BOSTON — Nobody said they would be perfect.
The Chicago Bulls’ marital bliss with each other hit some turbulence Wednesday, as they failed to take advantage of a shorthanded Boston Celtics team at TD Garden, taking their first loss of the season 107-100 Wednesday night.
A stirring Bulls’ comeback came up short when the one thing they did extremely well in the fourth quarter became a weakness at the wrong time. Failing to control their defensive glass led to an extra opportunity for the Celtics with 34 seconds left, and Celtics guard Marcus Smart hit a running hook over Bobby Portis to put the Bulls behind five.
It was moments after Nikola Mirotic missed two free throws that could’ve given the Bulls a 102-101 lead, an improbable turn of events considering the Celtics jumped on Amir Johnson’s back in the third quarter to take a double-digit lead, restoring order from a quick start they happened to squander before the first half ended.
Johnson, a career 31-percent 3-point shooter who’s only made 58 in his 11-year career, had a third quarter for the ages. Johnson hit four triples in the third, helping them establish a double-digit lead. Starting in place of Al Horford, Johnson finished with 23 points and six rebounds in 30 minutes.
“The scouting report man…those three’s were big,” said Taj Gibson, who had a front row seat to Johnson’s improbable shooting. “It shows you can’t give guys looks. You gotta run off everybody, especially at the 3-point line. I still fell we had a shot to win the game.”
“The scouting report did not have that. I could hear the coaching staff say, 'slow up'. Hats off to him, he had a great game. We’ll be ready next time.”
His production was sorely needed with Horford out with a concussion and then Jae Crowder injured his ankle in the second quarter by landing on a Bulls player's foot. Crowder and Isaiah Thomas torched the Bulls early on, not dissimilar from the way the Bulls galloped out to big leads in the last two games.
“We could never quite get over the hump,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “I thought we fought to get back into the game but overall, especially in the first three quarters they were the more physical team.”
Thomas led the Celtics with 23 points and 10 assists, and the Celtics hit 14 3-pointers, with Thomas matching Johnson’s surprising output. All five Celtics starters scored in double figures, as Johnson helped push them ahead in the third before the Bulls showed some grit.
Had the Bulls not been so bent on pushing the tempo when the plays weren’t there, they wouldn’t have fallen behind so quickly, so often. Playing uphill all night was a task too great to overcome.
The Celtics turned 19 turnovers in 18 points, including four from Rajon Rondo.
“We weren’t valuing possessions,” Hoiberg said. “One of the Celtics’ big strengths is turning other teams over and capitalizing on it and it happened tonight.”
A Jimmy Butler (23 points) 3-pointer then 3-point play cut the Celtics lead to 93-88 with 6:20 left, never letting their opponents get too comfortable with their lead. Bobby Portis got some surprise minutes in place of the struggling Taj Gibson, and his aggressiveness helped the Bulls stay in it.
Mirotic hovered around the 3-point line all night, hitting three of them to score 17.
“I was sitting back waiting on having my number called,” said Gibson, who played 25 minutes. “I felt Bobby and Niko did a great job. We had a chance to win the game.”
Denzel Valentine got some early playing time and Jerian Grant played big minutes, performing with energy and savvy, with a plus-10 in 13 minutes, hitting all three of his field goals.
Dwyane Wade scored 15 and Rondo 12, but the Bulls shot just 43 percent from the field and missed the shooting of Doug McDermott, who was out with a concussion. The Bulls made just seven of their 20 3-point attempts.
“Just keep fighting, keep plugging away,” Wade said. “Jerian came in and did a great job during the second quarter. Our bench was for us today just giving us an opportunity to come back.”
The Bulls tied the game at 100 with a little under two minutes left and had a chance to take the lead before Mirotic’s free throws rimmed out. Then Thomas hit a twisting layup and the Bulls failed to execute for the rest of the night, leading to their first loss.