CHICAGO – Inside the Boston Celtics locker room prior to Game 3, it was unusually quiet.
As you walked past locker stall after locker stall, there was a different kind of focus among the players.
For the first time in this series, they looked like a team that understood the moment, fully aware that their season was on the line tonight.
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And they did as they’ve done time after time this season.
They rose to the occasion and delivered a solid performance in beating the Bulls 104-87.
Boston now trails the best-of-seven series 2-1 with a chance to tie it up on Sunday in Game 4 at the United Center.
The Celtics had five players score in double figures, led by Al Horford’s near triple-double of 18 points, eight rebounds and six assists.
He wasn’t alone.
Avery Bradley had a strong game as well with 15 points, seven rebounds and seven assists.
And then there was Isaiah Thomas, who rejoined the team after spending a couple days with his family which is still mourning the death of his 22-year-old sister Chyna J. Davis who died in a one-car accident last Saturday.
Thomas had 16 points and nine assists.
Chicago, playing without Rajon Rondo (right thumb), were led by Dwyane Wade’s 18 points and Jimmy Butler who had 14 points and seven rebounds.
Boston, which struggled in Games 1 and 2, spent the entire fourth quarter playing with a double-digit lead.
Making the lead even more impressive was that Boston actually increased its lead with Thomas on the bench – something that rarely happens with the Celtics.
So by the time he returned to the floor, the 11-point lead the team had when he went to the bench with 4:11 to play in the third, stood at 15 with 6:29 to play in the game.
Thomas’ return, as has been the case most of this season, was just the spark Boston needed to put the game away as Boston scored nine of the game’s next 13 points to lead 97-77 with 4:11 to play in the game.
Of course, Boston’s success was in part due to the Bulls playing without former Celtics All-Star Rajon Rondo.
Rondo suffered a right thumb fracture in Game 2 that fortunately for him and the Bulls, will not require surgery. But the injury is expected to keep him out for the rest of this series, a huge blow to a Chicago team that was playing its best basketball of the season with Rondo running the show.
Chicago got the first basket of the third quarter which made it a one-point game and was part of a 26-7 Bulls run.
But Boston responded with a run of its own, scoring eight straight to lead 52-43. The Celtics continued to play with a decent lead as the third quarter ended with the Green Team ahead 76-63.
The first half was really a tale of dominance by both Boston and then, the Bulls.
The Celtics’ lead peaked at 20 points in the second quarter before the Bulls scored six straight, leading to a time-out by Celtics head coach Brad Stevens with 8:54 to play in the half and Boston ahead 37-23.
Chicago continued to chip away at Boston’s lead, with Paul Zipser’s 3-pointer capping off an 11-0 Bulls run that brought them within 37-28.
A dunk by Al Horford finally snapped the scoreless spell by the Celtics whose red-hot shooting to start the game had gone icy cold.
Boston pushed its lead back to double digits after a 3-pointer by Avery Bradley put the Celtics ahead 42-30.
But the Bulls’ surge continued as they finished the half with an 11-2 run to make it a one-possession game (44-41) at the half.
Boston’s play in the second quarter was a striking contrast to what happened in the first.
The Celtics opened the game with a 14-4 run, only for the Bulls to counter with six straight.
A lay-up by Thomas sparked a 7-0 Celtics run that gave Boston its biggest lead of the quarter (21-10) when a time-out was called with 2:51 to play in the first.
The Celtics continued to pull away in the first which ended with Boston ahead 33-15.