After Bulls guard Rajon Rondo completed his postgame press conference Tuesday in a makeshift TD Garden media room he walked into a hallway and into a crowd. The path he was taking to leave the arena was a bit congested, so Rondo turned to the people who were accompanying him.
“Actually, we can go this way,” he said, pointing down a more clear path. “I still know my way around.”
That was obvious throughout Chicago’s emphatic and humbling 111-97 victory over the top-seeded Celtics that gave the Bulls a stunning 2-0 lead in this best-of-seven series.
Rondo had 11 points, 14 assists, 9 rebounds, and 5 steals. And, perhaps just as importantly, he directed Chicago’s entire operation with the aplomb of someone who has been here before.
Late in the game, as the Celtics were unraveling and Chicago was soaring, Boston guard Avery Bradley could even hear Rondo telling the other Bulls what many frustrated Celtics fans seemed to notice, too.
“They gave up,” Rondo shouted to his teammates. “They gave up.”
After the game, Bradley did not dispute Rondo’s assertion. He said only that the Celtics should never reveal such a weakness to an opponent.
“I looked around and a few times in the game guys were putting their heads down, I think getting down on themselves,” Bradley said. “But as a team we have to stay together. The other team is looking at that. They’re using that as motivation for themselves.”
These playoffs started with great promise for the Celtics. They won 53 games during the regular season and secured the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed. Then they welcomed the eighth-seeded Bulls, who won just 16 road games all season, to TD Garden, and six months of work came undone in just three days.
The Celtics’ offense was disjointed, and the Bulls’ usually staid attack was free-flowing, and to a casual observer it would not have been obvious which team was No. 1 and which did not reach the playoffs until the final day of the regular season.
By the final minutes, the crowd that had been so energized at the start had mostly departed. Those who remained offered boos as the players left the floor, with some even turning their focus to the other team that occupies this building, chanting, “Let’s go, Bruins.”
The Celtics are now the first No. 1 seed to fall behind, 0-2, in a first-round series since the eighth-seeded Lakers took a 2-0 lead on the Suns in 1993. Nevertheless, after Tuesday’s loss the Celtics remained hopeful if not energized. They understand the Bulls still need to defeat them twice more.
“It’s not the end of the world for us,” forward Jae Crowder said. “We feel like we have the unit, we have the togetherness to go to Chicago and take Game 3.”
The Bulls, meanwhile, have no intentions of letting up.
“It’s the biggest game of our season,” Rondo said of Game 3.
For the Celtics, the problem is they have given little indication that there is an easy fix. The Bulls have mostly been in command.
In Game 1, the Celtics took an emotional 4-point loss just one day after Isaiah Thomas’s younger sister, Chyna Thomas, was killed in a one-car accident in Washington state. Thomas wept before the game and was almost emotionless as he scored 33 points in the loss.
On Tuesday he seemed a bit more comfortable in his surroundings, smiling a bit with his teammates during warm-ups before playing a season-high 41 minutes, 47 seconds. But the 91 percent free throw shooter missed six foul shots and scored 20 points, 9 below his season average.
Bradley, for one, said the team will not use Thomas’s difficult situation as a crutch to explain their overall uneven play.
“Obviously it’s heavy on everyone’s heart what happened to Isaiah and his family, and we were there for Isaiah,” he said. “But we can’t continue to say that’s the reason. We just want to be there for him, continue to be there, and play hard.”
After the Celtics took a 7-0 lead, the Bulls grabbed five offensive rebounds during an emphatic 20-4 burst that was capped by a Nikola Mirotic 3-pointer. Mirotic was just 1 for 9 in the first game of this series, but he drained his first four shots on Tuesday and had 18 points.
Chicago led by as many as 12 points in the first quarter before the Celtics pushed back. With 9:35 left in the second quarter, Marcus Smart soared in and put back a Crowder miss, capping a 19-6 surge that gave the Celtics a 34-33 lead.
But Boston was unable to sustain this flurry, as Chicago’s Robin Lopez continued to punish the Celtics on the backboards, and Rondo continued to punish his former team everywhere. With 13 seconds left he converted a runner off the glass that gave his team a 54-46 lead at the break.
“You can see, he changed it,” Celtics forward Kelly Olynyk said of Rondo. “His whole demeanor and game right now, he’s really turned it on. He’s playing like everybody has seen him play before and we’re going to have to slow him down.”
The Bulls used a 9-0 run to take a 79-65 lead in the third quarter, and the Celtics never threatened again. During one sordid stretch midway through the fourth quarter, Dwyane Wade converted a runner, Smart missed a deep 3-pointer, and the Celtics played hardly any defense at the other end, as Rondo tossed an alley-oop to Cristiano Felicio that made it 102-86.
After the game, Wade sought out Rondo.
“Way to run your team.”