It felt inexplicable, but the Bulls held a two-point lead over the Celtics going into the fourth quarter of Game 5 in Boston. The Bulls played well down the stretch in Games 1 and 2, and if they did so again they could’ve stolen yet another road win and given themselves a chance to eliminate the Celtics back in Chicago.
Instead, the Bulls completely melted down and surrendered a 20-4 run to lose a third straight game. The Bulls now have to win on Friday in order to extend their season to a Game 7 over the weekend.
Jimmy Butler is taking a lot of the blame for no-showing in the fourth quarter. He had zero points on 0-of-2 shooting and a key turnover. Needless to say, that’s not going to get it done.
There have been rumblings of a knee injury. CSN Chicago’s Vincent Goodwill reported that Butler had electrodes attached to his knees after the game, and Goodwill also wrote this:
But he could only muster two shots and barely seemed to push off on his left foot—his lead foot, and it hampered what the Bulls could do late as he was their prime fourth-quarter performer.
He couldn't even go straight up on a jumper over the diminutive Isaiah Thomas without pump-faking, throwing off his rhythm. He wouldn't elaborate on the injury, although he said it happened during the second half of Game 4 on Sunday night when he collided with a Celtics player.
"I'm good. Everyone's a little nicked up; I'll be all right," Butler said in the locker room.
It appears the injury likely happened on this play in Game 4:
Butler hasn’t been quite the same since. Almost immediately after that is when the Celtics took control of Game 4, and Butler just never looked totally there in Game 5. He didn’t have the usual lift or explosiveness driving to the bucket, and he seemed too content just taking what the defense gave him. Some of this was smart because the Celtics were doubling hard and Butler was making them pay with the correct reads, but the Bulls needed him to be more aggressive looking for his own offense. He only took one free throw after taking 23 in Game 4 and was far too deliberate in his decison-making when put in advantageous situations against Isaiah Thomas and other Celtics defenders.
Perhaps the injury had something to do with it. He was clearly laboring down the stretch during another 40ish-minute game, and strangely he rarely was the initiator of the offense. Point Jimmy has had plenty of success this year, but often in the fourth quarter it was Dwyane Wade or Isaiah Canaan bringing the ball up the court, with Butler playing the role of spectator. I don’t know if that was the game plan, Butler trying to conserve energy with the injury or something else, but it was bizarre not seeing the ball in his hands a good chunk of the time. In fact, Butler had one more touch all game than Nikola Mirotic despite playing nearly five more minutes.
The Bulls obviously need Butler to be much better, but this loss isn’t just on him, as friend of the program Stephen Noh highlighted in The Athletic. This was a collective failure by the Bulls.
It started right from the beginning of the quarter. The Celtics had two empty possessions, giving the Bulls a chance to extend that two-point lead. Instead, we got a tough Wade mid-range J and this horrific Canaan turnover:
Side note, this was one of at least four or five times Marv Albert called Anthony Morrow “Butler.” I get they have similar hair and share a “1” in their number, but come on.
The Bulls then allowed this on consecutive possessions:
Absolutely clueless defense by basically everybody, and that Thomas bucket was especially egregious, even if the call was iffy at best.
The Bulls finally got a few points thanks to a Cristiano Felicio bucket off a dangerous lob pass from Wade, plus Wade baiting Marcus Smart into fouling him on a jumper.
That’s when things began to go off the rails.
On three consecutive possessions, Wade turned the ball over twice (Butler checked back in after the second one) and jacked a step-back 3 with 10 seconds left on the shot clock. Then Felicio was called for three seconds and fouled Kelly Olynyk on an and-1, capping off what was a pretty rough game for him. The next Bulls possession featured Butler getting fouled by Thomas, but then Butler throwing away the inbounds pass when Robin Lopez turned away from him, leading to an Al Horford dunk and a six-point game. You could just feel the game slipping away at this point:
Isaiah Canaan tried to save the Bulls with a few nice baskets (although I’d say the Celtics got screwed on the Avery Bradley goaltend), but Bobby Portis badly missed two open 3s off Butler passes, and more bad Bulls defense allowed the Celtics to run their lead out to seven:
At that point Butler finally tried to score himself, but he waited too long to attack Thomas on the switch and wasn’t able to beat him easily. Al Horford provided the necessary help and Butler forced up a tough jumper over two defenders that missed:
On the next possession, Butler got the ball in good position in the post against Avery Bradley. But he opted to pass out to Isaiah Canaan for a decent look at 3 when Thomas flashed down to help...which was air-balled:
Butler probably should’ve gone at Bradley in the post more aggressively, although an open catch-and-shoot 3 from Canaan isn’t the worst look in the world. This was another situation where Butler was just too content taking what the defense gave him instead of forcing the issue himself. After faking the pass out to Canaan, Butler should’ve made a move himself toward the hoop.
Then everything went to hell. Dwyane Wade and Robin Lopez picked up technicals, and six Celtics free throws made it a 15-point game. That was game. Butler only took one more shot (a forced 3) and Wade dominated the ball the rest of the time. Wade had a nice overall stat line with 26 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists, but his effort was often terrible and he played a key role in the beginning of the collapse. He also finished with a significantly higher usage than Butler for the game (35.9 percent to 22.2).
So, yeah, this was a pretty epic collapse on all levels. Butler wasn’t assertive enough on several plays where he could’ve been, but his teammates also let him down by badly missing open looks and committing some terrible turnovers. The team defense was abysmal and the Bulls lost their cool when calls didn’t go their way.
Right now, without Rajon Rondo, we’re looking at a team that just isn’t good enough. And that’s especially the case when Butler is having an off night.