Playoffs 2017: East First Round -- Celtics (1) vs. Bulls (8)

Avery Bradley helps Boston Celtics push Chicago Bulls to brink of elimination

Versatile guard delivers much-needed scoring as Boston claims 3-2 series edge

Ian Thomsen

BOSTON — It has been a long time coming.

The Boston Celtics haven’t won a playoff series since the Big Three (plus Rajon Rondo) were last threatening LeBron James in 2012. They’ve been knocked out in the opening round as underdogs each of the last two postseasons, and they opened this year’s tournament with a pair of home losses that put them in danger of becoming the second conference champion in the East to be upset by a No. 8 seed in the seven-game era.

Is all of that behind them now? Their 108-97 win over the Chicago Bulls in Game 5 on Wednesday night affirmed that the Celtics have turned the negative opening-weekend impressions right-side up. They can close out the series, and win their fourth straight playoff game, with a victory Friday night in Chicago.

Boston received 24 points each from Avery Bradley, who scored all of them in the opening three quarters while holding Jimmy Butler to 14 points overall to keep the game tight, and Isaiah Thomas, who overcame a passive 1-for-7 opening half to score 11 in the decisive fourth quarter. Even more promising was the efficiency of center Al Horford, who generated 21 points (on 11 shots) to go with nine assists and seven rebounds.

“He was really good down the stretch, and we needed him to be,’’ said Boston coach Brad Stevens of Horford. “We needed him — when they go small like they did — to be able to score in the post and play through him in the post, rebound the ball, make plays. He was active defensively, he was great blocking out. He just did a lot of good things.”

The Bulls shot 50 percent from the field and yet Boston was the harder-working side. The Celtics forced 16 turnovers for 23 points, limited Chicago’s rebounding advantage to 42-38 despite going small all night, and outscored their guests in the paint (56-42), on second chances (15-4) and in transition (12-4). Chicago created only six turnovers and wasted a near triple-double of 26 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists by Dwyane Wade.

The Bulls have been unable to score in triple-figures in the absence of point guard Rajon Rondo (fractured right thumb), who has missed the last three losses but was hoping to return for Game 5. His replacement, Isaiah Canaan, scored 13 points and received some credit for Thomas’ 1-for-10 shooting from the 3-point line, but Canaan had no assists as Chicago’s playmaking was taken on by Butler and Wade.

Bradley, 26, was Boston’s No. 2 scorer (16.3 points) this season. He advanced as a playmaker and was Boston’s leading rebounder in the early months of the season, but injuries and illness sidelined him for 27 games this season. Since last week he has been devoted in no small way to consoling Thomas, his former AAU teammate from Tacoma, Wash., after the shocking death of Thomas’ 22-year-old sister in an automobile accident.

The home team was able to win for the first time in this unpredictable series because of Bradley, who was the only Celtic to approach the opening quarter as if it were the fourth. Not only was he aggressive and efficient offensively, but Bradley was also holding Butler to 6-of-15 in spite of a deficit of four inches and 40 pounds — an embodiment of how the Celtics have changed this series (helped by Rondo’s predicament, of course).

“It’s been the story of our team, being able to fight through adversity,” said Bradley. “We believe in one another. We went to Chicago knowing that we were going to win those games — not hoping. We knew that we were going to take two games and come here and take care of home, and now it’s our job to continue to play the same way and finish the series in Chicago.”

After a sluggish start, Stevens discovered a winning combination around Bradley off the bench. Kelly Olynyk (14 points overall) was finding space away from the ball, which found its way back to him for layups and short pullup pop-ins. Marcus Smart (eight points and eight assists) was making a couple of 3s while defending with the usual pent-up zeal, and Terry Rozier continued to provide the energy bursts that have defined him in this series.

And yet for three quarters neither team could create meaningful distance on the scoreboard. It was their ninth meeting since October and they were finishing each other’s sentences.

The Bulls were up 86-85 with 9:27 remaining when Kevin Garnett made a somewhat cosmic appeal to his fans in Boston. It was two-dimensional, he was dressed in street clothes on the jumbo screens, and his words could not be discerned above the enveloping roar. It was as if the ghost of Obi Wan Kenobi had appeared before Luke Skywalker in the jungle of the Dagobah system.

Whether it was coincidental or not, the Celtics were suddenly conjuring up the old spirits. Big plays abounded.

Olynyk forced up a runner and made the ensuing free throw that sandwiched an unusual show of his emotion. Horford broke free for a dunk which he followed with an equally fiery three-point drive. Under his basket, the 5-foot-9 Thomas came away with a loose rebound among 6-foot-7 Butler, 7-foot Robin Lopez and 6-foot-11 Bobby Portis.

These bursts had already inched Boston’s lead out to nine points when Thomas drew a foul through the lane and found himself gesturing among his fans like a pro wrestler. Wade, frustrated, picked up a technical. The three free throws (accompanied by the requisite “M-V-P” chants) were followed by a Buckneresque turnover through Wade’s legs, which was cashed in for yet more free throws by Horford. Another technical was drawn by Lopez, and with 4:20 remaining the Celtics had an invincible 104-89 advantage.

“I love the way our guys competed,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “To come out on the road — to play really, really good basketball for the majority of the first three quarters.’”

The trick for Chicago will be to redirect the trend of this series one more time. But it’s also quite possible that Thomas will begin to find his range from the 3-point line in Game 6 — in which case his Celtics may have the last laugh.

Ian Thomsen has covered the NBA since 2000. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here or follow him on Twitter.

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