I’m not sure how much the Celtics were affected by their overtime loss to the Spurs on Wednesday night — which went down to the last possible tick on the clock — but it factored into the equation somehow.
After all, injuries and plain old bad luck have left the Celtics rather depth-less. Sure, Ray Allen shifted into Sixth Man mode, providing 14 points on 5-for-10 shooting off the pine. But outside of Ray, Boston’s bench contribution was virtually non-existant. The C’s got only 13 minutes out of Ryan Hollins (2 points, 1 blocked shot), 11 minutes out of Greg Stiemsma (2 points, 1 rebound), 7 minutes out of Sasha Pavlovic (zero points, 1 rebound) and 2 minutes out of Keyon Dooling (1 turnover).
And while it’s true the Bench Mob didn’t wreak their usual havoc — totaling a mere 14 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 blocks and a steal while shooting only 5-for-14 — the Bulls starters looked fresher down the stretch than their counterparts on the Celtics.
Luol Deng scored 12 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter and made several clutch plays against Paul Pierce (who, frankly, looked gassed). With 4:31 left and the Bulls leading by only four points, Deng hit a layup. Less than 40 seconds later, Lu drilled an 18-footer. On Chicago’s next possession, he converted a short jumper. With 2:19 left, after a jumper by Allen had pulled the Celtics to within six points, Deng knocked down a 20-footer. Next up was a nifty assist to Carlos Boozer (12 points, 14 rebounds) for a slam dunk and a 10-point lead.
And let’s not forget Deng’s second-half defense on Pierce, who had 17 points in the first half, then a meager 4 points in the third quarter and only 1 point in the fourth.
The rest of Luol’s stat line: 8-for-8 from the line, 6 rebounds, 4 steals, 3 assists, 1 block and only 1 turnover.
Now that’s All-Star production.
But it was more than that. The Bulls came out sluggish and uninspired in that first half — which has, unfortunately, been something of a trend lately — and Deng took it on himself to fire up the team.
Said Noah: “We just said we’ve got to play inspired. It looked like we were kind of just going through the motions and just playing with our heads down. Lu just said, ‘Guys, let’s just have fun out there and just give it everything we got,’ and that’s what we did.”
The Bulls outscored Boston 55-37 in the second half. It wasn’t a coincidence.
Said Boozer: “Tonight [Deng set the tone on both ends]. First of all, he was guarding a great player on the other side in Paul Pierce and then at the same time he was going right back at him on the other end. Hitting big shots, step up, pull up threes. He was very aggressive and we need Lu to be that way. When he’s aggressive like that we’re a better team.”
Added Noah: “He was huge. Lu played great for us. He played with a lot of energy. His defense was great; hit big shots for us. He’s one of the most versatile players in the NBA and he showed it on a big stage tonight.”
Deng led the turnaround, but everybody contributed, and it was good to see the team play with the edge that has defined them under Tom Thibodeau. The first half was ugly. The Bulls committed 10 turnovers and eked out a tie in the rebounding department (20-20) while watching the Celtics build an 11-point lead after 24 minutes.
Then the second half happened. The Bulls had only 4 turnovers the rest of the way and won the battle of the boards 24-16 (they would finish with a 14-7 edge in offensive rebounds).
And check out the shot chart. In the third quarter — during which Chicago outscored Boston 29-17 — the Celts attempted only two shots in the paint (both by Brandon Bass). In the fourth quarter, Boston was only 2-for-6 in the paint…and one of those made shots was a layup by Rajon Rondo with 1:16 left and the outcome virtually decided.
So the defense did its job.
The Bulls maintained the league’s best record (43-13) and upped their “record without Rose” to 15-7 (including 8-4 during Derrick’s current 12-game absence).
Kind of amazing, isn’t it?
As for the MVP, he has promised to play against the Knicks on Sunday.
Said Rose: “You know the way that I play, I’m not holding back. My game is to be aggressive and try to get people going. I should be (good for the playoffs). My body was nicked up earlier in the year; (those injuries) are gone. The only thing that I’m worried about now is my groin.”
He admitted his groin still hurts, by the way, which is a major concern. But what can the Bulls do? They’ve done a great job holding the fort, but this team cannot win in the playoffs without Rose. Which means he needs to get back on the court very soon.
Said Thibs: “I think this time of the year you have to strike that balance of the rest and playing. We also want him to be in rhythm down the road, so I think just step by step. If he needs to take … the way the schedule is this month for us, if we need to sit him out of some practices, we’ll probably do that, give him an opportunity to rest there.”
Let’s hope Rose can start getting that rhythm Sunday against the Knicks.