When the starters took the floor for Thursday's matchup between the Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics, something strange happened. Backup guard Avery Bradley started at shooting guard for Boston, which fit the pattern established over the last five games while Ray Allen sat out with an ankle injury. This time Allen was in uniform and otherwise ready to go, yet he was left out of the starting lineup for only the fourth time in his 15-year NBA career (1,145 total games). Unfortunately for the Celtics, the start didn't matter in this game. Luol Deng scored 18 of his game-high 26 points in the second half while Chicago outscored Boston 55-37 to help the Bulls erase an 11-point deficit for the 93-86 win.
There is no controversy in Ray Allen heading to the bench. Doc Rivers told Craig Sager during a TNT in-game interview that Allen approved the move, and Bradley developed a 5-0 record as a starter, so it all made perfect sense for a Celtics team also comfortable enough to move Kevin Garnett to center during the stretch run. Allen responded well enough to the move. He matched the entire Bulls bench with 14 points, and even led the Celtics with nine second half points. Avery Bradley helped set a tone on defense with Rajon Rondo -- they limited C.J. Watson (5-16 FGs, 15 points, six turnovers) and Richard Hamilton (4-11 FGs, 9 points) effectively all night -- but the Celtics just couldn't muster enough offense to match a late surge by the Bulls.
Star point guard Derrick Rose (groin) missed his 12th straight game, but the Bulls found a way. He warmed up with the team, but didn't feel quite right -- which is understandable, considering he has internal bleeding -- and decided not to rush his comeback. Chicago struggled to produce anything on offense against Boston's disciplined defenders in the first half, but Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer shouldered the load with a combined 17 points and 15 rebounds in the first half (29 points and 23 rebounds for the game) to keep the team afloat.
The Bulls stepped up their defensive intensity in the third period, reduced the C's to a jump-shooting team and grabbed the lead for good with a 29-17 run. Five turnovers and 6-17 shooting from Boston was no match for nine assists, just one turnover and 11-24 accuracy from a Chicago reinvigorated coming out of the intermission. In many ways, the momentum of the game inverted based on a swing in jump shooting accuracy for the Bulls. Luol Deng got particularly busy from outside in the second half (5-7 on jumpers), but here is the full team breakdown:
|1st Q||2nd Q||3rd Q||4th Q|
|Bulls FGs In Paint||4/5 (80.0%)||4/7 (57.1%)||4/6 (66.7%)||4/10 (40.0%)|
|Bulls FGs Outside of Paint||2/14 (14.3%)||2/9 (22.2%)||7/18 (38.8%)||6/11 (54.5%)|
The Bulls tried to bother Rondo in transition by pressuring him across the half court line and using big men to bump him away from the middle of the floor, but the speedy Celtics PG still found ways to knife through the defense and create open looks for teammates. His creativity and generosity on offense has always been an asset, and his 10-point, 12-assist double-double moved him into special company in the NBA record book on Thursday:
Rajon Rondo has become the first player to record double digit assists in 15 straight games since John Stockton in 1995.— Jeff Mangurten (@JeffGurt) April 6, 2012
However, Rondo had a very quiet fourth quarter (two points, one assist, one turnover) along with Paul Pierce (0-4 FG, only three of team-high 22 points) while Deng closed out the game on 6-8 shooting for 12 points to seal the win for the Bulls, who moved to 15-7 overall without Rose. The Bulls are still the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, while the Celtics hold the No. 4 seed and a 1.5-game lead on the Philadelphia 76ers for the Atlantic Division title.
For all of Thursday's NBA box scores, check out SI.com's NBA scoreboard.