The Bulls could not overcome an 18-point halftime deficit in Boston, losing 113-101.
Perhaps Monday's 113-101 loss to the Boston Celtics was merely a thoughtful gesture to sports fans. Because by falling behind by 16 points in the first quarter, scoring a season-low 14 points in that frame and giving up a dozen dunks or layups in the first half, the Bulls made it easy to turn to the CFP National Championship game.
"They exploited our pick and roll defense," observed Lauri Markkanen. "Our defense wasn't there the beginning of the game."
Boston is a beautiful and culturally significant city. But not so much inside the green-tinged TD Garden, where the Bulls seemed mostly green with envy—and a little sick—watching Celtics players mimic the pregame layup line much of the first half. The outcome seemed pretty much decided with a 55-37 Boston halftime lead.
But if you turned away, you missed that late wakeup call for the Bulls that involved a 13-2 run to start the third quarter, 22 of Zach LaVine's game-high 30 points in the second half and the Thaddeus Young we'd seen the last dozen or so years, zig-zagging inside and getting up shots before he was in his shooting motion. Playing out of his familiar right block comfort zone, Young had 17 points off the bench in 24 minutes.
"I thought Thad was terrific," said Bulls coach Jim Boylen. "He kept us in it and we played better basketball in the third."
The Bulls got within six points a few times in the third quarter. But it probably was more mirage than malevolent madness as the 27-11 Celtics kept the Bulls at a distance like a long armed boxer. Boston closed the third quarter on a 8-2 run and started the fourth 5-2 and it was soon time to give Cristiano Felicio his first appearance of the season.
Bulls vs. Celtics game recap
"We talk often about winning the first quarter and how important that is," said Boylen. "Lost the first quarter by 14 and that was the difference in the game. At halftime, we were disappointed in how we played. We picked it up in the second half and we came out and competed.
"We talked about winning the third quarter and talked about winning the second half; that would help us win the game," said Boylen. "We didn't win the game. But we won the third quarter and won the second half. So we'll try to build off it. You are sledding uphill the whole game; it's difficult."
Tomas Satoransky had 12 points and seven assists and Daniel Gafford, trying to shake off foul trouble all game, had 10 points and two blocks in 20 minutes. But with Young going well, Markkanen sat a long stretch in the second half and had just nine points. He attempted just three second-half shots and played 25 minutes. Boylen indicated Markkanen is still playing through a troublesome ankle sprain, so his time apparently is limited.
Markkanen said he's not on a time restriction, but working through the pain. Boylen commended Markkanen for his endurance, but the Bulls were obviously weakened with the absence of Wendell Carter Jr. With Gafford in quick foul trouble, Boylen turned to Luke Kornet.
Kornet was excellent Saturday in the win over Detroit with 15 points. But the Celtics exploited him in the Bulls defensive scheme which requires the show/trap/pressure on the pick and roll. The big man has to come up to double and get back when the opponent big man is in the play. Both Kornet and Gafford had difficulties as teams are reacting more quickly to the scheme. The Bulls have had fewer steals and forced turnovers in recent games. Seven of the 10 Boston first quarter baskets were dunks or layups. The Celtics added five more dunks and layup scores in the second quarter in what was one of the Bulls poorer defensive first half performances.
The Bulls closed the first half of the season 14-27.
Though maybe the second half of the game was a harbinger for the second half of the season, a template to get back into playoff contention.
"They had a small lineup and we happened to take advantage of it," said Young. "They were't coming with a double at first, so I thought, ‘Alright, easy layups and post ups.' When they did come, I threw it out and we got a kick around to good shots; just playing basketball. Just tried to ride the wave.
"I think it is something that can be utilized and taken advantage of," Young said about his interior play. "We want to get easy open threes, and that's one way we can. I've played with guys who prefer to be out a little more than usual, like Myles [Turner]. He wasn't a post up player; he'd rather play outside. So I played inside. Same thing with Brook Lopez. Playing with those guys helps my all around game. I let them play to their strengths and then figure it out around them."
Maybe the Bulls needed a half season to figure some things out.
Young mostly has been used as a three-point threat this season despite his strength as a post player. The Bulls have eschewed the interior style, but had several runs which baffled the Celtics in the second half. Young's quirky game doesn't check many of the boxes for modern play. But it is difficult to defend since he often seems to shoot without appearing ever to be in a shooting motion. With Carter Jr. out at least a month, it could be an offensive option.
Boylen thus far has preferred to alternate Markkanen with Young. Though Young noted, as with the Pacers, they had success with the center outside and Young inside in a model that might be effective with Markkanen. Perhaps once Markkanen's ankle heals the Bulls will employ that look more, though they have occasionally.
"It wasn't in the game plan," Young said about his post excursion. "That's up to coach to look at the film and see if he wants to do something like that. I'm always here when you need me to do whatever and I'll do to it the best of my abilities."
It sounded pretty good to LaVine.
"We attacked the mismatch," LaVine said. "We haven't done it a lot this year. He [Young] got it going and we were going to him. He's very effective there. He didn't take his time. He went in there and did his thing. That's who he is. He's hard to guard. He can shoot a face up, he can get to his left hand, pass out of the post. I like giving it to him in there."
Markkanen got that second half run started with a pair of scores, and then LaVine engaged after a first half in which he seemed more content to spread the ball around. He attempted just one three in the first half while the rest of the team was 1-of-12 on threes.
LaVine shakes Kemba Walker and splashes a three
Time to try something else.
Gafford got a couple of scores with a fast break and a put back and suddenly it was 60-54 Boston midway through the third quarter.
Some fans even looked up from their phones.
The Celtics, coached by Brad Stevens, are just so poised coming out of timeouts and answering runs. Kemba Walker, with 14 points, was mostly orchestrating as Jayson Tatum, with 21 points, and Jaylen Brown, with 19, powered inside. Marcus Smart had a dozen off the bench and was a team-high plus-25 with his defense to hold off one of those familiar LaVine surges. LaVine scored 13 in the third quarter.
"Trying to get us involved a little to start, not trying to force anything," said LaVine. "Missed a few open looks. In the third quarter, we needed a little bit of a push. Go out there and jump start it. Thad did a great job finding mismatches, and in the third quarter we came out the right way. Just too little too late."
And so ends the first half of the Bulls season. That's the score.