Celtics beat Bulls, improbably advance in the In-Season Tournament: 8 takeaways


Jaylen Brown had another excellent game as the Celtics rolled to a win.

Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown (7) walks onto the court to face the Chicago Bulls at TD Garden. Danielle Parhizkaran/Globe Staff

The Celtics threaded every necessary needle on Tuesday, blowing out the Bulls 124-97 while the Nets defeated the Raptors 115-103, thereby securing their place in the inaugural In-Season Tournament quarterfinals.

Here are the takeaways.

1. We do, in fact, have to hand it to Adam Silver: The In-Season Tournament is an unqualified success on a number of levels.

The money involved seemed trivial in light of contracts like the one owed Jaylen Brown (and the one that will be owed Jayson Tatum after next offseason), but $500,000 per player is a lot of money for Luke Kornet and Sam Hauser, which is important to players like Brown and Tatum on a well-connected team like the Celtics.

Point differential feels odd to watch in the NBA, but it made for high drama on a Tuesday evening in late November. Celtics fans had eyes on their own blowout while scoreboard-watching the Nets and Raptors, which needed to be a Nets victory but also not too authoritative of a Nets victory.

We got a tense conversation between opposing coaches.

We got unconventional tactics in a 30-point blowout.

In other words, we got a highly entertaining basketball game at a time when basketball isn’t always particularly entertaining. Congratulations to the NBA, which can now make an even stronger case to broadcast partners about its product. The In-Season Tournament has a chance to put the “NBA doesn’t start until Christmas” narrative to bed.

2. Up 32 with just over seven minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Joe Mazzulla instructed his team to start hacking Andre Drummond. Bulls coach Billy Donovan appeared to ask for an explanation, which Mazzulla provided. Later, Donovan told reporters that he had no issue with the Celtics trying to run up the score, but he didn’t appreciate the difficult look for his center (and he described Mazzulla as “receptive” to that argument).

For his part, Mazzulla offered a detailed (and reasonable) explanation of his thought process to reporters postgame. Mazzulla said he wanted to see whether the Celtics would be in a position to win by the requisite amount in the first place.

“We could be down 15 because that’s a distraction, because we’re trying to be up 23,” Mazzulla said in a response to a question by the Boston Globe’s Gary Washburn. “And then you’re going to be like, ‘Was your team distracted by the 23-point lead?’ And I’m going to have to be like, ‘No, Gary, they weren’t,’ when they really were. You have to eliminate distractions and focus on winning and the process towards winning. That’s the most important thing. Our team was focused on winning. …

“I apologize to Andre Drummond for doing that. But it gave us the best chance considering the circumstances we were in.”

Was his conversation with Donovan odd?

“It’s only weird because it’s new,” Mazzulla said. “Like to me, it’s just weird because it’s new, it’s different. I truly love watching the European tournaments and the style that they have. Five, six years from now, this is going to be just normal.”

3. The players, meanwhile, felt the full weight of the “respect the game” argument.

“It’s tough, because that’s just not how the game is supposed to be played,” Brown said. “One, you’ve got to respect your opponents. Two, it’s just a weird setup. We understand the rules, but if I was on the other team, I would be upset as well when we were doing the Hack-a-Drummond in the middle of the fourth quarter. But our coaching staff made the decision and we stick with it.”

Holiday was clear that he didn’t blame Mazzulla for the tactics, but he wants to find an alternate way to break ties instead of point differential.

“It just feels weird, kind of like you’re disrespecting the game and your opponent,” Holiday said.

Brown hinted that the players union might take a look into things after the season.

“They assess, we assess, then we go back and make decisions as a union and as a league,” Brown said.

4. Our two cents: We’re with Mazzulla. Give point differential some time, because it’s very fun. From the outside, the Celtics’ decisions — even Hack-a-Drummond — felt reasonable in light of their suddenly very real opportunity to make the quarterfinals, and the players executing on those chances felt less disrespectful and more like a game within a game. If the Raptors were beating the Nets by 20, the starters probably wouldn’t have played in the fourth quarter. Even most Bulls fans seemed to take the score discrepancy in stride (just look at the responses to this tweet).

The Celtics weren’t disrespecting the game. They were playing it under different parameters. Again: It’s only weird because it’s new.

5. On the basketball side of things, Jaylen Brown was excellent once again — another in a recent stretch of games might be showing real progress in his game (and real progress in his cohesion with his new teammates). Brown has nearly eliminated hero-ball possessions from his repertoire. He’s cutting backdoor multiple times per game (and on Tuesday, a flustered and disorganized Bulls defense gave him a lot of opportunities). He’s attacking quickly and making great decisions.

As a result, he’s putting up big stats: 30 points (12-for-23 shooting, 3-for-8 from deep), eight rebounds, and six assists (against three turnovers) in Tuesday’s win.

Brown is an integral part of the Celtics’ scoring, which has always been the case. Recently, he has also been integral to their space and ball movement. This version of Jaylen Brown, if it continues, is headed for another All-Star game and could certainly make another All-NBA appearance.

6. Sam Hauser threw down his fifth dunk of the season, flying in for a tip slam in the fourth quarter. Celtics players (most notably the bench) continue to be thrilled by Hauser’s career transition from 3-Point Marksman to 3-Point Marksman Who Dunks From Time to Time.

7. Jrue Holiday returned to action after missing two games with an ankle injury and scored 14 points, knocking down four of his five 3-point attempts. The Bulls’ offense is less than inspiring (26th in the NBA, per Cleaning the Glass), but they average 110 points per 100 possessions. With Holiday back in the lineup, the Celtics held them to 97 total (and 101 points per possession).

“Any time you add Jrue back into the lineup, it’s going to help your defense,” Derrick White said. “He just does so many things out there that impact winning. It’s nice to have him back.

“I think the last couple of games we’ve locked back into that mindset and got back to the team we wanted to be.” 

8. The No. 3 seed Celtics will face the No. 2 seed Pacers in Indiana for their quarterfinal game on either Dec. 4 or 5. The winner will travel to Las Vegas for the semifinals on Dec. 7, followed by the Finals on Dec. 9.

The Celtics beat the Pacers 155-104 the last time they met, but the Pacers were without Tyrese Haliburton, who has drawn some early-season buzz as a dark-horse MVP candidate.

Before their quarterfinal matchup, the Celtics play the Sixers on Friday in Boston.