The Bulls handled business in sweeping their home-and-home with the Boston Celtics with a 94-80 victory.
It was a trademark win for a team that has struggled with two of its mainstays over the last few games; defense and rebounding.
The Bulls (42-32) held the Celtics to just 4-for-20 shooting and 10 points in the fourth quarter and going on a 13-0 run that seized control over a game that had been back and forth much of the night. They also outrebounded Boston 40-37, outscored them 48-30 in the paint and even scored 26 fast break points.
The Celtics had shot just under 48 percent going into the fourth and the clamps put down by their opponent prompted Celtics coach Brad Stevens to tell reporters afterwards that Chicago’s defense is “as good of a defense as I’ve ever coached against.”
Five players scored in double figures for the Bulls, led by Mike Dunleavy’s 22. Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson both added double-doubles.
“The fourth quarter was obviously our best quarter,” said coach Tom Thibodeau.
The win also moved the Bulls into a tie with Toronto – lost to Miami – for third place in the East. It’s a position that doesn’t look as bad with the Indiana Pacers recent struggles, dropping their 10th game in 16 tries to fall to second place in the East after starting the season 33-7. The Miami Heat have also had their struggles this season while trying to make a fourth straight trip back to the Finals. A forecasted Eastern Conference Finals re-match between the top two teams in the conference is suddenly becoming very cloudy.
While the Bulls are still prone to bouts of anemic offense, correcting their edge on defense and rebounding could help them play the role of playoff spoilers.
“I think we’re a great defensive team,” a defensive Jimmy Butler said when asked about the team’s recent slide on that end of the floor. “We have a lot of guys that can switch and when we finish every possession like we’re supposed to, with a defensive rebound, it looks even better. We gotta correct that and we will.”
The results were mixed between some players saying that the third seed in the East is what they’re shooting for and others wanting to be finish out the season strong playing the best they can. But whether you hear that a guy isn’t paying attention to the calendar or what the next team is doing, you know it’s far from a truth with the Bulls being a team that prides itself on preparation and readiness.
“We understand the Raptors lost tonight (in Miami) and we wanted to take advantage,” Taj Gibson said. “It was up and down, sloppy game, but it always comes down to who wants it more.
“We’re just trying to take the next step. Whoever is in front of us, we’re trying to move forward.”
Said Dunleavy on the importance of the seeding; “I think it’s very important. We want to try and get as high as we can. Not only with home court advantage and avoiding the first seed in the second round, if we’re fortunate enough to advance.”
Eight games remain and only two of those are against teams already in the playoffs, but nothing is a given. Toronto also will face two playoffs teams in their last eight games, but will also play a Knicks’ team that is fighting for a postseason berth, twice.
Given the recent slide in the expectations on the defensive side of the ball, the Bulls feel they are coming along at the right time with rotations set, health not being an issue (knock on wood) – and looking past that point guard who is out for the season – and the playoffs just two weeks away.
“I think we’re pleased with where we’re at,” Dunleavy said. “We just have to keep building.”