BOSTON — In the playoffs, stealing games on the road is crucial to winning a series and advancing, but sometimes you have to steal some in the first 82.
After the Bulls submitted to the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday night at the first hint of adversity, they finally began to dig themselves out of their man-made hole against the aggressive and dictating Boston Celtics.
They methodically charged back and the game was well within reach, but they couldn’t take advantage of a reeling squad running out of gas, losing 110-101 at TD Garden.
More pointedly, the Bulls ran out of good players and good opportunities, as they couldn’t cut into a three-point lead late in the fourth after trailing by as many as 16.
Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose were the only guys wearing black who could say they were productive from the jump, and for spurts, so was Pau Gasol. Gasol scored 18 with 11 rebounds but had crucial turnovers in the first half when it appeared the Celtics would run away with matters.
The Celtics lead by 15 at the half, shooting 50 percent and forcing 13 turnovers as the Bulls looked nonchalant, to say the least.
“They were too comfortable, that was the thing tonight,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “They were too comfortable, hitting shots, got second-chance opportunities and we turned the ball over.”
Rose continued his aggressiveness, with 27 points, seven rebounds and three assists while Butler, a gametime decision with flu-like symptoms, showed few signs of illness with 28 and a season-high 14 rebounds.
“I wouldn’t say (we have) no help,” Rose said. “It’s about being on the same page. All the hustle plays, it’s effort. Loose balls, rebounding, all that takes effort. We’re not taking that effort to be a championship team.”
The production and effort stopped there as the Celtics had Avery Bradley score 20, Isaiah Thomas score 22 with five rebounds, Jared Sullinger put up 18 with 12 rebounds and five assists and a host of other players wearing green do something, anything that contributed to a win.
Fred Hoiberg, though, had no options. He showed increased faith in Nikola Mirotic, but when the Bulls had a chance to take a lead with 4:39 left, a Rose bounce pass was mishandled by Mirotic and went out of bounds. A layup could’ve put more fear into a collapsing Celtics squad.
Mirotic was 1-for-7, Doug McDermott took one shot in 22 minutes and Tony Snell took one in 16 minutes.
“It’s tough. I feel for em, when you’re struggling it’s the worst feeling in the world,” Hoiberg said. “I thought the one who turned things around for us was Bobby (Portis). Sprinting into the ball screen, making contact and we were getting downhill and into the rim. That’s when we got it going. We missed great opportunities. Cut that thing to one and led to two key turnovers.“
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Their 20 turnovers were a problem, and so was their porous 3-point shooting as they again came up virtually empty from deep after being one of the most proficient teams from distance earlier this season.
They hit just three of 13 from deep, while shooting 43 percent for the game.
Their defense, one that has yielded 105 points per game this month, was on track for another Golden State-esque performance on that end, giving up 90 points through three quarters before showing a little resistance to start the fourth.
“The fire that we had in that comeback is what we need to have,” Hoiberg said. “We’ve had moments where we have it. But man we have a lot of moments where we haven’t. When they get a 10-point lead, put your head down then it grows to 15 instead of bucking up, finding a way to get back in the game. Then again, dig yourself a hole, takes too much energy to climb out of it. Then you’re in a dogfight.”
But getting stops was foreign to the Bulls, as well as finishing possessions on the occasion they forced a miss. Giving up long offensive rebounds felt like death by a thousand cuts when they cut the sizeable lead to a workable margin. The Celtics finished with 16 offensive rebounds, many of them while the Bulls tried in vain to make them sweat.
Rose, perhaps annoyed by something this morning, showed out in the third. He scored 16 as his jumper was on and his first step was cat-quick, even against Bradley, one of the best on-ball defenders the league has from the perimeter.
Butler took to the glass to help out when it was clear the Bulls didn’t have the legs to box out and go for the ball.
But in the end they didn’t have enough and walk eyes wide open into a hornet’s nest in Cleveland against a riled-up rival after letting one get away.