Keys to the Game: Bulls vs Celtics (01.04.20)

The Boston Celtics nearly stumbled out of the blocks before regaining their footing and emerging victorious to begin a stretch of three games in four nights.

The Celtics won't have much time to revel in their latest win, however, as they open a two-game road trip on Saturday against the Chicago Bulls.

Eastern Conference Player of the Week Jaylen Brown collected 24 points and 10 rebounds to lead all five starters in double-digit scoring on Friday during Boston's 109-106 victory over Atlanta.

Brown didn't take too much time celebrating the Celtics' seventh win in eight games, given the team's quick turnaround.

"Be mentally ready, because we haven't been as good as we should be in back-to-backs," the 23-year-old Brown said in an on-court interview. "Chicago, I'm expecting them to come out and throw a good punch."

It's uncertain if Boston will have guard Kemba Walker to combat that punch, as the team's leading scorer at 22.5 points per game sat out Friday's tilt with flu-like symptoms.

Marcus Smart stepped in for the ailing Walker to record 15 points and a season-high nine assists versus the Hawks.

The 25-year-old was direct in what he thought changed after the team fell behind by 18 points in the first quarter.

"Our mindset (changed). We came out and we became more aggressive," Smart said. "They came out in the first couple minutes and they hit us in the mouth, so we responded in the second half and we did the same thing to them that they did to us."

Gordon Hayward followed up his 21-point, 10-rebound performance in the Celtics' 109-92 victory in Charlotte on New Year's Eve with 18 and six, respectively, against Atlanta.

While Boston is ascending due in large part to its 17-2 record against teams under .500 this season, Chicago enters Saturday's tilt with losses in eight of its past 13 games -- including a 102-98 setback against Utah on Thursday.

Despite his team's considerable growing pains, Bulls coach Jim Boylen is keeping an optimistic view -- albeit in a long-term perspective.

"We are laying the foundation and the building blocks," Boylen said following Thursday's loss to the Jazz. "We're a new system, a new team with a new coach. I wanted to be a defensive team; we are. We need to improve our rebounding. ... We need to improve offensively. I'm not going to be deterred from that mission. And I like this group of men. They work and they care. They try to represent the city. They play hard."

Chicago continues to rely on Zach LaVine, who eclipsed his season average of 23.4 by pouring in 26 points versus the Jazz despite nursing a left ankle sprain and an ailing right shoulder.

"We compete with some of the best teams in the league night-in-night-out," LaVine said. "It might not show in our record, but we're right there pretty much every night."

LaVine scored a then-career-high 42 points in Chicago's 126-116 victory over Boston on Feb. 23. Lauri Markkanen added a personal-best 35 points and 15 rebounds in that game.

Markkanen, who is second on the team in scoring (15.1 points per game) has averaged 20.3 over his past three contests while totaling 13 3-pointers over that stretch.

Copyright 2020 by STATS/Field Level Media. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS/Field Level Media is strictly prohibited