Bulls welcome home fans back to arena for Celtics’ visit

Sports

The Chicago Bulls will play in front of fans on their home court for the first time in more than a year when they host the Boston Celtics on Friday night.

It marks the first time since March 10, 2020, that fans will be allowed inside the United Center. That was one day before the NBA paused its season amid the coronavirus outbreak that quickly swept the globe.

Chicago (27-39) is eager for a sense of normalcy after playing in an empty building for so long.

“I think it’s great,” Bulls coach Billy Donovan said. “Obviously, some of the arenas that we’ve got the opportunity to go to, they’re starting to let fans in. But hopefully we’ll be able to get — by next year — places filled. I’ve always said, just coming into Chicago, this is an electric environment. The fans here make it a great home-court advantage.”

The limited-capacity crowd that arrives Friday will see the visiting Celtics (35-31), who are fighting to maintain a spot in the top six in the Eastern Conference to avoid the play-in tournament. A potentially decisive back-to-back set of games against the Miami Heat await the Celtics on Sunday and Tuesday, but first comes the road game in Chicago.

Boston will be without Jaylen Brown against the Bulls because of a right ankle sprain. Robert Williams III is listed as questionable because of left foot turf toe, while Tristan Thompson (left pectoral strain) and Romeo Langford (concussion protocols) both are listed as probable.

Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said injuries and inconsistency have hurt his team, but he still is optimistic that the group can find success in the playoffs.

“It’s been a test and it’s been a challenge,” Ainge said. “But we’ll see how our guys respond to this challenge. I really like the guys, and I still think that there is hope and potential, even in this year’s playoffs. But it’s going to take everybody at least being healthy.

“We say get on the same page, and it’s a lot tougher to be on the same page when you’re not healthy. But I think Brad (Stevens) is a terrific coach and will have a good game plan against our opponent. So I’m excited about this year still, and I’m hopeful.”

The Celtics have won three of their last four games, including a dominant 132-96 victory over the Orlando Magic in their most recent game Wednesday. Kemba Walker had 32 points in the win, and Jayson Tatum finished with 27.

“I’m optimistic because of the good that I see,” Ainge said. “I know what the team is capable of and I don’t think it’s a turn-on or turn-off mindset that has made them be inconsistent. I think there are contributing factors to it, and listen, I know how the season has gone so far. I don’t know how it’s going to go as we go forward, but I’m not giving up on them. I’m staying with them and maintaining the hope that we have.”

The Bulls will play on short rest after a 120-99 win over the Charlotte Hornets on Thursday. Nikola Vucevic led the way with 29 points and 14 rebounds, and Zach LaVine had 13 points on 5-for-11 shooting in his return to action from COVID-19 protocols.

–Field Level Media

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