BOSTON - The Celtics gave them a run, but good teams find ways to win in the end. And the Chicago Bulls are a good team.
Without Derrick Rose. And more recently, without Luol Deng.
The Bulls were left for dead after they traded Deng to the Cavaliers on Jan. 7 for draft picks and Andrew Bynum (which was essentially cap flexibility). They were 14-18 at the time of the trade. Heck, the Celtics were right there with them at 13-21.
But instead of calling it a season, the Bulls did the opposite. They started winning.
Since the trade of Deng, Chicago is 27-14. The Bulls are currently the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference and officially "the team that nobody wants to play" in the playoffs.
Coach Tom Thibodeau has his guys working hard and working together. They aren't flashy. They aren't going to beat you with offense. They're a grind-it-out bunch, a team that'll punch you in the mouth and make you work twice as hard for everything on offense.
Sound a bit familiar? Like, perhaps a Celtics team of recent years past? Thibodeau has taken part of that model with him to Chicago - and it seems to be working.
"I think the willingness of the best players to sacrifice is huge," said Thibodeau, a former Celtics assistant. "So I thought that was the type we wanted to build in Chicago. We wanted to build on our defense, sharing the ball, playing together, playing as a team, putting the team first. I thought the Boston teams have embodied that."
When you look at the Bulls roster with Joakim Noah, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy, Kirk Hinrich, and now D.J. Augustin, you see a group of tough guys who have bought in to Thibs' way.
Brad Stevens easily notes what stands out about them to him.
"Clearly it's their defense and togetherness," said the Celtics coach. "I might have said this last time we played them. They're in the midst of obviously a really great run defensively . . . when you watch them and when you evaluate their statistics, not only this year but the last couple of years. This team especially is playing with great tenacity on that end of the floor. Clearly Noah's a leader in that as are their other guys, Hinrich and their other guys."
The Bulls are up there with the best of them when it comes to defense. They allow opponents to shoot just 43-percent from the field, second-lowest in the NBA behind Indiana. And they lead the league in opponent points allowed at 90.8 per game.
Thibs preaches defense, but it's on his players to execute - and nobody on that team executes better than Noah, who is playing like an MVP this season.
Noah finished Sunday's game with 13 points, 8 rebounds, and 13 assists. A couple of his passes would make most point guard jealous. Noah's never going to be an offensive star -- after all, his shot spins sideways -- but he has improved on that end, and you already know his defense and intensity is at another level.
"How often do you have a guy that's even mentioned as an MVP candidate that averages what he averages points-wise?" Stevens said. "I think that tells you what Noah's meant to this team since Rose has been out and Deng got traded and they haven't skipped a beat."
It's easy to see why Noah is such a positive presence on this Bulls team. Sure, he'll yell at his teammates out there on the court, but it's not taken the wrong way. Noah wants to win and that rubs off on his teammates. He's the classic example of a player you hate on the opposing team, but love on your team. He's Kevin Garnett in that sense.
"First and foremost his competitiveness," Hinrich said of Noah. "His high intensity every night. He cares about wining. That's just kind of how he's built. It's been huge for us. We've rallied around him so many nights."
"He does so many things well and he's a great leader on and off the floor," Butler said. "But more than anything his emotion, the love he has for the game and for his teammates."
As it stands, the Bulls are slated to play the Brooklyn Nets in the opening round. Of course, all that could change. They could realistically play the Raptors or Wizards, too. You can be sure that none of those three teams are hoping for that matchup. And, if the Bulls do get to the next round, neither Miami or Indiana will be jumping for joy.
The Bulls already believe in themselves, and they're making believers out of everybody else now. If defense really does win championships, it's hard to envision Chicago not in the picture down the stretch.
"We take pride in anything and everything that we do," Butler said. "I think no matter who we play we always think we can win, and if we do the things that we're capable of, why shouldn't we win?"
That's a question that opponents are finding harder and harder to answer.