making 22 of 22 for the game, and those last two pressure ones before a desperation Al Horford shot missed.

The decisive Butler play would come with 8.4 seconds left in the game after a Thomas miss in a tense last few minutes of lead changes and fabulous plays. Like a Butler block on the slithery Thomas after Thomas beat Butler to the basket on a previous play, Taj Gibson, Doug McDermott and Jerian Grant all converting their free throws in the last three minutes with no margin for a single miss.

Butler lined up Marcus Smart on the right elbow, ran down the clock and then went into his spin for a jumper and he hoped the win. The ball dented the front rim, but then the whistle blew for the foul call from the baseline official with the view of the play.

“I heard Jimmy yell (for a foul call),” said Jae Crowder. “Then I heard the buzzer go off and then I heard the whistle.”

It appeared Butler’s elbow was grazed, though it’s often a play not singled out with a last shot. Boston wondered why now. Not Butler.

And so the Bulls escape to the All-Star break with one of their better weeks, especially after the brutal close to the Western Conference road trip. The wins over Toronto and Boston give the Bulls a 6-1 record against those three top East teams and now 28-29 for the season. With just 25 games left after the All-Star break, where Butler will represent the Bulls in New Orleans as a starter in Sunday’s game, it’s suddenly a sprint to the close of the season with the trading deadline Thursday.

“It was big (winning the two over Toronto and Boston),” agreed Butler. “All wins are (big). But we can’t be satisfied. We have to start winning these games; can’t settle right now and keep looking forward. It shows we are capable of winning games, but we can’t worry about who are we beating. We have to go against everybody the same home, away, wherever it may be.”

Wherever and perhaps however might be a good motto for this volatile Bulls season that has a curiosity almost every game. This time it was Bobby Portis with a season high 19 points, crucial in keeping the Bulls in the game with 11 second quarter points and playing virtually the entire fourth quarter.

Dwyane Wade was ill again and missed the game and Paul Zipser was out with an ankle injury. Nikola Mirotic was available after back spasms subsided, but Portis took his spot as big man off the bench. Jerian Grant also played all but the last second of the fourth quarter. The Bulls survived despite shooting below 30 percent in the fourth quarter. They were 12 of 12 on fourth quarter free throws.

The Bulls got another strong effort from their starting big men with 15 points and eight rebounds from Robin Lopez and 12 points and nine rebounds from Taj Gibson. The Bulls had a massive 51-31 rebounding advantage and 22-4 on second chance points. But the Bulls after the first quarter were often slow in rotations and overcommitting to Thomas, thus leaving three-point shooters wide open. Boston was 14 of 37 on threes compared with six for 25 for the Bulls.

It also was the 17th straight Bulls win in a TNT Thursday night home game, which Gibson admitted the players talked about at the morning practice, though which Butler dismissed as just another arcane statistic.

“We talked about that,” Gibson admitted. “Didn’t want to jinx it going into the break. You have Charles (Barkley), the guys on TNT talking . You want to do the right thing and play right. I really wanted to get this win for Fred (Hoiberg) and it was good for us to end the right way to give us momentum. Especially with the young guys getting solid minutes and learning because we are going to need them.”

You do never quite know with this Bulls team that next time it assembles for a game next Friday will be the team for the remainder of the season. And again it seemed like a cat of a team with yet another life, beating Toronto for the 11th straight time Tuesday after nearly blowing a huge lead and then taking down the sizzling Celtics, who had moved close to Cleveland at the top of the Eastern Conference.

The Bulls despite all the talk of pace and transition have pretty much settled into being a half court, rebounding and interior defensive team. They went to Lopez and Gibson to start, as they normally do, and after falling behind early were down just 25-22 after one quarter as Amir Johnson made five shots. Portis was aggressive with his corner shot and Butler finally got it going late in the second quarter to counter Thomas. Boston led, however, 58-52 at halftime with 10 of 21 threes. The Bulls lack of regular three-point consistency forced them to have that second shot domination to compete.

The Bulls then pulled ahead 81-78 after three quarters with a nice boost from Grant with a pair of threes and Lopez working the perimeter-oriented Celtics over on the inside. Then came the fourth and the expected duel between Thomas, leading the NBA in fourth quarter points, and Butler, who would defend Thomas. For Boston’s part, they trapped and double teamed Butler constantly with Wade out to force some other Bulls to make a winning play.

Grant was zero for five shooting in the fourth and the team was one of six on threes with Butler making the only one. But Gibson, McDermott and Grant did make their free throws and even though Thomas beat Butler for 11 straight Celtics points after the game was tied at 94 with just over five minutes left, Butler’s block on Thomas with 1:10 left and Boston leading 103-102 gave the Bulls and Butler that last chance. Butler and Grant would have a chance to close it out with threes after that, and Smart blocked a Butler drive with 30.9 second left. But Butler got the last big call and made the last two shots and it was enough.