Game over, Celtics win 101-95: If we want to get technical, this game held true to almost everything we already knew about the Celtics. They played virtually flawless basketball for more than four quarters but nearly folded in the final frame, which only confirms everyone’s belief that they still cannot put together 48 strong minutes.
But the point is, they did string together those 36 excellent minutes. And they did close this one out.
With Rajon Rondo falling one rebound shy of a triple-double of 20 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds, the Celtics moved above .500 for the second time this season. All five Celtics starters scored in double figures as the Celtics absorbed Luol Deng’s 26-point, 11-rebound outing and Joakim Noah’s 17-point, 11-board performance.
Fourth quarter, :22.6, Celtics 99-93: One of the most meaningless statistical streaks in sports lives.
Rondo’s double-digit assist games streak was in dire jeopardy until the Bulls forgot Bass existed and Rondo found him for a dunk. Why is Rondo’s streak meaningless? Because its oversimplifies what Rondo brings to the game. This one was a classic illustration of the ways Rondo affects the game at multiple levels.
Fourth quarter, :41.9, Celtics 97-93: Garnett does not have his “Da Kid” ups anymore, but he can reach into his Li-Nings and pull out something close to his old hops every now and again. He and Rondo executed a perfect two-man play after a screen-and-roll with Pierce and Rondo way out by the arc. It ended with a lob from Rondo to Garnett for the slam.
Fourth quarter, :49.5, Celtics 95-93: The Celtics nearly had this one in the bag, pretty much. After sending Deng to the foul line with 54 seconds left, they watched Deng miss both free throws — and then watched Gibson gobble up the offensive rebound.
Gibson dished to a cutting Deng for the layup to cut the Bulls’ deficit to two points and continue a horrible quarter for the Celtics, who were outscored 23-13 and barely maintained their lead in the final minute.
Fourth quarter, 3:12, Celtics 89-84: The Jet has promised to limit his flights, but if Terry keeps draining big shots, there might be a takeoff by the end of this one.
Terry slyly yanked Bass into his defender, creating his own screen, and slipped along the baseline for another jumper to answer a fastbreak dunk by Noah. With Garnett out (he went to the bench for a needed rest), the Celtics needed a clutch rebound and two free throws by Wilcox to maintain their advantage.
That, and a couple of open looks for the Jet.
Fourth quarter, 4:54, Celtics 89-84: Danny Ainge signed Jason Terry in the offseason for just this sort of situation. The Celtics’ offense was unraveling, Garnett was firing up bricks and airballs, and Boston desperately needed a basket to stop the bleeding.
The Jet came off a screen by Garnett, got a pass from Rondo, took one dribble to step back and flicked home a momentum-slowing jumper.
The Bulls’ push was not over, but more shots like that were exactly why the Celtics sought out Terry even before they knew Ray Allen would depart for Miami.
Fourth quarter, 8:47, Celtics 87-81: The Bulls figured to have a run in them eventually. Logic suggested they would make their run with Garnett on the bench, but Garnett was very much on the court for the Bulls’ 11-5 run to open the fourth quarter. His man, Noah, was heavily involved, too.
So now the Celtics can crumble with and without Garnett. That is progress, right?
End of third quarter, Celtics lead 82-70: Jared Sullinger pulled the trigger from beyond the arc with regularity in college, but so far as a pro he has kept his work inside the arc. All 19 of his field goal attempts to date were two-pointers, but with time running down in the third quarter the Ohio State product finally let fly on a 3-pointer.
Swish, of course. Sullinger’s trey put a punctuation mark on another strong 12 minutes for the Celtics. Shortly before Sullinger’s triple, Lee, an underrated passer, slipped a deft bounce pass between two defenders to Wilcox out of a quick pick-and-roll. Wilcox caught the pass, dunked over Gibson and was fouled to extend Boston’s lead to 11 points, momentarily.
Third quarter, 2:51, Celtics 76-62: The triple-double watch for Rondo was on, and strangely the statistic in which he was farthest from getting double-digits was assists.
Rondo dropped a floater through the net for his 20th point, adding to his seven rebounds and six assists. Shooting 10-for-13 from the field and suffocating Hamilton and Robinson, Rondo was putting together a fine all-around performance even while he was putting his double-digit assists streak in jeopardy.
Third quarter, 5:53, Celtics 70-59: Rondo has had some eye-popping stat lines this season, but this game might quietly be one of his best. With 18 points and five assists, Rondo was well behind his league-leading assists pace, but by shooting 9-for-11 from the field he had scored a game-high 18 points and had also nabbed six rebounds.
His four steals only told a portion of the story about how completely and totally he owned Robinson defensively. Robinson was 2-for-5 from the floor with four turnovers in 24 minutes, and Robinson has actually drawn plaudits for his controlled pace of play this season.
Halftime, Celtics lead 58-46: Somebody should dislocate Bass’ finger more often. Since his minor injury (it is easy to call it “minor” when it’s not your finger) in the first quarter, Bass was the middle of multiple big plays on both ends of the floor.
Bass totaled eight points and four rebounds in the first half, but the way he got there was impressive. He put together a personal four-point run to extend the Celtics’ lead to 13 points, starting out with a block of Boozer’s jumper, tracking down the loose ball and then tipping home a missed layup on the break. On the next possession, Rondo came up with an errant Chicago pass and found Bass, who got fouled and made both freebies. A few minutes later, when Boston’s lead shrank to seven points, Bass rebuilt some breathing room with a jump shot on the secondary break.
While Bass had the highlight plays, Pierce and Rondo shared the team lead with 10 points. The Celtics looked like the team everyone imagined they would be, shooting 60 percent from the field, committing only four turnovers next to 14 assists and outrebounding the Bulls 19-18. The Bulls got 12 points from Boozer and 11 points from Deng, but the rest of the squad was mostly silent. Robinson tied Rondo for the game-high of five assists, but Nate-Rob’s three turnovers rendered his helpers irrelevant.
Second quarter, 5:52, Celtics 41-38: Barbosa can be a sink or swim player. Occasionally he erupts for a game-changing burst off the bench, and other times he shoots key possessions into oblivion.
Barbosa’s first six minutes against Chicago were in the “swim” category. He did not hesitate to go to the hoop and converted two big baskets to help the Celtics maintain their slim lead, which shrank to three points twice in the quarter.
Second quarter, 8:22, Celtics 37-32: Brandon Bass already had to leave the game to pop a dislocated finger back into place, although he soon returned. Green gave the Celtics another injury scare when he hobbled away from contact on a drive to the hoop and had to leave the game.
The good news for Green and the Celtics was that he did not need help to get off the court.
Second quarter, 8:52, Celtics 37-30: The first 12 minutes were uncharacteristic of two teams and two coaches that pride themselves on their defense. The Celtics and Bulls shot a combined 25-for-43 from the field and grossed 60 points. The opening minutes of the second quarter brought a return to normality, though, as it took more than a minute and a half for either team to get on the board.
Marco Belinelli’s 3-pointer broke the drought, and Lee and Leandro Barbosa responded with buckets to protect Boston’s lead.
End of first quarter, Celtics lead 33-27: Through the first two weeks of the season, Pierce and Boozer each had trouble finding the bottom of the net. Pierce entered Monday’s game shooting 39 percent from the field, while Boozer was averaging a blistering 10.7 points per game, almost seven points below his career average.
But both came through for their teams on offense in the first quarter. Pierce shot 3-for-6 from the field and 2-for-2 from the foul line for eight points, tying Rondo for the team high. Boozer missed only one of his six shots and led all scorers with 10 points. That is unlikely to silence Boozer’s many critics in Chicago, but it may be a start.
Jeff Green, who finally showed a little of his preseason spark on Saturday, got an early start with a reverse layup and a jumper to get in the scorebook early. All five Bulls starters played the full 12 minutes.
First quarter, 3:04, Celtics 25-18: Two things were safe for most of the first quarter — the Celtics never trailed and the Bulls never substituted.
Both of those things could change eventually — the Bulls probably will not play their starters 48 minutes, but with Thibs, who can tell? — but the Celtics putted along at a steady clip. The Celtics shot 10-for17 from the field in the first nine minutes and were a perfect 5-for-5 from the line.
The Bulls did not exactly play poorly, either. But they only managed to play the Celtics, a notoriously bad rebounding team, to and even 8-8 on the boards. As that stat changed, the Bulls’ fortunes were destined to change in this game, too.
First quarter, 5:17, Celtics 19-10: Robinson knew he was in for a long night against Rondo, his former teammate, and Rondo gave the Bulls point guard a taste of what he had in store for him early. Rondo caught Nate-Rob with a fake behind-the-back pass for a layup and then Euro-stepped past Robinson on a fastbreak for a layup 27 seconds later.
By the end, Robinson may end up wishing Kirk Hinrich, the usual starting point guard, was not dealing with an injured hip.
7:45 p.m.: In Boston, Kevin Garnett’s importance cannot be overstated, and nobody really tries.
The Celtics are significantly better when Garnett is on the court, as they have been for the past five seasons. That Celtics coach Doc Rivers is grasping for ways to maintain his team’s offensive and defensive intensity when Garnett takes a needed rest is no surprise for anyone who has observed the Celtics for a while.
The Bulls know the feeling. When Joakim Noah leaves the court, Chicago’s qualify of play drops off as well. Asked where the Celtics are when Garnett sits, Rivers cracked, ”The same place the Bulls are when Noah’s not in the game.”
Noah’s plus-minus is 9.2 and his net rating reveals the Bulls are 10.8 points better per 200 offensive and defensive possessions when he is on the court.
7:04 p.m.: Few teams have sustained adversity as well as the Bulls. Despite the absence of Rose, the Bulls maintained their place near the top of the East thanks to stellar defense, which has proved not to depend on one standout player.
The Bulls are fourth in the NBA in scoring defense and are seventh in field goal percentage defense, posting better marks than the Celtics, who are still finding their way on both ends of the court. Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah are both among the league leaders in blocked shots.
With that size in mind, Brandon Bass remains in the starting lineup in Chicago. Bass’ scoring and defense have set him apart from Jared Sullinger in the first six games, although Bass has been effective both as a starter and as a reserve. Bass entered Monday’s game averaging 9.5 points and 6.3 rebounds per game.
The projected starting lineups appear below.
8 a.m. ET: Nate Robinson’s stay in Boston was relatively brief, but the 98 games he spent with the Celtics from 2010 to 2011 left an impression on fans and members of the organization alike. Much has changed since then, but one thing is right back to where it was when Robinson served as a sparkplug off the Boston bench: Robinson and Tom Thibodeau are once again player and coach.
Robinson has been a revelation early this season. He and Kirk Hinrich have filled in ably for former Most Valuable Player Derrick Rose, leading the Bulls to a 4-2 record even with Rose sidelined and former All-Star Carlos Boozer a non-factor through six games. Robinson is coming off an 18-point outing in Saturday’s win over the Timberwolves and is second on the team with 4.2 assists per game.
Still, Chicago lacks Boston’s superior backcourt depth. The Celtics will look to capitalize on that Monday, when they take on Robinson and the Bulls at the United Center.
Join us for updates and analysis during the game, which tips off at 8 p.m. ET.