|Derrick Rose and the Bulls are dribbling around the Celtics, who are slow out of the gate. (Getty Images)|
BOSTON -- Doc Rivers and Tom Thibodeau had dinner the night before the game, and something changed. It was something almost as dramatic as how the tables have begun to turn in the rivalry between their teams.
"For the first time since I've known Tom, he actually acted like he wanted to pay," Rivers said. "The waiter brought the tab and he started fumbling for his wallet, and I said, 'Thib, I got it.' That's progress."
It was the only measure of progress for the Celtics Friday night against Thibodeau's Bulls, who in the early days of this chaotic sprint of an NBA season appear ready to squirm out of the stranglehold the Celtics have had them in.
Twelve of the past 18 regular season games have gone to the Celtics as did the epic seven-game, first-round series three years ago. But in the process, the Bulls have grown up while the Celtics have grown old.
It wasn't a fair fight Friday night in their first meeting of this regular season, even though the Bulls had just completed the dreaded five-games-in-six-nights stretch that will be the hallmark of spotty basketball and brutal physical demands between now and April. Chicago had won four of those games, and then they came to Boston Friday night and gouged out a 20-point lead before calmly turning back one of those vintage Celtics runs for an 88-79 victory.
"It's been frustrating," Rivers said. "But listen, I'd rather have it now. You're going to face adversity at some point, and I'd rather have it right now. Like I keep telling them, if you get through this, it'll make you a hell of a basketball team."
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"If" being the operative word.
"They're still a threat, no matter who they have on their team," said reigning MVP Derrick Rose, who had 25 points and seven assists, scoring seven straight points after Boston had cut Chicago's lead to one, 67-66, early in the fourth. "You've still got to respect them."
Uh, oh. You know what that means. The Bulls, who are trying to clear this Boston hurdle the way the Heat did last spring, are using the Celtics' mind tricks against them. During this one-title run with the Big Three in Boston, the Celtics have always spoken of how much they respect an opponent right before -- or right after -- they stomp them mercilessly and extract their still-beating hearts.
There's not enough evidence in this absurdly compressed season yet to declare the Celtics' playoff hopes dead on arrival. But with the body of work Rose and the Bulls are crafting -- 62 wins and a trip to the conference finals last year, and now a league-best 11-2 start -- they look more ready than ever to stare down the mental challenge of beating the Celtics.
"We're willing to take that challenge," said Rose, who showed no ill effects from a toe injury that kept him out of Chicago's victory over Washington Wednesday night. "In the past, they've been beating us pretty good. That's something that we haven't forgotten. They're a good team. They've got great players on their team. And for us, Thibs came in and changed our whole mindset where we're a defensive team first and everything follows that."
It is a mindset Thibodeau brought with him from Boston, and one that he aspires to use against his former boss and Thursday night dinner partner, Rivers, who clearly has some issues.
Forget that the Celtics are 4-6 and lost their third straight home game for the first time since the 2009-10 season. Forget that Paul Pierce still has September conditioning and rust in January due to a heel injury that slowed him out of the gate. Ignore the fact that there isn't enough size on the roster for Rivers to concoct a reasonable way to rest Kevin Garnett and not get mauled on the boards and in the paint. These are all issues that can be addressed.
The damndest thing about where the Celtics are is that this is the easy part of their schedule. They've yet to play the dreaded back-to-back-to-back or five games in six nights, and six of their last seven games have been at home. Yet the only teams they've beaten are the Nets, Pistons and Wizards (twice).
Rivers was understandably perturbed about the turnaround from an 8 p.m. extra-long national TV game Friday night followed by a 7 p.m. game in Indiana Saturday. Then it's back to host Oklahoma City Monday night, and it still gets much worse from there. The Celtics have two back-to-backs in six days followed by a road game against the Thunder leading into the All-Star break. March brings eight straight road games in 13 days in four time zones. If Pierce doesn't right himself by then -- and if Danny Ainge doesn't get Rivers some depth and size -- the Celtics' season may wind up being more compressed than they imagined.
"I keep saying this to them: This isn't the regular season. This is a sprint," Rivers said. "The teams that are off to a fast start are the ones that have attacked the season as opposed to easing into games."
If the Celtics we have come to know had held the Bulls to 88 points -- 15 in the third and 21 in the fourth -- they would've won that game 99 out of 100 times. Yet even with all their struggles, this one had a lot more to do with the Bulls than with Boston's problems.
"I still believe they're a good team," Luol Deng said. "I just really think we got a lot better. ... We're in a spot where we could actually compete with them."
And that's the difference: The Bulls are ready to dictate the terms of surrender to the Celtics, and probably anyone else.
"We're not surprised by the way that we worked," Rose said. "Hell no, we're not surprised. We worked hard. I think that everybody on our team sacrificed a lot of things and dedicated themselves to making this team better. Everybody knows their role, and that's what makes us a team."
It's a very Celtics-like approach, one that's been tried before and produced a championship. And amidst the ugliness produced by this lockout-shortened season, with too many games coming too quickly to draw sweeping conclusions, the closest thing to championship basketball you saw Friday night came from Rose in the fourth quarter.
It was a 16-2 run from the Celtics spanning the third and fourth, their energy suddenly where it needed to be and their shots finally falling. And in an instant -- an aggressive, driving layup, two free throws and a 3-pointer made possible by Joakim Noah's offensive rebound and subsequent recovery of a loose ball -- Rose took it away. He threw a knockout punch at the Celtics, the same kind he'd grown too accustomed to absorbing from them.
"When we get a lead on someone," Rose said, "we definitely want to try to put them away. I guess we didn't learn that yet."
But by the time Rose acrobatically twisted in mid-air for a dastardly reverse layup that built the lead back to double-digits, 84-73, the Celtics were done. The Bulls, it would appear by all available evidence, are far from it.