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Bulls get defensive again, hold Celtics to 96 points en route to victory

It has been a while since the Bulls had an identity and imposed it on another team, but they have done just that in back-to-back wins.

The Bulls’ Nikola Vučević goes up for a shot against the Celtics.
The Bulls’ Nikola Vučević goes up for a shot against the Celtics.
AP

Daniel Theis knows what a great defender looks like.

The Bulls’ new rim protector reminds rookie Patrick Williams of that whenever they talk.

‘‘I talk a lot to Pat Williams because I think he can be one of the best defenders in this league with his size, with his physicality, with his wingspan,’’ Theis said Monday.

The physical Theis also knows what a great defensive team looks like.

Theis and his former Celtics teammates were the second-stingiest team to score against last season and the eighth-stingiest during the 2018-19 season.

‘‘I wouldn’t call it frustrating,’’ Theis said when he was asked how he has been dealing with the Bulls’ inconsistent defense since joining them at the trade deadline late last month. ‘‘We’ve shown improvement. I just mentioned the 96 points [allowed] against Cleveland [on Saturday], and that’s a good start. But we want to do it every night, not just one game and then five games the [opponent] gets 120, 130 points again. So we’ve got to do it every night, every game, to play physical.’’

How does back-to-back games sound?

With guard Zach LaVine missing his third game in the NBA’s health-and-safety protocol after testing positive for the coronavirus, the Bulls (24-33) continued embracing their new identity. They again held the opposition to 96 points, beating the Celtics 102-96.

Coach Billy Donovan likes what he has seen since a team meeting after the Bulls’ loss Wednesday to the Magic, but he, too, wants this style of play to be consistent.

‘‘I give our guys credit for staying the course,’’ Donovan said. ‘‘It’s been two games, and now can we come back against Cleveland [on Wednesday] and do it again? Can we come back against Charlotte [on Thursday] and do it again? That’s the sign of a good team, when you can consistently do it.’’

Guard Garrett Temple not only thinks they can, but he thinks going with an old-school defensive mentality can carry the Bulls for the last 15 regular-season games.

‘‘Defense can win games,’’ Temple said. ‘‘The old saying still holds true. . . . I think for a 10-, 15-game stretch like we have, it is [sustainable].’’

It helps when the Bulls get 29 points and nine rebounds from Nikola Vucevic and key stops down the stretch.

After Coby White and Williams made back-to-back baskets to give the Bulls a six-point lead with 1:41 left, Payton Pritchard made two free throws to pull the Celtics back to four. Both teams then turned up the defense, highlighted by the Bulls stripping the ball from Celtics stars Jayson Tatum (3-for-17 shooting) and Jaylen Brown.

Tremont Waters finally darted through the lane and made a layup to cut the Bulls’ lead to two with 16.5 seconds left. The Celtics then put White on the free-throw line, and he made them both. It became a free-throw contest after that, with the Bulls getting the final say when Temple sank two with 3.5 seconds left to seal the victory. The result ended the Bulls’ eight-game losing streak in Boston.

‘‘We lost a big piece in Zach, 28 [points] a game,’’ Temple said. ‘‘But if we’re able to guard like we’re capable of, we have enough on the other end to score. If we defend, we grind, we guard like we’re capable of, then we can win any game we play.’’