Jimmy Butler (right) of the Chicago Bulls drives against Marcus Smart of the Boston Celtics Sunday night.
Suspend all cynicism over the Bulls immediately.
Put aside all your preconceived notions formed before the playoffs began. Plenty of time exists to resume the perpetual debate over what’s best for the Bulls’ future.
The present takes precedence this week. The only Bulls plan that matters now? Beating the Celtics three more times.
Bulls executives John Paxson and Gar Forman remain polarizing for fans and media but do yourself a favor and put those strong feelings aside to focus on the basketball for as long as this entertaining playoff run lasts. The Bulls made everything else about the organization moot, for the moment, by going into TD Garden on Sunday and refusing to lose Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the No. 1 seed.
They made fools out of those of us who expected so little from this postseason. They did themselves proud with an effort good enough to qualify as the biggest victory of coach Fred Hoiberg’s tenure. They outplayed the Celtics on their home floor in the fourth quarter and out-rebounded the hosts 53-36 with the kind of physicality necessary in the playoffs.
But who knew the Bulls had it in them? No, you didn’t. Admit it. Me either. Appreciate that what happened in Boston represented the beauty of athletic competition at every level: An inferior group of players given little chance to win surprised everybody but themselves in beating a deeper, more talented team. Nobody in town figured the Bulls would win a playoff game this month before the Blackhawks, but Chicago sports went on an Easter weekend bender that left everyone’s heads still spinning Monday morning. Take two aspirin and call Chuck Swirsky.
Forget that the Celtics resembled one of the East’s weaker tops seeds in recent memory and the Bulls received a break by avoiding LeBron James in the first round. This was a Bulls team that hardly entered the playoffs on a roll, having lost to the lowly Nets and Knicks in the final week of the regular season. This was an organization whose front office put developing young players such as point guard Cameron Payne, a peculiar fit, ahead of winning enough in the final month to rankle veterans in the locker room. This was a bunch of guys who viewed the postseason as the fresh start it was, and seized an opportunity.
This was fun to watch.
The Bulls rode Jimmy Butler, who overcame a slow start to finish with 30 points and influence the game on both ends. They relied on the playoff savvy of proud leaders Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade, who looked 25 years old making an open-court, second-quarter steal but every bit of 35 when he missed the breakaway dunk at the rim due to a failure to launch. They received a workmanlike effort from center Robin Lopez and a career performance from fearless second-year forward Bobby Portis, whose 19 points in 29 minutes backed up the brash confidence he exudes every game. They focused for 48 minutes, with Hoiberg wisely sticking to a nine-man rotation and resembling an NBA coach matched up against one of the league’s brightest minds in Brad Stevens.
Five of those nine Bulls scoring in double figures showed balance suggesting the Celtics could be too much of a one-man show. Isaiah Thomas played brilliantly for the Celtics, scoring a game-high 33 points in the wake of tragedy. Regardless of the outcome, Thomas deserves empathy and respect for the way he nearly willed the Celtics to victory the day after his sister was killed in a car accident. The grief took an inestimable toll on Thomas, who needed more than just Al Horford to help finish off a Bulls team that refused to go away.
Besides Portis, three other young Bulls justified their presence in the rotation and already benefited from the playoff experience. Jerian Grant hit a clutch 3-pointer with 4:33 left as Rondo sat with five fouls. Cristiano Felicio and Paul Zipser got their first taste of the postseason without being overwhelmed. Only Niko Mirotic, who started, struggled with 1-for-9 shooting but has proven to be streaky enough to go off for 20 in Game 2.
Suddenly, the Bulls have made this first-round series interesting. They have a legitimate chance to advance. They haven’t necessarily changed the course of the offseason for Paxson or Forman but they have gotten the Celtics’ attention, not to mention Chicago’s. They made it easy to see the benefit of an NBA team stuck in basketball purgatory playing in a postseason that supposedly means nothing.
You still can make the argument the Bulls would have been better off qualifying for the NBA lottery and missing the playoffs, except nobody will be listening — not now. Butler and his friends are making too much noise.