Isaiah Thomas shoots over defender Chicago Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic (44) during the first quarter in game three of the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at United Center. (Caylor Arnold/USA Today Sports)
There is life in the Celtics after all.
Thanks to a red-hot Jae Crowder early, an energized Isaiah Thomas in the third quarter and brilliant 3-point shooting, the Celtics managed to turn the tables and rout the Bulls, 104-87, Friday night in a must-have Game 3 at Chicago’s United Center.
The Bulls still lead the best-of-7 series 2-1, with Game 4 set for Sunday night in Chicago before the series shifts back to Boston for Game 5 Wednesday in Boston.
The Celtics connected on an amazing 17-of-37 shots from 3-point range (.459) as eight different Celtics hit at least one shot from long range. Al Horford led the way with 18 points and eight rebounds while Crowder and Thomas each had 16.
The Celtics absolutely needed to take advantage of the fractured right thumb that will likely sideline Rajon Rondo for the rest of the series. And early on, they did. With Rondo out wearing a split on his right arm and a unique short-sleeve burgundy suit with white sneakers on the bench, the Celtics clearly looked more energized to start the game – and definitely more confident.
The Celtics did the bulk of their damage from 3-point range. They converted five of their first seven tries from deep and finished the first 12 minutes making 7-of-11 from deep.
Horford was a monster on both sides of the floor. He had two steals, a block and converted both shots from beyond the arc.
Gerald Green, in the lineup at the ‘4’ position for Amir Johnson, moved Horford to the center position and provided some early spark with drives to the paint.
The Celtics jumped out to a 14-4 lead with an 11-0 run. Then, after the Bulls responded with six straight, the Celtics went on a 13-0 run sparked by a pair of 3-pointers from the red-hot Jae Crowder. The Celtics led 33-15 after one.
The lead ballooned to 37-17 in the opening minute of the second quarter as Jimmy Butler was on the bench. But the Bulls’ bench got hot and responded with an 11-0 run that energized the late-arriving Bulls crowd at the United Center.
(For the full box score and details, click here).
In desperate need of better play from Avery Bradley, the Celtics got it in the first half. The guard connected on his first four shots, including three threes, scoring 11 points as the Celtics stabilized things midway through the second with a 42-32 lead.
With the three pointers not falling in the second quarter, the Celtics became too dependent on the perimeter game and couldn’t find any second chance points. The Celtics scored just nine points in the first 10 minutes of the second quarter as the Bulls cut the lead down to six. Adding to the misery was the news that Green rolled his left ankle midway through the quarter. It was not considered serious and he had it taped to ready him for a return in the second half.
Nikola Mirotic’s left baseline three cut the lead to three, 44-41, with 28 seconds left in the half. The Celtics were held to just 11 points in the second quarter and gave up a 24-7 Bulls run to end the half and led 44-41 at the break.
Trailing 44-43 early in the third quarter, the Bulls had a chance to take their first lead since 4-3 but Jimmy Butler missed a turnaround 12-footer. The Celtics responded with the next eight points to build a 52-43 lead, thanks to a pair of threes from Isaiah Thomas. Butler started the game ice cold, missing nine of his first ten shots.
Thomas was magical in the third quarter, with hesitation dribble drives, 3-point shooting and perfect pick-and-roll passes to Horford. The Celtics built their lead back to 14, 64-50. Thomas was even a great cheerleader, giving Terry Rozier and swat on the leg from the bench after his made three made it 69-54 with three minutes left in the third.
Thanks to the rediscovered offense, the Celtics outscored the Bulls, 32-22, in the third and took a 76-63 lead to the fourth quarter.
Avery Bradley’s three with 7:28 left in the fourth put the Celtics ahead, 88-69. Rozier added a three with six minutes left to extend the lead to 91-73. The Bulls emptied their bench with four minutes left, waving the white flag and shifting their focus to Game 4 Sunday night in Chicago.