The third quarter: The Bulls were overwhelmed, blitzed by the Celtics. A two-point game at the half blew open in a matter of minutes as Kyrie Irving and Al Horford keyed a 13-2 run that effectively ended matters as the Bulls never seriously challenged the Celtics after that.
Not only are the Celtics one of the best teams in the NBA, their offense is among the most diverse, with an athlete like Jaylen Brown on the wing along with a budding scorer in rookie Jayson Tatum to go with a scorer in Irving and a playmaker in Horford.
It was on full display and the Bulls had little in reserve. Tatum scored just 13 but was all over the floor, and Brown—while not as offensively gifted as Tatum—was explosive from the corners and in the open floor, scoring an easy 20 points on just 10 shots, hitting four triples.
Look, part of this was predictable. The Bulls gave them a 23-point whipping almost two weeks ago in Chicago. Payback was necessary.
“They’d lost two in a row, we knew they would come out with great energy,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “For 24 minutes, we matched it. They came out in the third, threw the first blow and we never recovered. We shut it down for a stretch. You can’t do this. Against a team like this, you can’t shut down.”
Even their hustle plays, like David Nwaba crashing the glass for an offensive rebound, went unrewarded. He tried to kick it back outside to reset the offense except no one was in that space, as it trickled out of bounds on the other end.
They mustered up just 34 points in the second half after 58 in the first.
Just one of those nights.
Bulls offense, what Bulls offense: Irving missed the first meeting between the two and it resulted in the Celtics’ worst loss of the year. Well clearly he wanted to return the favor as the Celtics led by 23 midway through the fourth after Irving’s fifth triple.
His counterpart, Kris Dunn, couldn’t engineer the Bulls’ offense to the same effect. Dunn played his worst game in ages, going one for 12 for two points and seven assists in 25 minutes. He still got inside the paint but couldn’t convert much of anything, unable to combat Irving’s tricky pick-and-roll game.
Without that element to the offense, one that Celtics coach Brad Stevens called “the best in the NBA” over the last 10 games, the Bulls were easy to defend.
“Those are my shots. Shots I work on, shots I hit,” Dunn said. “Plenty of good looks. They didn’t fall today. I’ve had plenty of bad games like that, Look at the film see what I can fix. I’m not gonna get down on myself, still gonna be confident. We got a lot of good looks, just didn’t hit.”
Dunn wasn’t the only one to struggle. Bobby Portis had a loud, impactful first half with 15 points and seven rebounds before mustering just two points and one rebound after.
Nikola Mirotic had his most humble game to date with nine points and nine rebounds, hitting just three of 10 shots.
The Celtics defense confused the Bulls for long stretches and unlike their game in Cleveland, they couldn’t respond in the second half, shooting just 31 percent and turning it over 12 times.
Dunn baptism: Every point guard goes through nights like Dunn had. Great ones, bad ones, mediocre ones. Irving had been on a mission coming into Saturday’s game and Dunn wasn’t going to get in his way.
Irving can say some pretty amazing things—as in weird—and he can match those words with on-court exploits.
“Just our pace, staying on the boards, making sure we were communicating what we needed to do to extend the lead as best we could,” Irving said of the third quarter where the Celtics outscored the Bulls 38-18.
It was an easy 25 that felt like it could’ve been 40 if Irving really wanted to send a message. Which is why in a way, it was a message to the second-year point guard.
“You know he’s good. Ain’t no secret to that,” Dunn said. “He shoots the ball well, try to make it difficult for him. You know he’s gonna take 20 shots. Try to make it difficult. The only thing you can do.”
Perhaps Dunn was trying too hard to get it back, a hard temptation to resist with the freedom Irving plays with nightly. Combined with being close to home for the first time this season, he had to take this lesson on the chin—even though he went down swinging in trying to take the game to Irving.
“Nah, you got to. You have no choice,” Dunn said. “Good players, if you just let them be aggressive, they’ll be so comfortable they’ll do anything on the court. You gotta bring it back to them, wear them down.”
His attitude is important considering how many point guards will come his way on a nightly basis, as well as his struggles coinciding with the team’s offense sputtering.
That’s no coincidence.
“He had a tough night, no doubt about it,” Hoiberg said. “He had a really good stretch of basketball. Again, we’re not going through the season without bumps in the road. We’ll battle back, get Kris’ confidence up, which he will. I’m confident of that.”
Heads down: Some of those ugly habits started to appear in the second half, habits many thought were long gone in this new and improved version of Bulls basketball.
The body language was bad, they kept their heads down for extended periods and didn’t stay with the game plan—even though it’s tough to hang in with a team that shot 70 percent for most of the first half and you’re hanging by a thread with crowd-quieting jumpers.
At some point, the thread was going to snap and we were all going to be reminded this team is in the early stages of a rebuild.
“They just had more edge than us, specifically in that stretch of the third quarter,” Robin Lopez said. “Seems like we conceded a lot, they seemed pretty comfortable out there, especially on offense.”
Dunn could see it, but things were already headed downhill in the first 90 seconds of the third quarter and it continued for the entire 24-minute second half. It shouldn’t be chalked up to mental weakness; the Celtics just had more to play for than the Bulls did, and have better personnel.
“The ball wasn’t going in for us, heads went down,” Dunn said. “We didn’t fight adversity. The first half we did a good job defensively, they still made tough buckets. It’s one of those days. Credit to them.”
As long as this stretch doesn’t continue—they haven’t had a loss like this since Dec. 4 when the Cavaliers came into Chicago and beat them by 22—it can be written off as anomaly.
“We’ve been pretty good about not getting down on ourselves these stretch of games,” Lopez said. “We reverted a little tonight. I don’t think that’s gonna be a problem going forward. The mental makeup of our guys has been pretty fantastic. That bit us tonight.”