The Boston Celtics advanced to the quarterfinals of the In-Season Tournament by winning Group C in the Eastern Conference thanks to a 124-97 victory over the Chicago Bulls on Tuesday night. And despite their protestations pre-game, they pulled out all the stops to get it done, including the “Hack-A-Drummond” with a 30-point lead in the fourth quarter.
Before we go any further into the events, let’s set the stage.
Entering Tuesday night’s slate, the Celtics’ path to winning Group C required them to win by at least 23 points and the Brooklyn Nets to beat the Toronto Raptors by fewer than 20 points. In that scenario — which did happen — all three of the Celtics, Nets and Orlando Magic would finish the group stage of the tournament with 3-1 records. Three-way ties are settled by point differential, and thus the need for the Celtics to win big.
They got off to a great start on that front, jumping out to a double-digit lead in the first quarter behind Jaylen Brown and some red-hot 3-point shooting. By halftime they were up by 19, and the dream was starting to seem real. Under normal circumstances, the Celtics would have taken their foot off the gas, but they just kept pouring it on.
In the middle of the fourth quarter, they showed just how serious they were about ensuring a blowout win by sending Andre Drummond to the free throw line repeatedly. The big man is a career 54.8% shooter from the stripe, and playing the percentages worked for the Celtics, as he promptly went 0-4 from the line. Those possessions essentially became stops for the Celtics, and were key in their run that pushed the lead to as much as 35.
“OK, you’re at 30, what do you want to do? I want to get stops,” Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla said. “So then you do what we did, and I apologized to Andre Drummond for doing that, but it gave us the best chance considering the circumstances we were in.”
The Bulls and head coach Billy Donovan were not amused. Donovan walked down the sideline to have a conversation with Mazzulla during the game, and shared more thoughts post-game.
“Andre is a veteran guy, and tonight I told [Mazzulla] what are we doing here. I’m totally fine, like I get it on keeping your guys in, wanting to get in [to the knockout round], the league’s made a big deal,” Donovan said. “For me, it was just the fouling. And Joe was great when I talked to him, he understood.
“I just felt like, OK, great, keep [Jayson] Tatum in, keep going, play all the way to the end. I got no problem with that. I just thought it was putting Andre in a tough spot in a 30-point game. I didn’t like that.”
Point differential has been used to settle tiebreaks in other leagues and sports for decades, but this is the first time that it’s been a concern in the NBA. That’s going to take some getting used to, especially in a league where running up the score has long been frowned upon.