CHICAGO– With almost 70% of the 2016-17 season done and in the rear-view mirror for the second seeded Boston Celtics, they entered Thursday night having won 11 of their last 12 and surging up the standings of the Eastern Conference, all without their best all-around player in Avery Bradley.
The Celtics entered the United Center on a roll, despite injuries and a generally banged up roster consisting of key rotational players, including the aforementioned Bradley (who looks to return the first game after the All-Star break against division foe Toronto), rookie Jaylen Brown, a masked Jonas Jerebko, and an aching 31 year-old Gerald Green.
The story of the game was the reinforcing of Boston’s lack of rebounding across the board. The Bulls, despite shooting abysmal from beyond the 3 point line (24%), were able to fend off the Celtics and take several leads throughout the game due to their relentless pressure on the glass. The Bulls were able to snag 20 more rebounds than the Celtics and an incredible 15 offensive rebounds, 5 of those coming from starting center Robin Lopez. The destruction on the glass forced Celtics head coach Brad Stevens to utilize larger lineups that included non-shooting threat and seven-footer, Tyler Zeller, who did not grab a rebound the entire game.
Boston was able to outshoot Chicago by 4.6 percent, but the Bulls attempted 23 more field goals than the Celtics did. That, along with a 22-4 second chance points advantage gave Chicago a lead heading into the fourth quarter against a tired Celtics team on the second night of a back to back. Boston tried desperately to counter the Bulls size and speed by spreading the floor on offense with sharpshooters Kelly Olynyk and Terry Rozier who combined to hit (6-12) from 3PT range. The staple of the Celtics this year has been to “take the open shots we are given” says coach Brad Stevens, who has let the threes fly and All-Star Isaiah Thomas fly down the lane to create penetration and opportunities for a now 37 win team.
The game was up for grabs as the last seconds of the fourth quarter ticked down. Boston, with a one point lead with 15 seconds on the game clock and 8 on the shot clock, gave the ball to Mr. Fourth Quarter, Isaiah Thomas who was able to escape a Bulls trap and double team. Thomas then hoisted an off-balance three-pointer which just hit the far side of the rim and collected by Chicago guard Michael Carter-Williams for Chicago’s 58th rebound of the night. After the timeout, the King of the Fourth, Isaiah Thomas was substituted off the court in lieu of his liability on the defensive end and James Young was inserted to hopefully hold the one-point lead and head into the All-Star break 2.5 games behind the defending NBA Champion, Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Bulls ran an isolation for their best scorer and All-Star, Jimmy Butler, against Boston’s top perimeter defender in Marcus Smart for a hopeful game-winning bucket. Butler held the ball beyond the three-point line until 3 seconds were left in the game as the crowd stood as one in anticipation. Butler made a quick move, spun on Smart and pulled up for an 18 footer looking to seal a win for the below .500 Bulls. Butler got the shot off, but front-rimmed it and in that instant, a whistle was blown to the amazement of the crowd, announcers, and both teams.
As time expired, a shooting foul was called on the play and Boston’s bench and players exploded in anger as the extremely late call was about to put the 80% free throw shooter, Jimmy Butler on the line to take a lead with milliseconds left in the game. Upon further review and replays of the call, Marcus Smart appears to have barely grazed the shooting elbow of Butler as he releases the ball and misses. The controversy stems not only in the nature of the ticky-tack foul to decide a nationally televised game, but the timing of the foul was not as the foul occurred, but after Butler missed the shot.
Jimmy Butler nailed both free throws and gave Chicago their first lead in several minutes. Despite the foul being called as time expired, the referees but 0.9 seconds on the game clock for a last-ditch Boston effort to steal the game back with a catch and shoot. Using the MVP candidate and fourth quarter hero as a decoy, Celtics’ Al Horford popped out to receive a chest pass from Marcus Smart. In one motion, Horford spun, gathered, and quickly put up a shot that missed right and just like that, the game was finally concluded in dramatic and controversial style. Horford, who scored 7 points in the first quarter, never scored again in the game.
“I heard Jimmy yell, and then I heard the buzzer go off, and then I heard the whistle.” Jae Crowder said following the game. Marcus Smart followed and said, “My hands were up. I got punished for playing good D, I guess.” And finally, Isaiah Thomas was blunt and said, “We won this game. We had it won. A great defensive play by Marcus Smart and the ref made a horrible call.”
Here is the video of the final plays, you be the judge.
Final Score: CHICAGO 104 BOSTON 103