SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The top-seeded Boston Celtics are back from the brink of disaster.
They have dug themselves out of an 0-2 hole against the Chicago Bulls to take the lead in the series. A victory Friday would be the first time the franchise with 17 NBA titles has advanced past the first round since 2012.
“The key has been playing consistent,” Celtics guard Avery Bradley explained how Boston has flipped the script. “The first two games we obviously were a little emotional. We weren’t playing team basketball. We were just kind of playing free and not executing our plays at both ends of the floor and our games plans.
“Once we were able to slow down and focus on what we needed to do as a team on every detail, we were able to play a lot better.”
The Celtics weren’t expected to have to work this hard against a Bulls team that needed a tiebreaker to reach the playoffs. The team was dealt an emotional blow with the death of Isaiah Thomas’ sister the day before the playoffs began and the Bulls took the first two games in Boston.
Forward Jae Crowder said the Celtics are a better team on the road.
“I had a good feeling in my heart when we came here 0-2 that we would come together and give ourselves a chance to win Game 3,” Crowder said. “That’s what happened. I just felt like we needed to get away from the stuff that was going on back home and just be us.”
Now Chicago must do something it hasn’t this series — win a home game. And the Bulls will likely have to do it without Rajon Rondo, who broke his thumb in Game 2.
“You know, we’ve got to find a way to do the things that gave us success,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “We have to have pace. Even though Rajon’s not out there, we still have to try to get down the floor and get into our actions with plenty of time on the shot clock.
“That’s changed obviously with Rajon being out of the lineup, but it is what it is and we’re going to continue to fight.”
Here’s some things to know for Friday’s three games:
Wizards at Hawks, Washington leads 3-2. Game 6, 7:30 p.m., NBA TV
NEED TO KNOW: Atlanta needs to maintain the home teams’ perfect record in the series to force a decisive contest Sunday at Washington. The Hawks had plenty of chances to steal one on the road, but came up short all three times. Now, they’ll be looking for another strong start like Game 3, when the Hawks raced to a 25-point lead in the first quarter. The Wizards will be counting on their dynamic duo, John Wall and Bradley Beal, to lead a series-clinching win in Atlanta.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Washington’s defense against Atlanta All-Star Paul Millsap. The Wizards spent a lot of time double-teaming Millsap in Game 5, looking to keep Markieff Morris out of foul trouble. While that part of the strategy didn’t work, the Wizards were able to make things especially tough on Millsap down the stretch. He finished with 21 points on 8-of-19 shooting.
INJURY UPDATE: Wizards front-court reserve Jason Smith left Game 5 with a bruised left calf and did not return. His status is day-to-day. Backup C Ian Mahinmi (strained left calf) has not played in the series.
PRESSURE IS ON: C Dwight Howard. The Hawks big man has basically been a no-show in the series except for Game 4, when he had 16 points and 15 rebounds. In the other four games combined, he’s taken just 18 shots and scored 23 points. Coach Mike Budenholzer has preferred to go with a smaller lineup in the fourth quarter, feeling it creates more open shots but leaving Howard on the bench.
Celtics at Bulls, Boston leads 3-2. Game 6, 8 p.m., ESPN
NEED TO KNOW: Boston broke through with the first home-court win of the series in Game 5, led by Avery Bradley’s best offensive game of the series. He and Isaiah Thomas each came through with 24 points, with support from Al Horford’s 21 points and nine assists. They also had just six turnovers — a series-low — while scoring 23 points off the Bulls’ giveaways.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Kelly Olynyk. After being relatively silent in the first four games of the series, the Celtics’ reserve big man was all over the court Wednesday night. He had a series-best 14 points and five rebounds in his 21 minutes. The team was also plus-14 points with him on the court, the best plus/minus of any Celtics’ player.
INJURY UPDATE: Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said point guard Rajon Rondo (broken right thumb) is “a longshot” to return.
PRESSURE IS ON: The Bulls. Chicago needs to win its first game of the series at home and force a Game 7 back in Boston. The point guard issue wasn’t solved by inserting Isaiah Canaan into the lineup. That likely means Chicago will need big efforts from Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade to stay alive.
Clippers at Jazz, Utah leads 3-2, 10:30 p.m., ESPN
NEED TO KNOW: The Jazz have won two straight since defensive player of the year candidate Rudy Gobert returned from a knee injury for Game 4. Utah outscored the Clippers in the paint in both games by a combined 92-64. The team that has won points in the paint has won all five games.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Joe Johnson. The Jazz forward hit the game-winner in Game 1, scored 28 in Game 4 and took over down the stretch of Game 5. He’s been one of the most clutch players on any team in the playoffs. Meanwhile, the competitive Chris Paul has consistently hurt the Jazz throughout the series. He has the ability to put the Clippers on his back and carry them to victory as he works the pick-and-roll game.
INJURY UPDATE: Clippers coach Doc Rivers said Austin Rivers (hamstring) didn’t suffer any setbacks after returning in Game 5. His minutes should increase from the 18 he played.
PRESSURE IS ON: The Jazz. Utah has the opportunity to close out the series and advance to the second round for the first time since 2010. Veterans Johnson, George Hill and Boris Diaw were brought in for this type of situation as the rest of the young roster is in this scenario for the first time. The Clippers, on the other hand, are looking to survive and force a Game 7. Questions swirl about the team being broken up if this core fails to make a significant playoff run.
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