CHICAGO — Derrick Rose envisioned this for the Bulls when training camp started. Now Chicago is close to wrapping up the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
Rose scored 30 points and the Chicago Bulls closed in on the top seed in the Eastern Conference by beating the Boston Celtics 97-81 on Thursday.
The Bulls’ 17th win in 19 games put them four games up on Boston and Miami with four to play and eliminated the Heat from getting the No. 1 seed. It also gave them a four-game split with the Celtics.
Boston, which plays the Heat on Sunday, still has a mathematical shot at the top spot albeit a remote one. But barring a collapse, Chicago will be the top seed in the East.
It’s another step for a team that expected big things after a major overhaul, and all the Bulls have done is deliver their best season since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen made championship celebrations a regular event.
“I always said that we could compete with some of the best teams in the NBA,” Rose said. “At training camp and in the beginning of the year, I thought my team’s ready to fight. I just saw what we were going through in training camp. Guys were keyed in and focused, making sure that they came in very, very hungry, wanting to win.”
Rose was a one-man highlight reel against Rajon Rondo, beating him with his crossover and getting to the rim, particularly in the early going. Rose scored 16 points in the first half as the Bulls jumped out to a 48-43 lead, and Chicago regrouped after momentarily falling behind in the third.
Luol Deng scored 23 points, and Carlos Boozer added 14 points and 12 rebounds.
“Like it or not these are probably the guys who we’ll meet in the conference finals or wherever,” Rondo said.
Chicago outscored the Celtics 44-22 in the paint, outrebounded them 44-35 and held Boston to 38.4 percent shooting. The Bulls didn’t let up, either, after struggling to put away Toronto and Phoenix in back-to-back games.
“I think offensively, we’ve been pretty good for about 10 games now,” said coach Tom Thibodeau, the former Celtics assistant. “Defensively, we’ve been sporadic. We’ve played well the first half, not well in the second half. I thought tonight was more of a complete game for us.”
Paul Pierce led Boston with 15 points. Kevin Garnett scored all 10 of his points in the second half and Rondo scored his seven over the final two quarters.
Jeff Green finished with 10 and Ray Allen had seven points.
“We’ve got to be better than this,” Garnett said. “No way we can come out and put an effort like this in a game this big.”
Rondo said, “This better be a wakeup call. If not, we won’t make it far.”
The Bulls led 48-43 at the half when Pierce made a jumper and Rondo hit his first two baskets to give Boston a one-point lead, but the Bulls responded by running off 10 straight.
It was 61-58 after Glen Davis hit two free throws with just over three minutes left in the quarter when the Bulls started a 13-2 run that stretched into the fourth.
Deng started the spurt with a 3, and he followed a layup by Boozer off a turnover with a steal and layup to make it 68-58 with 1:31 left. Davis hit two free throws for Boston. But Rose made a 3 with 23 seconds left in the quarter, and Boozer added a three-point play 45 seconds into the fourth to boost Chicago’s lead to 74-60.
Not only were the Bulls facing one of the top teams in the East, they also honored Pippen by unveiling a sculpture of him during a halftime ceremony, a fitting tribute to a Hall of Famer who helped them win six championships.
How far can this group go? That remains to be seen.
Rose is sure of one thing, though.
“We can play,” he said. “We can play a little bit.”
NOTES: A Bulls spokesman said chairman Jerry Reinsdorf left a message for Grant Hill and spoke to his mother for about 15 minutes, telling her he regretted an incident that happened after Tuesday’s game against the Suns. Hill had told the Arizona Republic that a fan spat on and cursed him. … Boston coach Doc Rivers said he thinks Shaquille O’Neal will be healthy for the playoffs, but isn’t sure what to expect from him. The 15-time All-Star missed his second straight game with a strained right calf.