The Celtics were coming off a dramatic overtime win over the Milwaukee Bucks two nights prior, and they were looking ahead to a daunting road trip against a who's who of the NBA's best. They would have loved for Friday night to be an easy, relaxing blowout win to keep the blood pressure low and the energy level high before hitting the road.
It wasn't meant to be.
The Celtics came out strong against the Chicago Bulls, going on a 22-3 run in the second quarter and threatening to run away early, but it was too good to be true. They knew the Bulls would make a run before all was said and done, and boy, did they ever.
"Whenever Chicago and Boston get together," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said, "something crazy happens."
This was the same Bulls team that turned a 2-versus-7 playoff series into an epic grudge match in the spring of 2009, as a pair of youngsters named Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah took the Celtics to seven games featuring seven overtimes. It was the same team that split four games with the C's last season, none without tempers flaring. These Bulls have always known how to push Boston's buttons, and they did it again Friday.
A pair of late 3s from Luol Deng, followed by a pair of clutch steals, one by Kyle Korver and one by Keith Bogans, helped the Bulls force overtime in Boston. It was the second extra session in Boston in three nights — both dramatic, both nationally televised, both against tough Central Division foes with bragging rights on the line.
The fact that the Celtics again emerged with the win, 110-105 over the Bulls, shows that the C's have found an early penchant for winning big statement games.
"We lost them all last year at this point, and then we started winning them in the playoffs," Rivers said. "So it's good to be winning them early. And I guess it's good to have this end-of-game situation every night right now, because it's only going to make us better at the end of the day."
To pull this one out, the Celtics needed a lot of things to go right. They needed 25 points and countless clutch moments from Ray Allen, they needed big scoring nights off the bench from Glen Davis and Marquis Daniels, and they needed double-doubles from both Kevin Garnett (16 points, 10 rebounds) and Rajon Rondo (10 points, 11 assists). They got all that, and the outcome was still in doubt until a key Noah turnover with 14 seconds to play in overtime. The C's aren't just 5-1, and undefeated in four home games this season — they're also battle-tested and ready for the road ahead.
"You want to get these home wins early," Paul Pierce said. "We know we've got a tough road trip coming up — a lot of playoff contenders. You talk about Oklahoma City, you talk about Dallas, you talk about Memphis, those are teams that obviously are going to be at the top of the West. We've got our work cut out for us, but I'm just glad we got it done at home. We got some valuable experience with these overtime games early, which was great."
"You don't want to go on the road and have to get your confidence going," said Allen. "We don't want to be overconfident, but at least we're in a situation where we're going to start on the road and start on a good note. Now we don't have to worry about what happened at home."
Last year, the Celtics had a knack for folding in tough situations in their own building — they finished the year with a disappointing 17 home losses and a feeling of doubt heading into the postseason.
This season, it's taken them just two weeks to prove they can take care of business at the TD Garden.
The C's have weathered the storm — a pair of storms, actually — and now they hit the road. With the resolve they've already shown this season, they don't need much of a master plan for the stretch of games that lie ahead of them.
"Just win each one," Rivers said. "We're going to take them one game at a time. That's all you can do. You can't play Oklahoma thinking about Dallas, because you'll lose. And you can't play Dallas thinking about Miami. It's just a tough trip — I saw it when the schedule came out. But we'll be ready."
After the way this season has begun, how could they not be?