Isaiah Thomas (4) drives past Chicago Bulls guard Michael Carter-Williams (7) during the second quarter at the United Center. (Dennis Wierzbicki/USA Today Sports)

Despite brutal call in loss to Chicago, Celtics show just how much they have moved on from Rajon Rondo

Mike Petraglia
February 16, 2017 - 5:32 pm

Isaiah Thomas and Marcus Smart keep coming up huge when it matters most. 

But unfortunately for the Celtics the officials decided Thursday's game. 

Jimmy Butler hit two free throws with 0.9 seconds left when Marcus Butler was called for grazing the right elbow of the shooter by referee Zach Zarba on the baseline. The two free throws were the difference in Chicago's 104-103 win at the United Center. TV replays showed Smart didn't make contact. 

A brutal call by Zarba at the worst time. Butler and Thomas each finished with 29 points. 

After a timeout trying to inbound, Al Horford missed a 16-foot shot at the buzzer as the Bulls were bailed out. 

"We not going to be derailed by that," a tight-lipped Brad Stevens told reporters after. Stevens was irate at the moment the call was made. 

"Yeah, we thought we won the game," said Kelly Olynyk, who had 17 points and seven rebounds. "A rollercoaster of emotions. It's tough."

Thomas and Smart stayed on the court for nearly a minute after the final buzzer and stared down Zarba. Before the call, the Celtics were poised for another clutch win in the fourth. 

There was a mindset and thought as recently as three years ago in Brad Stevens' first year in Boston that the Celtics still needed Rajon Rondo to be apart of their next charge at a title.

But in that 2013-14 season, he missed the first 40 games recovering from an ACL injury the year before. He was named the 15th captain in team history. One year later, the disenfranchised Rondo was traded away to Dallas and the Celtics haven't looked back. The Celtics made the playoffs that year, Stevens' second as head coach. After 48 wins last season, the Celtics are making a run at the No. 1 seed this year.

Rondo has played for Sacramento and now Chicago.

It's somewhat appropriate that Thomas - the man that helped the Celtics move on from the Rondo era - set a new franchise mark with his 41st straight game of at least 20 points Thursday night in the loss to the Bulls at the United Center in the final game before the All-Star break. The Celtics head into the break with a 37-20 mark, three games behind Cleveland for the top spot in the East.

For a full box score and statistical recap of Thursday's game in Chicago, click here.

Rondo twisted his left ankle badly with three minutes left in the second quarter but in the time he was on the court, he clearly was inspired to prove he could hang with and defend Isaiah Thomas. To an extent, he was successful, holding Thomas to just two points over the first 15 minutes of the game. Rondo, coming off Chicago's bench, was held scoreless in 20 minutes, missing all five shots from the floor, dishing out eight assists with seven rebounds. 

The Bulls were without Dwyane Wade, out for the third straight game with a bruised wrist and flu-like symptoms.

The duo of Amir Johnson and Al Horford came out on fire, combining to hit their first eight shots from the floor. The Celtics raced out to eight-point leads three times, including 22-14, midway through the first quarter. The Bulls closed the period on an 8-3 run to close to within 25-22 heading into the second quarter.

Isaiah Thomas didn't light up the scoreboard in the opening 12 minutes, scoring just two points. But he dished out five assists as the Celtics found offensive rhythm early.

Thomas scored the final 13 points of the second quarter as the Celtics grabbed a 58-52 halftime lead. The Celtics were 10-of-21 from 3-point range while the Bulls, the worst 3-point shooting team in the NBA, were just 2-of-12.

The Celtics were pounded on the offensive glass in the third quarter as the Bulls caught fire and took a 75-68 lead midway through the period. Thanks to a late run, featuring a three from Kelly Olynyk, the Celtics closed to within two, 81-78, heading into the fourth.

Olynyk caught fire in the fourth quarter with a pair of threes and a three-point play that kept Boston close. Terry Rozier's three from the left wing tied the game at 92 with six minutes left. Then Isaiah Thomas drove the paint and converted a layup with 5:45 left to put Boston up, 94-92, and give Thomas the new franchise mark with his 41st straight game of at least 20 points, breaking John Havlicek's old mark set back in the 1971-72 season. 

Thomas drained a three with 3:42 remaining to put the Celtics ahead, 97-94. With Jimmy Butler hounding him on defense, Thomas beat the Bulls best player with an up-and-under move for a layup with 2:30 left for a 99-98 lead. His two free throws with 1:56 put the Celtics up, 101-98.

As expected, Avery Bradley missed his 16th straight game with a sore right Achilles while Jaylen Brown sat out his third straight game with a sore hip. Brad Stevens is hopeful that both could return to practice after this weekend's All-Star break as the team returns to action on Feb. 24 in Toronto.

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