BOSTON — Maybe the Bulls’ sudden stranglehold on their first-round playoff series with the Celtics isn’t quite as shocking as the full nelson the Predators have put on our Blackhawks. Then again, maybe what the Bulls have done — reinvent themselves, it seems — is an even bigger surprise.
Who knows? You can sort that out among yourselves.
Denizens of the Hub, though, are dumbfounded. Down 2-0 in a best-of-seven series to the Eastern Conference’s No. 8 seed? It can’t be. Not the feel-good C’s. On fourth-year coach Brad Stevens’ watch, they’ve never known anything but progress — from 25 victories to 40, 48 and, this season, a natty total of 53. The culture is strong. The chemistry is great.
The missing piece has been postseason success, but this time — as a No. 1 seed, even if by default due to the tank-you-very-much Cavaliers — was supposed to be different. Would the Celtics steamroll to the East finals? Might they have a little something for LeBron James and the defending champs and actually make good on their seed and win the East?
On the heels of the Boston Marathon, the city sure was ready to enjoy another long run.
But now the series is headed to the United Center for two games, which means it might not be coming back to TD Garden at all. Celtics fans blinked and their wicked rippah of a party appears to be just about over.
Progress? Oh, no. Stevens’ team has been dominated by the Bulls. The Celtics look small, weak, slow and overly dependent on Isaiah Thomas. They’re slow with adjustments and short on answers. All their flaws are showing.
“We have to get ready to play great on Friday,” Stevens said. “That’s what our focus has to be. We don’t have any other choice. And that’s what we said in the locker room [after Game 2], and that’s it. We’ll dissect the film, we’ll go through it, we’ll figure out what we didn’t do well — and there will be quite a lot — and go from there.”
Meanwhile, the tragedy that befell Thomas’ family over the weekend has enveloped the team — the whole series, really — in grim sadness, and we can only wonder how much it has affected the Celtics’ performance. Thomas went home to Washington after Game 2 to mourn the loss of younger sister Chyna, who died Saturday in a single-car accident.
One gets the strong sense, though, that the Celtics would’ve struggled mightily with the Bulls under even the best of circumstances. Jimmy Butler is doing the superstar thing. Rajon Rondo is making the entire offense hum. Robin Lopez is, as Stevens put it, “crushing” the Celtics inside. Practically everyone in the Bulls rotation has had big moments already.
The guys in green have to be envious. All they can do is utter the sorts of pat phrases players on good teams lean on when everything breaks bad at playoff time.
“It’s self-explanatory,” Jae Crowder said. “Down 2-0 going to their place, we just have to take it one game at a time. They came in and took, and we have to do the same.
“It’s not ideal for us. You definitely don’t [want to] put yourself in a 0-2 hole having home-court advantage. But it’s not the end of the world for us. We have the unit to go to Chicago and take care of business.”
It’s hard to argue with the “not ideal” part, anyway.
“We’ve got a great group of guys here,” Kelly Olynyk said. “We’ve done a lot of good things here. We’re not down on each other. We believe in each other 100 percent. We believe in the coaching staff. We have the ability to rattle some [victories] off and hopefully we can.”
“Rattle” might be kind of strong.
But the Celtics sure looked rattled late in Game 2, when Marcus Smart was introducing paying customers to the middle finger on his right hand. And Boston fans are at a loss.
They’d probably better get used to it.
Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.