Previous ArticlesBulls clinch playoff berth but don't celebrate
Augustin’s career high carries Bulls over Celtics
by Sam Smith
Posted on Mar 31
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It’s about two minutes left in a tough game, the score tied. It’s called different things in different places. Pat Riley called it ‘Winnin’ Time. The Celtics knew it as a Larry Legend Moment.
For these Bulls, who defeated the Boston Celtics Sunday 107-102, it’s just another D.J. Save.
“He’s meant a little bit,” Joakim Noah deadpanned in a vibrant Bulls postgame locker room after Augustin’s career-high 33 points pulled out a tough win down the stretch.
“He’s all right,” Noah said with a widening smile.
The players were having fun with the quiet, likeable Augustin as reporters gathered around in the tight visitors’ locker room waiting for Augustin to dress. Kirk Hinrich, who’d had his own crucial three with about six minutes remaining, joked that Noah was trying to steal Augustin’s media. Noah protested with mock concern.
“Nah,” Noah said getting serious. “He’s been great. I’m really happy he’s a part of this team. As soon as he came he fit in right away. He’s a laid back guy, a quiet guy, but a hell of a competitor. He plays well in the big moment. We wouldn’t be in this position right now if not for him.”
That’s still in the heart of the Eastern race for third seed at 41-32 as teams like the Indiana Pacers stumble ahead of the Bulls, Raptors and Nets. The Bulls were able to get the win Sunday in the first of the two-day set with the Celtics despite another indifferent start, being outrebounded by the smaller Celtics and desperately trying to fight off a Celtics team with nothing to lose in a harried last few minutes.
But it was the diminutive Augustin, whose rags to riches basketball journey that has been one of the more unusual stories in the NBA this season, who once again had a clutch shooting, big scoring fourth quarter to rescue the Bulls.
Augustin had 15 points in the quarter and made all six of his free throws as the Celtics were fouling NCAA style down the stretch. Augustin left Rajon Rondo waving at air as he faked Rondo and stepped back for a three pointer to give the Bulls a 99-96 lead with 1:19 left.
Rondo is coming off knee surgery, but Augustin made the former all-defensive player look like a park statue in constantly losing Rondo to make plays. Augustin had made three jumpers earlier in the quarter as the Celtics answered each time but could not get the lead and unleash their anxious-to-celebrate home crowd.
And then after Augustin’s big tiebreaker, the Bulls defense rose up after a mostly lackluster first three and a half quarters in forcing turnovers when Boston came out of timeouts three consecutive times in the last 1:19. The Celtics then had to foul and Augustin, one of the best free throw shooters in the NBA at just under 90 percent, made six straight in scoring nine of the Bulls last 11 points in the last 79 seconds for his career high scoring game.
Which Augustin had to be told about by teammates after the game.
Not that he wasn’t pleased, but given all the potholes and detours in his professional journey thus far, Augustin is most pleased to be just participating in the ride.
“I always talk about Charlotte, but that’s in the past,” said Augustin, who has occasionally been on the defensive this season when asked about playing so well. “Now I’m finally getting a chance to get legitimate minutes and an opportunity. So I’m tying to make the best of it.”
Augustin is a prideful man, obviously someone given his stature as a basketball player at under six foot (listed at six foot) who has had to prove himself again and again.
“I believe in myself; I’m a basketball player,” Augustin said patiently Sunday night when asked yet again about how he does this. “I always thought of myself as a pretty good basketball player. I think every one on this level is pretty good or they wouldn’t be in the NBA.”
But Charlotte? Indiana? Toronto?
“Just confidence in myself,” said Augustin. “My teammates give me confidence.”
Augustin’s story is familiar to those around the Bulls, if still difficult to comprehend. Phil Jackson always used to use the Grateful Dead line about the season being a long, strange trip. And few have had stranger careers than Augustin, a lottery pick in Charlotte who was eased out as the team selected point guard Kemba Walker in the draft, went to Indiana and rarely played last season and then was released this season by the Raptors.
And not because he asked to be.
“I knew we had played him early in his career and he had played pretty well against us,” said Noah. “I never knew he’d be this effective. I think nobody did otherwise he wouldn’t have (been available). I’m just happy he’s with the Bulls. He’s found a home here. I hope he can stay for a long time.
“It just shows people don’t know everything,” said Noah with the salient observation about sports. “Time and situation is a big deal. Team chemistry is a big deal. Sometimes I think stats… it doesn’t show that. People underestimate all that stuff, competitive spirit, wanting to win, confidence, things like that.”
It’s the stuff that fuels Noah to even being in the MVP discussion and among the best big men in the NBA.
Noah was on his amazingly regular triple-double watch with 13 points, eight rebounds and 13 assists. Jimmy Butler added 15 points among six Bulls in double figures and Carlos Boozer had 14 points on seven of 10 shooting. Overall, the Bulls shot an unusually good 52.9 percent, scoring more than 100 points for the second time in the last eight games with the other time against not trying Philadelphia.
It wasn’t a great Bulls overall effort as the Celtics basically outhustled them to loose balls for fast breaks and rebounds, a 39-31 Boston board edge and surprising 12-2 on the offensive boards. Block out!
But the Bulls displayed those intangibles Noah always talks about that cannot be quantified in statistical analysis. And they often make teams, the delicate mix and elusive chemistry where a player like Augustin one day cannot even get on the court and shortly thereafter his team cannot afford to take him off the court.
Ask Luol Deng these days about the differences of a seamless fit with teammates who are your yin and yang. Or maybe ask Ben Gordon.
“D.J. Augustin’s not the same person that I saw in a Raptors uniform at the start of the season,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. “Here’s a guy that had been basically not in the rotation in Indiana, moved to Toronto, not much better there, and he looks like the quickest guy on the floor when he comes here. I honestly didn’t think he had that kind of foot speed the first time we played him in the Raptors’ uniform; I thought differently when we played him in Chicago. He’s playing great. He’s found his niche; he’s found a team that needs him to play freely to score, and hats off to him. I think we’re learning about what D.J. Augustin’s made of because it hasn’t been easy. And now he’s persevering; he’s playing just fantastic. Happy for stories like that.”
It’s been yet another surprising chapter in another unlikely Bulls story that has them despite all the early misfortune and concern being that team you don’t want to play in the playoffs. And with the Pacers’ slump and Miami’s injuries a team about whom you can dream.
Though it will never be easy as Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau notes the shorthanded nature of the roster without Deng and Derrick Rose and his Magnificent Seven with a little bit of Nazr Mohammed and Tony Snell who keeps this going.
However difficult that is this time of season with a playoff spot clinched and just some musical chairs for the playoff song.
“This is a tough time of year,” acknowledged Noah. “Your mind wants to go to the playoffs, but your mindset has to be on playing better right now. Our rebounding hasn’t been great. Our defense can be better. Winning is big, but we have to be critical of ourselves and be real with ourselves and know we’re going to have to play a lot better down the road.”
So the Bulls push on, pride trumping fatigue and ennui.
It was a little freer against a Boston team mostly set up to lose for lottery picks. The Celtics fell to 23-50, though, like the 76ers, the players try. The Celtics are a bit more armed for action than the 76ers, but not much equipped for a physical matchup.
They have Rondo back part time as he’ll sit Monday on the back to back, though he played 38 minutes Sunday. Rondo without Kevin Garnett and Doc Rivers’ defense isn’t the defensive player he was. He constantly gambles in the lanes for steals, mostly concentrating on offense. As a result, the Celtics give up numerous open shots with Rondo rarely near his man. It made it a relatively high scoring game and rare above 50 percent shooting night for one of the league’s poorest shooting teams, the Bulls.
That lack of scoring and their poor shooting is the Bulls’ obvious major weakness come playoff time. Though with the shooting of Augustin and the development of Taj Gibson, who had an off game, the Bulls have more possibilities.
They opened with a bang as Noah drove in for a left handed slam dunk, the Celtics with a small front line and no true center. But the Bulls, as has been an unusual habit of late, have been allowing rebounds to hit the floor and haven’t reacted as quickly for others, allowing smaller opponents to come in and get them. At times with their own knowledge of offensive weakness you get the sense players are leaking out to try for fast breaks and easy points.
“Every time we got a four or five-point lead we seem to have a turnover or we had some sequences where I thought we blocked out and we didn’t go after the ball,” said Thibodeau. “Those are things… three guys thought the other guy had it and they start running. Those are the things we got to eliminate.”
That lack of attention to detail enabled the Celtics to lead 26-25 after one quarter on 10 points from the mercurial Jeff Green, who’ll have a big quarter and then you won’t know the next 20 minutes he’s in the game. He finished with 16 and Rondo led Boston with 17 points and 11 assists.
The teams traded baskets much of the second quarter with late Augustin and Butler threes enabling the Bulls to take a 51-50 halftime lead. Boozer had a big third quarter with eight points, including a powerful left handed slam on a drive and strong deep post position where it was easy for Noah to find him for a layup. Though typical of the rotation of late, Thibodeau would not go back to him after the third quarter.
Thibodeau has settled on a rotation with Noah, Gibson, Butler, Augustin and Hinrich down the stretch, and it’s been a winner as the Bulls hung on to a 78-77 lead going into the fourth quarter.
The game volleyed back and forth with the Bulls getting some space midway through the fourth quarter when Noah blocked a Chris Johnson shot (another D-leaguer the Celtics bring up from time to time) and Hinrich finished with a three on a penetration and pass from Augustin for a 91-87 lead with 6:08 left.
“We started playing well when he got here,” said Hinrich. “It was something we really needed as a team. You can’t say enough about what he’s done for us. It was going back and forth there, getting a little dicey and he stepped up and knocked down his shots, made plays, made his free throws and that’s what he’s done for us all year.”
Rondo and Green made threes to get the Celtics back, and the Celtics began to trap Augustin. It’s a tactic some teams have used with success given Augustin’s size. But the Bulls were ready as Noah came up high for the release pass, drove and found Gibson for a slam dunk and 95-90 Bulls lead with 3:43 left.
But after Green tied it with his second consecutive three and first points in more than 30 minutes, Augustin made the big three, the Bulls’ energy returned for long enough and Augustin’s free throws closed it out.
Just as Augustin has been doing on a regular basis this season.
“Thibs, he calls a lot of plays for me to handle the ball,” said Augustin. “I try to take advantage of what the defense gives me. If they back off me or go under screens I’m going to shoot it and make plays for my teammates.
“It’s been great,” Augustin conceded. “The number one thing is getting a chance to play and play a lot of minutes. That gives any player no matter who you are… it makes you feel comfortable and makes you feel good and gives you confidence. It’s fun to play basketball. That’s what we’ve been doing all our lives. And then having the opportunity to play a lot and play well, that’s always fun.”
Thibodeau said it best earlier in the season. The Bulls were great for Augustin. But Augustin’s also been great for the Bulls. They’re both doing some smiling.