NBA Notebook: Revisiting Rick Pitino’s Celtics beating the ‘Last Dance’ Bulls on opening night

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The next two episodes of the 10-part ‘Last Dance’ documentary chronicling the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls will return tonight on ESPN (9 p.m. ET) after a successful start to the series last weekend (most-watched documentary ever on ESPN). While the Celtics were featured prominently during the start of the footage last Sunday night in the midst of a look back at Jordan’s 63-point outburst at the Boston Garden in 1986, the producers skipped over the opening night of the '97-98 campaign for the Bulls that involved a memorable night for the C’s: The debut and first win for Rick Pitino as Celtics coach.

That 92-85 victory was arguably the apex of the Pitino era in Boston as there were few bright spots throughout the following four years of his tenure. However, a 20-point comeback win over the defending champs on Halloween night in front of a packed TD Garden sent (brief) waves of excitement and hope across the region in the wake of a tanking season that failed to land Tim Duncan during the 1997 NBA Draft.

From a Last Dance producer perspective, it made sense that not even a mention was made of the loss from a Bulls standpoint. Chicago had plenty of issues on the road to begin that campaign (0-4 to start the year away from the United Center) so the loss in Boston was just one of a long list of ugly performances to begin the season without Scottie Pippen. For the Celtics, this was one of the few bright spots for a franchise that was in the midst of eight straight sub-.500 seasons in the 90s.

So while the Pitino era is usually a time that Celtics fans would prefer to forget, let’s take a stroll down memory lane to revisit that big Celtics win and figured out how a young and inexperienced Celtics squad beat the defending champs.

The Setup
Boston Celtics (0-0) vs. Chicago Bulls (0-0)
October 31, 1997
TD Garden

A completely revamped Celtics roster was set to make its debut under Pitino after a failed tanking campaign by ML Carr. Only five players returned from the 1995-96 Celtics, with veterans such as Dee Brown and Dana Barros along with standout second-year forward Antoine Walker headlining the names that survived the overhaul.

Joining them were the No. 3 (Chauncy Billups) and No. 6 (Ron Mercer) overall picks from the 1997 NBA Draft along with a bevy of new free agent signings by Pitino including starting center Travis Knight. Another free agent name (Chris Mills) was traded just days before opening night in a multi-player deal that landed Pitino one of his former standouts at Kentucky, Walter McCarty. The roster was incredibly young (top four players in minutes per game were all age 23 or less) but this was a group that was in-shape enough to full-court press for large chunks of 48 minutes right out of the gate against a Bulls squad that was clearly playing its way back into shape and missing their second-best player in Pippen.

The Game

Some interesting lineup choices here by both coaches to start the year. With Pippen out, Toni Kukoc obviously got the start for Chicago but young power forward Jason Caffey also got the nod for Phil Jackson over Dennis Rodman who came off the bench (Rodman started 68 games for Bulls that year). Pitino went with his Kentucky crew (Walker, Mercer, McCarty) with new center Knight in the middle and Dana Barros starting at point over Billups. Boston had a couple of injuries too (Tyus Edney, Greg Minor) to begin the year as well, but nothing close to the hole the Bulls had to fill without Pippen.

The flow of the game here is quite incredible in hindsight. The Celtics fall behind 32-12 out of the gate after a hot shooting start from the Bulls and an early avalanche of Celtics turnovers. The tide flips completely in the middle two quarters, however, with the C’s outscored the Bulls 56-26 to seize command. Jordan is getting to the free-throw line a ton (21 attempts on the night) but suffers through one of the worst shooting nights of his season (7-of-23) as the Celtics throw constant double teams at home and get some good defensive help off the bench from second-year swingman Bruce Bowen (+6 in 26 minutes). With Jordan struggling and no Pippen, there just isn’t enough consistent offense across the rest of the Bulls roster to overcome an energetic pressing Celtics team this night.

For the C’s, Walker has one of the best games of his season (31 points, 8 rebounds, 5 steals) while Billups provides a nice boost off the bench (15 points in 16 minutes) in his NBA debut. After building up a double-digit lead in the middle two quarters, the Bulls trimmed an 11-point deficit down to three in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter as Jordan positioned himself to steal the win in crunch time. However, the Celtics' swarming defense by Bowen and company force Jordan into tough shots and make Jordan's teammates take shots and those guys fail to make Boston pay on multiple possessions. Boston hits free throws in the final minute to seal the victory, giving them the surprise win.

All things considered, it was an ugly game for Boston and Chicago but the hosts just dominated the game on the offensive glass more than anything, piling up 22 offensive rebounds, which essentially led them to getting an offensive board on every two possessions in the game. The Bulls couldn’t hit a 3 (1-of-8), missed a ton of free throws (18-of-29) and piled up 20 turnovers thanks to Boston’s full-court pressing. That was enough for the defending champs to go down on a night that Jordan didn’t have it.

The Box Score


Leftover Thoughts

—It’s perhaps a fitting tribute to the Pitino era that two of the best young players in this win (Billups,