They were expected to win on Friday. They were up against a quality team that beat them nearly two weeks ago in Chicago. The Bulls are a great physical team that play tirelessly. They punish in the paint and DeMar DeRozan is a 2-point shooting machine, knocking down midrange jumpers like he’s playing Pop-a-Shot.
They provided a major test early in the season for a team still angry about blowing two fourth-quarter leads on the Cavaliers. The Celtics had another big lead in Friday’s fourth, seeing a 14-point lead melt to 2 with a minute left.
This is when the winning games were run.
Jayson Tatum’s key offensive rebound off an Al Horford 3-point miss with 41.9 seconds left kept the Bulls from having the ball with a chance to take the lead. He muscled between two Bulls to grab the board and sank a free throw for a 3-point lead.
On Chicago’s next possession, Tatum blocked Patrick Williams’ layup that led to the Bulls committing a foul and the Celtics winning 123-119.
The Celtics would have lost that game last season, partly because they lacked fourth quarter execution and also because the Bulls played well enough to take the game from the Celtics. They kept pushing and so many times last season, even in the NBA Finals, the Celtics cracked under the pressure of a fourth quarter rally.
DeRozan couldn’t miss. Nikola Vucevic hit just 14 3-pointers in the Bulls’ first nine games but swept three in the fourth quarter, leading that run 21-9.
“They’re a good team and they’ve beaten good teams so far this season, so when you’re in that situation you just want to be detailed and execute and make the right plays on the attacking side,” Mazzulla said. “I thought we had maintained our balance. We knew a race was coming and I think we handled it well in game management.
Mazzulla decided to leave Marcus Smart on the bench for most of the fourth quarter while Malcolm Brogdon led the offense, and he gave the Celtics a lead scorer on a night when Jaylen Brown scored 16 points (10 points below his average) and Tatum missed 15 of 23 shots.
Brogdon scored a Celtics-high 25 points on 9-for-10 shooting to go along with four assists. More importantly, Boston only committed two turnovers in the final 6:37 and was able to use the offense and those “game winners” to stave off the Chicago charge.
Mazzulla has shuffled his lineups over the close matches. But he showed he was comfortable with Brogdon as the primary ball handler, in addition to Smart.
“I’m comfortable finishing games,” Brogdon said. “I really did that my whole career. When I was in Milwaukee, I was finishing games. When I was in Indiana, the ball was in my hands and I was finishing games. And now it’s really the big stage and I’m playing with great players who definitely help me close the game.
That’s why the Celtics traded for Brogdon, as he has the ability to score, using his bigger body on the guards to get to the edge for his backhand layups. There’s a level of calm and stability when he has the ball that wasn’t always there last year. The Celtics are going to need a stable Brogdon on the stretch, as well as a more balanced Smart, to close games against the contending teams.
Tatum didn’t have a stellar offensive night, scoring nearly half of his points from the free throw line. With Brogdon and Brown, he doesn’t always have to be the offensive hero. He has to be the catalyst to make those “winning plays” and he prides himself most on his defense and his rebounds.
All-time greats have impact on both sides of the ball, Tatum realizes defending, rebounding and shoving plays need to be part of his arsenal.
“Just make a play, try to impact the game on both sides,” he said. “Especially in times like these. I know it’s like the crunch moment and the game is on the line, but that’s the most exciting part of the game. It’s not always like score, score, score. Make a play, open someone, score, get a block, get a block, hit two free throws. You just want to be part of it.
That’s what it will take for the Celtics to win close games in what is suddenly a competitive Eastern Conference where there are 12 teams that could be vying for a playoff spot. There will be very few easy nights, and the Celtics need to make more of those “winning plays” to always win.
Gary Washburn is a columnist for The Globe. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.