CHICAGO -- Prior to their game Saturday night against the Boston Celtics, the Chicago Bulls downplayed any invocation of last spring’s epic first round series between the two teams.
Asked what he remembered about the series, Bulls forward Luol Deng shrugged.
“Personally? Not much. I was on the bench,” Deng, who was inactive for the series due to injury, said.
Bulls head coach Vinny Del Negro was front and center on the sidelines last spring, but prior to the game, he dismissed any suggestion that the series bore any relevance on Saturday night’s game.
“No,” he said emphatically, clearly tired of fielding the question over the past 24 hours. For a Bulls team that came into the game losers of nine of their last 11, any parallel between Saturday night’s rematch and what transpired in the grueling playoff matchup seemed remote.
Saturday night’s 106-80 Celtics’ victory proved them right.
The arsenal Chicago deployed against Boston in that 7-game series was nowhere to be find. Last spring, a quick, agile Bulls team had the Celtics on their heels trying to defend Chicago’s lethal dribble-penetration. Saturday night, Bulls point guard Derrick Rose got loose on a few occasions, but the lack of an outside threat allowed the Celtics’ defense to smother him most of the night. Most of the evening, you could find the painted area encircled by five green jerseys.
"We sack the paint every night anyway," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "We try to force contested jump shots. They have a great point guard. If you allow [Derrick Rose] in the paint, you're going to lose. We knew that going into the game, and that's what we tried to take away."
Without Ben Gordon commanding attention along the arc and with little depth in the frontcourt, the Bulls couldn’t recreate their postseason magic. No nifty high ball screens with Rose and his big men, few transition buckets, and nothing resembling the ball movement the Bulls generated from good floor spacing. Like most of the Bulls’ recent opponents, the Celtics clogged the paint and forced the Bulls into a barrage of contested, off-balanced jumpers. Not one Bull shot over 50 percent from the field and Chicago finished the night only 32.6 percent and scored only 80 points in 101 possessions.
"If you don't move the ball, [the Celtics] use their length and physicality to take you out of stuff," Del Negro said after the loss. "They execute so well and make you pay with all the weapons that they have."
While Chicago resorted to one stagnant isolation matchup after another, the Celtics were running beautiful offensive sets with multiple options. They displayed their full array of tricks. Rasheed Wallace converted three buckets in the second quarter on easy step-outs against Joakim Noah. Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins teased Derrick Rose and Noah with screen-and-roll sets.
And, of course, there was the re-introduction of Kevin Garnett to whatever is left of this rivalry.
"Everything is predicated off Kevin," Del Negro said. "He gets everybody going. He brings great energy. He's a future Hall-of-Famer. You add one of those guys to your lineup, you're going to be better."
Garnett spent the evening rolling off picks to find open space for easy buckets from both the wing and in the basket area. He finished 6-for-8 from the field in 26 minutes.
Things really got ugly toward the end of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth when Boston ran off a 21-4 run. By the time Rose made him most assertive drive of the night with 9:01 left in the fourth quarter – drawing rare contact – the Bulls trailed 88-65 and most of the Celtics' veteran starters had retired for the evening.
The only thing that evoked the playoff series from seven months ago was Brad Miller’s flagrant foul against Rajon Rondo. In the first quarter, Rondo drove down the gut of the lane and was elevating to the rim when Miller clotheslined him with his right arm. The two teams remained relatively calm as the United Center crowd reached its highest crescendo of the night.
Although Boston eked out the 7-game series over Chicago last spring, the Bulls' gutsy performance was heralded as a moral victory for a team ascending, while doubts began to surface that an aging Celtics core wouldn't be able to re-establish itself as a championship-caliber squad.
"It's totally different now," Del Negro said. "Last year was last year. This is this year."