CHICAGO — Late in the third quarter of the Celtics’ 117-94 win over the Bulls here Wednesday night, a group of fans in the United Center’s lower bowl attempted to start a `Let’s Go Bulls’ chant. Their team had been getting clobbered for most of the night, but there were some flickers of hope.
Then there was an air-balled 3-pointer, more shoddy transition defense, and a quick and powerful Celtics run that stretched Boston’s lead to 26 points. The chant became an afterthought, replaced by some low-energy boos.
This is mostly what the Celtics have done to opponents the past few months. They do not just win; they pulverize teams and probably make them wonder why they didn’t just stay home. That’s what happened Wednesday, as Boston raced to yet another wire-to-wire win.
It was the Celtics’ 50th win of this season. Given the level of talent on this roster, that was certainly a reasonable goal at the start of this season. But for a team that was 18-21 just three months ago and not even in position to be in the Eastern Conference’s play-in tournament, the accomplishment feels significant.
“When you take it in that context of how poorly we started or the games we gave away early, it means something,” coach Ime Udoka said. “It’s a good thing to get back to where we expected to be.”
The Celtics are back in second place in the Eastern Conference with two games left, a half-game ahead of the Bucks and 76ers, who each have three games remaining. The Celtics play in Milwaukee on Thursday, and a win would put them in position to secure the No. 2 seed.
But it’s unclear whether that would be a preferred spot in the standings. Also, Udoka has said he will prioritize health and maintaining a rhythm over the final weeks. The rhythm, obviously, has been maintained. And with the Celtics playing their second road game in two nights, it might make sense to get some rest against a powerful opponent.
“We kind of know who we are already,” forward Al Horford said. “The biggest thing for us is we have to make sure we’re kind of at our best as a team. But also health-wise, physically. This past month, we’ve been playing some high-intensity basketball [against] really good teams.”
One of the Celtics’ low points this season came Nov. 1 against these Bulls, when Boston was outscored 39-11 in the fourth quarter and saw a 14-point lead flip into a 14-point loss that dropped its record to 2-5.
That seems like forever ago, and such collapses are becoming inconvenient footnotes from a darker time in this suddenly-charmed season. Now, when massive leads arrive, concern that they’ll evaporate is fleeting.
“When I look at our guys when they call timeouts, I see it in their eyes,” Horford said. “Everybody’s locked in. We understand that we can’t relax. Just because we’re up 20, that doesn’t mean we’re going to start jacking shots or ‘trying to get mine’ type of thing. We keep playing the right way, and when you do that, you put yourself in a good position.”
On Wednesday, with former President Barack Obama watching from a lower-level suite, the Celtics’ play was crisp, confident, and filled with purpose. The dominant starts have become so common that it feels significant when opponents pull within single digits. Chicago did that only a few times during the first half.
Boston stretched its lead to 17 in the first quarter and was ahead by 27 in the third, providing more evidence that it will be able to withstand the absence of injured center Robert Williams in an opening-round series if he remains out.
Jaylen Brown had 25 points and seven rebounds, and Horford made all 7 of his shots and finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds. Boston made 45.9 percent of its 3-pointers and dished out 29 assists.
“I think it’s a pretty simple formula we talk about,” Udoka said. “Play defense at an elite level, share the ball, be unselfish on offense and the results are kind of there. We’ve seen the formula that’s produced winning, whereas early in the season we would do something well and then take a step back the next game. It’s been consistent as far as that. Try to keep it simple as far as the message and repeat that every night.”