You’d be lying through your teeth if you argue that you knew the Bulls would be competitive against the Celtics all along. They weren’t even sure to make the postseason to begin with; they needed to win seven of their last nine regular-season games merely to clinch the eighth seed. And, if nothing else, their 41-41 slate reflected the tumult that they went through in dealing with the arrival of veteran starters Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo. Parenthetically, pundits could not be blamed for wondering if the series would be akin to a cameo for them.
As things turned out, the Bulls instead managed to prove to all the sundry that they deserve to keep toiling in late April -- and, perhaps, beyond. Games One and Two at the TD Center looked less like opportunities to underscore the ascendancy of the Celtics and more like showcases of the resiliency of the red and black. Yesterday, for instance, they negotiated the second half with purpose and physicality that made their opponents look like junior varsity recruits instead of holders of the best record in the East.
Granted, the Bulls’ outstanding performance so far in the series is due in no small measure to the emotional baggage the Celtics have had to carry as a result of the sudden death of top dog Isaiah Thomas’s sister. That said, there can be no denying their stunning display of winning hoops. Rondo and Wade have been able to summon enough veteran guile to invite comparisons of their current showing to their heralded past. Robin Lopez has been a force in the middle, exposing the competition’s relative lack of size. The bench has exceeded itself, with the likes of Bobby Portis and Paul Zipser producing unexpectedly robust stat lines. And then there is Jimmy Butler, whose consistency and confidence highlight his status as the series’ best player.
Under the circumstances, head coach Fred Hoiberg is right. The Bulls “can’t be satisfied... We have to continue to go out and fight, continue to learn, continue to make adjustments and hopefully play well.” After all, the Celtics have a winning record on the road and did lose their two outings at the United Center, but just by a combined seven points. The green and white won’t be keeling over, so they’ll have to keep up the pressure and collectively remain better than the sum of their parts. They’re already playing with house money; they might as well go all in.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is the Senior Vice-President and General Manager of Basic Energy Corp.