BOSTON — Jimmy Butler always believed in the possibilities.
As the Chicago Bulls meandered through one of the most up-and-down seasons in recent memory, Butler quietly held to the belief that all his team had to do was get to the postseason, and then it could start anew. He didn’t care that the Bulls continued to lose to some of the worst teams in the league during the last week of the regular season. The All-Star swingman was buoyed by the feeling that with him leading the way and playoff-tested veterans Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade flanking him on each side, the Bulls had a legitimate chance to do some damage in the postseason.
“I’m not surprised because everybody’s so locked in right now,” Butler said after scoring 22 points, grabbing eight rebounds and dishing out eight assists. “Everybody’s putting in extra work right now, watching film, working on their game, and that’s where your confidence always comes from. We’ve got some great field generals out there in these two guys to help out and these younger guys and to make sure they’re playing hard at both ends of the floor.”
The Bulls have looked nothing like the eighth-best team in the East, a seed they earned after backing into the postseason with a lackluster 41-41 record. They’ve simply outplayed the top-seeded Celtics throughout most of the first two games of this series. Each time a frazzled Boston team tried to make a run, the Bulls had an answer.
“You play the 82 games to learn a little bit about yourself,” Wade said. “And one thing I learned about this team is through adverse situations, this team sticks together. We had adversity, as every team has, and that’s the thing that’s made us closer and stronger together. The credit for this team sticking together through injuries, through everything, putting ourselves in a position to make the playoffs, it goes to everyone, from the coaching staff to the leaders to the young guys. Everyone did it together.”
To put the Bulls’ performance in some historical context, only one other No. 8 seed has gone on the road and won its first two games. That was the 1992-93 Los Angeles Lakers, who went into Phoenix and earned two victories, then proceeded to drop the final three games of the five-game series.
The Bulls don’t look like a team that is ready to fall back into bad habits. The reality is that despite what the seedings say, the Bulls simply look like the better team through the first two games. Wade bounced back after a poor Game 1 showing to score 22 points, while Rondo was an assist shy of a triple-double, with 11 points, 14 assists and nine rebounds to go with five steals. The Bulls are playing with a level of trust on the floor that they didn’t show consistently this season.
“We had our backs against the wall in the couple weeks leading into the situation we’re in right now, where we had to win,” Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg said. “And our guys did a good job of doing what had to be done to get us into the postseason. So we’ve been playing high-pressure basketball for several weeks. I think that does help you when you come into playoff time.”
It has certainly seemed to help the Bulls’ role players as they get acclimated to the bright lights of the playoff stage. Two days after Bobby Portis played the game of his young career, with 19 points in Game 1, rookie Paul Zipser followed suit by coming out of seemingly nowhere to score 16 points. Combine this with the fact that Robin Lopez continued his steady play with 18 points and eight rebounds and the fact that the Bulls are playing some of their best defense of the season, and it’s easier to understand why they are feeling so confident. If they can keep getting production from their younger players while Rondo, Wade and Lopez stabilize the starting unit, then Butler can do what he loves to do and take over the game late.
“It’s really simple,” Butler said. “When I’m open, I normally shoot the ball. Sometimes when I’m not open, I also shoot the ball. But most of the time, I pass it to the open guy. And when they’re making shots, my job’s a lot easier. People can’t load up on me, and then on top of everything else, these two do a lot of that as well. When they’re attacking, they’re aggressive, they’re getting people involved as well — and getting stops. When we’re getting stops, we’re pretty tough.”
Now the Bulls head back to Chicago for what will surely be a raucous atmosphere in the United Center for Game 3 on Friday. In his 14-year career, Wade has never dropped a series in which his team led 2-0, and the Bulls, led by Butler, Wade and Rondo, don’t expect to blemish that record.
“You can’t be satisfied,” Hoiberg said. “You got to go home and keep playing. This is one of the better road teams in the league. We have to continue to go out and fight, continue to learn, continue to make adjustments and hopefully play well.”