The Chicago Bulls' season has been defined by turmoil, but they'll enter the All-Star break riding a two-game winning streak following a thrilling victory Thursday night over the Boston Celtics at the United Center.
Down one point with eight seconds to play, Jimmy Butler appeared stymied by Marcus Smart before a controversial shooting foul was whistled on the Celtics guard with 0.9 seconds remaining:
Bleacher Report @BleacherReport
Looks like the refs went on All Star break a little early... https://t.co/eNIegLJozd2017-2-17 03:38:36
Butler proceeded to step to the line, and he calmly knocked down both freebies to hand the Bulls a 104-103 win.
Butler finished with 29 points, seven assists and four rebounds, and his late trip to the free-throw line served as redemption after he was stripped by Smart one possession earlier, via the NBA on TNT:
NBA on TNT @NBAonTNT
Marcus Smart comes up with a HUGE steal and the @celtics have the 103-102 lead & the ball with 28.3 seconds left in the 4Q! https://t.co/Zxlu8MWShF2017-2-17 03:15:08
Isaiah Thomas keyed Boston's offense with 29 points on 8-of-18 shooting (4-of-9 from three) in the loss, and he dropped 11 in the fourth quarter alone to help keep the Celtics afloat.
According to the Celtics' Twitter account, Thomas now resides atop an esteemed franchise leaderboard following another big scoring night:
Boston Celtics @celtics
Isaiah Thomas makes history! He just became the first Celtics player ever to score 20 or more in 41 straight games, passing John Havlicek. https://t.co/SvtnmEXxrV2017-2-17 02:56:08
On the whole, Boston was the more polished offensive team Thursday as it shot 46.8 percent from the field and 37.8 percent from three.
The Celtics outscored Chicago 30-6 from beyond the arc in the first half, and it felt like a matter of time before they would blow things open. However, the Bulls' tenacity on the glass allowed them to hang tough.
While the Celtics bombed away from beyond the arc, the Bulls stayed competitive because of an early 8-2 offensive rebounding advantage that allowed them to mount a major edge in second-chance points, per Bulls radio producer Jeff Mangurten:
Jeff Mangurten @JeffGurt
Second chance points keeping the Bulls in the game (11-0). Bulls second in the NBA averaging 15.6 second chance PPG.2017-2-17 02:10:26
Bobby Portis helped provide a key injection of energy off the pine, and he finished the evening with a season-high 19 points (8-of-13 shooting) and eight rebounds. Formerly a rotational outcast, Portis has now dropped double-figures in two of his last three games and appears to be in something of a groove, according to ESPN.com's Nick Friedell:
Nick Friedell @NickFriedell
Bobby Portis is in the middle of his best game of the season. He has 17 points and is brimming with confidence at the moment.2017-2-17 02:36:40
Thanks to a 13-point first-half effort from Portis, the Bulls entered halftime down a manageable six points.
Within striking distance at that point, Chicago opened the third quarter on a 19-9 on the back of a scoring surge from Jerian Grant (10 points), as the NBA documented on Twitter:
Jerian Grant is up to 8 points in the 3rd! @chicagobulls have taken the lead on @NBAonTNT. #NBARapidReplay https://t.co/4UCFiPsT3K2017-2-17 02:27:07
Chicago continued to click throughout the second half, and it did just enough to hold off the hungry Celtics down the stretch.
And while there will undoubtedly be plenty of attention paid to the controversial call that enabled the Bulls to squeak out a win, Fred Hoiberg's squad is now sitting one game back of the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference.
The Bulls will now enjoy a week off before they return to the floor on Feb. 24 against the Phoenix Suns as they seek to make a postseason push over the final two months of the regular season.
The Celtics will also be back in action a week from Friday. However, Brad Stevens and Co. will have to contend with the retooled Toronto Raptors in order to get back in the win column.
Once the final buzzer sounded, all of the attention was on Smart's foul of Butler.
"A horrible call...that cost us the game," Thomas said, per the Boston Globe's Adam Himmelsbach. "That's horrible...the Bulls were even shocked."
"We thought we won the game," Celtics big man Kelly Olynyk added, per the team's official Twitter account. "It was a roller coaster of emotions."
Butler, however, took a different stance.
"A foul is a foul," he told reporters, according to the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson. "He hit my elbow."
Not surprisingly, Smart begged to differ.
"I’m one of the best defenders in this league," he said, per Himmelsbach. "I played hell of a great defense right there. I know I did."
While the Celtics were plenty frustrated at first, Himmelsbach noted the mood in the locker room was rather light with some time off on deck:
Adam Himmelsbach @AdamHimmelsbach
Celtics aren't talking about the foul call or watching replays together or anything. Seems they've moved on and are ready for the break.2017-2-17 03:53:58
As for the Bulls, Hoiberg was pleased his team was able to enter the All-Star break with a pair of wins in hand.
"Great win to go into the break strong," he said, per the Bulls' Twitter account. "Hopefully we can come back and build on these two wins."