BOSTON Minus their starting backcourt due to injury, the Bulls (23-7) valiantly tried to close out their nine-game road trip with a win but came up short, falling to the Celtics (15-12), 95-91, Sunday afternoon at TD BankNorth Garden, snapping a five-game winning streak. A late comeback threw a major scare into the home crowd, but the visitors ultimately didnt have enough firepower and return to Chicago with a 6-3 record on the arduous swing part of their 20 games away from home in the seasons first 30 games in addition to questions about Roses long-term health.
We got out-competed tonight, so well play them again on Thursday. Well be ready, said a dejected Joakim Noah afterwards. Our energy just wasnt very good. We fought at the end, but overall, weve got to play better. Our togetherness wasnt great and they shot a high percentage throughout the game, they ran the floor better than us. I think, overall, they just wanted it more.
Echoed Carlos Boozer: I thought they were ready to play us. I thought we did a good job of weathering their storm, fighting back at the end of the game. It seemed like we were a play away of taking the lead all game long. Just couldnt get over the hump.
Without the reigning league MVP in the lineup, the Bulls came out of the gates slowly, allowing the home team to get out in transition and score via fast breaks. Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo (32 points, 15 assists, 10 rebounds), perhaps taking advantage of Roses absence, was extremely aggressive as a scorer from the outset, sparking a double-digit Boston lead, despite Noahs (16 points, nine rebounds) strong play early.
I knew they would come out like that, coming off their last two games. They were very aggressive. I thought they got some easy baskets early, which gave them confidence. I think they had 28 in the first quarter, which is too much, particularly when youre on the road. We were a little careless with the ball. Not that we had a lot of turnovers early, but they were costly ones. I believe we had six in the first half and they converted on all of them, so it gave them a cushion, they played from a lead and thats a tough thing to do against a quality team, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau explained. I thought that we never really forced them to go against our set defense and for us, the floor balance has to be better. Youve got to take the easy baskets away. I thought that was the big difference.
Concurred Luol Deng: With our defense, when were set, we do a good job and I thought we did a good job on their guys tonight. Just the fast break really hurt us.
But the Bulls recovered, going on a 10-0 run led by Carlos Boozer (22 points, seven rebounds), who knocked down multiple mid-range jumpers and closed the gap to make it a close-knit game. Behind the inside play of Noah and Boozer, Chicago trailed, 28-23 at the conclusion of the opening period.
The visitors depth was on full display in the second quarter, as third-stringer John Lucas III provided instant offense while backup big men Omer Asik and Taj Gibson were tough on the glass. While Rondos playmaking with veteran Chris Wilcox (11 points, nine rebounds) and fellow big man JaJuan Johnson (12 points), a rookie and burgeoning fan favorite, being the prime beneficiaries propelled the hosts, the Bulls stayed within striking distance, with an opportunistic C.J. Watson (22 points, six assists), who replaced Rose, leading the way.
The brilliance of Rondo, however, along with veteran Kevin Garnetts (13 points, 12 rebounds) timely scoring gave the Celtics a boost, creating some separation before halftime. But despite Chicagos inaccurate shooting the guests shot 34 percent for the first half, compared to Bostons 56.8 percent mark, though the home team committed nine turnovers the Bulls went into intermission with only a five-point deficit, 48-43.
Guarding Rondo wasnt really difficult, said Watson. I just kept trying to go under screens like coach was saying and thats what we wanted him to do. We wanted him to shoot, but tonight, he was making it.
Added Thibodeau: Rondos a great player and even if youre defending him well, he still has the ability to make great plays and that team is very experienced, and I think theyre playing at a very high level.
The fast-breaking Celtics continued to push the pace, as Garnett and Rondo set the tone for their success, though inside scoring from Boozer and Noah ensured the gap didnt grow too large immediately after the break.
Noah is playing with a lot of energy, making multiple efforts. I thought he was the one guy who started the game very aggressively, said Thibodeau. I thought Carlos got going as the game went along.
The post tandem had to be effective, as Watson struggled in Roses place and starting wings Ronnie Brewer and Luol Deng (10 points, five rebounds, four assists) who did solid jobs of blanketing counterparts Ray Allen (11 points) and Paul Pierce defensively contributed little in way of scoring, especially with the latter playing with a heavy bandage on his tender left wrist.
They did a good job of just shrinking the floor and I settled for a lot of jumpers early. I had good looks, Ive been shooting the ball well, but to give them credit, theyre a good defensive team, said Deng about the matchup with his All-Star small forward counterpart. No matter how my game is going or how Im playing out there, Im always going to play hard defensively, and I just know how important it is for our team to defend someone like that and I just try to see what theyre trying to do, and where hes trying to get his shots and just take that away from him.
Added Thibodeau: Youve got two fierce competitors going at it. Its one of those games. They did a good job of getting back, so we didnt get as many easy baskets as we normally get and their team defense is very good. Its just one of those things.
Its just normal. Some days are going to be better than others, but I dont think it was his Dengs hand.
Watson fought through his struggles and an improved Chicago defense managed to keep the game close as the third period waned on, as the pass-first Rondo was thrust into the role of primary scorer for Boston. Once again, Lucas made valuable contributions to keep the Bulls afloat but through three quarters, the Celtics led 72-66.
An ugly start to the final stanza, in which neither team was efficient on offense and turnovers were an issue for the hosts, seemed to benefit the Rose-less Bulls. But Allen began to catch fire for the Celtics and they started to open up a wider winning margin, putting their guests, who had difficulty finishing around the basket and scoring in general, in peril midway through the period, particularly after Pierce knocked down a three-pointer to give Boston a double-digit lead with under eight minutes to go.
Poor shot selection, rushed possessions and general frigidity doomed the Bulls comeback attempts and when the Celtics extended their advantage on back-to-back fast-break flushes by Wilcox and Johnson, courtesy of Rondo, it appeared to sign Chicagos death warrant. As the game entered its stretch run Boston fans chanted for an appearance by former Garden favorite Brian Scalabrine, but unlike other arenas, they used it as a taunt the Bulls climbed back into the contest, trimming the deficit to single digits behind pressure defense that induced turnovers, as well as the scoring of Watson and Boozer.
A Watson jumper made it a two-possession game with under two minutes left and Deng was subsequently fouled on a defensive rebound, then split a pair of free throws before a Pierce free-throw line jumper gave the Celtics a 91-86 lead with 1:32 remaining. Deng was fouled by the smaller Rondo, who was caught on a switch, and made it a three-point game, then Pierce turned it over on a drive on the following possession.
Watson missed on a tough drive in traffic with under a minute, but the Bulls forced a turnover and called timeout with 27.6 seconds, leading to Watson taking a contested triple that was off the mark and Rondo being fouled, then knocking down a pair of foul shots.
Thats the way the play is set up. Thats the first option if you get a good look at it. I want him to be aggressive with. It didnt work out, Thibodeau explained about the play, which came out of a timeout and led to Watsons game-tying attempt. For C.J., he makes those shots, so Im not going to second-guess that. I want him to be aggressive when he comes off and he was, and if its there. If not, theres another option to it, so I didnt have a problem with that. We were down timeouts because we had to burn them to sort of stem the tide there for a while.
Inexplicably, Watson was fouled on the next possession, but missed his second attempt from the charity stripe, which was snared by Rondo who notched a triple-double with the board who then made two free throws to seal the deal.
We fought back and the stretch at the start of the fourth that sort of set us back again, but we climbed out of that hole. But you cant keep climbing out of holes and you dont have enough to finish it at the end, said Thibodeau. Like every game, theres good and bad. I was disappointed with some things that I thought allowed them to get some easy baskets, but I liked the way we fought at the end to come back and put ourselves in position, and weve got to do better.
Said Noah: Just losing, losing in this building. We feel like we didnt play the way we should have played, didnt rebound the way we should have, our energy was bad from the start and just disappointing loss.