Bulls struggle in loss to Celtics with postseason around the corner

Well, maybe the Boston Celtics aren't the best playoff matchup for the Bulls.

Having seen the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks and 2020 Miami Heat finalists lately, and Joel Embiid looking like this season's league MVP, and the Bulls before Wednesday having split the season series with the Celtics, and the Celtics not so tall and with no true MVP candidate, well, that seemed like a reasonable possibility. Until maybe 10 minutes into the game when the Bulls trailed by 17 points on the way to a never much competitive 117-94 loss.

The Bulls' fourteenth defeat in 21 games since the All-Star break came on the day the team announced Lonzo Ball would be out for the rest of the season and postseason with knee issues after surgery. Alex Caruso with back problems sat out the game, though Zach LaVine returned after missing Monday's loss to the Bucks. But LaVine had just seven points and sat out the last 14 minutes as Bulls coach Billy Donovan pulled the plug with about nine minutes remaining trailing by 23.

Going down the drain?

"Tried to get it going early; didn't happen," agreed LaVine. "It's hard to play when we're disconnected like this and the result shows. Offensively and defensively, we're disconnected right now; we have to find our rhythm these next two games (Friday home against Charlotte and in Minnesota Sunday for the regular season finale).

"It's obviously not fun," said LaVine. "We have to find some fight these next couple of games before it's real time; it's definitely going to come to light if we don't. There's a lot of things we could have been doing better. They got a lot of easy looks and they made us take a lot of tough shots. We tried to switch up schemes. We did a good job prepping for it. Obviously, our intensity and the way we came out wasn't the right way and it just snowballed.

"We're trying to figure out how to get back in rhythm because we're not looking like the same team we were earlier," LaVine noticed. "That's upsetting. We obviously have shown it, that fight, that hunger. But we look like a totally different team right now, so we've got to hurry up and get back to what we were doing and not hope and wish. I'm optimistic we can because if I'm not what are we doing this for?"

Repeat, everyone will be 0-0 when the playoffs begin, everyone will be...

DeMar DeRozan led the Bulls in scoring with just 16 points in the loss to Boston on Wednesday night.

DeMar DeRozan led the Bulls with 16 points, but shot just six for 16 against Boston's top ranked defense. Nikola Vucevic had 13 points and seven rebounds and Coby White and Tristan Thompson each had 10 points. Donovan changed things up a bit early in the third quarter in an attempt to counter the Celtics' size on the wings, playing Thompson with Vucevic and more of Derrick Jones. But that further depleted the offense and the Bulls' 16 third quarter points left them trailing 91-67 after three.

"A lot of times it wasn't even in pick and roll," said Donovan identifying some of the defensive issues. "We had a hard time one-on-one containing them off the dribble. We needed to bring Tristan in there for some physicality and length and size to see what Tristan was like out there. We needed more size on the perimeter. At times it was OK, at times it wasn't great."

That Celtics defense we'd been hearing so much about in their midseason run seems for real even without recently injured Robert Williams. Which is a long way from the near team implosion the Bulls visited on them earlier in the season after turning a 14-point fourth quarter deficit into a 14-point Bulls win. Marcus Smart afterward labeled stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown selfish and self centered, and the speculative media stories for the next month were Ben Simmons trade rumors and breaking up the team.

And then they became the hottest team in Eastern Conference and now at 50-30 are second to Miami.

Which still could change with Milwaukee and Philadelphia a half game back and the Bulls in sixth at 45-35 far from knowing their first round playoff opponent.

But they will have one, which the Bulls were assured with Cleveland's loss Tuesday. So the game didn't matter much with Toronto now fifth.

Though no one likes to lose like the Bulls have been lately, by more than 20 twice to the Bucks, 17 to the Pelicans, 18 to the Heat and then 21 to the Celtics.

Except perhaps Donovan?

Tap to listen to postgame reaction to Billy Donovan following the loss against Boston.

"I've said this before, but to me as crazy as this sounds, you have to go through significant adversity, changes, difficulties, whatever you want to call it, because you have to be able to dig down deeper inside," Donovan counseled. "The road this time of year for any team is never easy. You have to be battle tested and you have to be a little bit hardened and you've got to be scarred, and that's why I said coming out of the All-Star break I was happy our schedule was as difficult as it was. Because if we were fortunate enough as we are today to be in the playoffs, it's only getting harder. The worst thing for our team would have been to have the easiest schedule and be on a big time run. We're finding out playing against Miami, the No. 1 seed in the East, Boston and Milwaukee fighting for seeding between second, third and fourth. These are teams you can potentially face and we need to understand exactly what we could be potentially walking into and you're going to have to fight because certainly for us at times, offensively, it has been a struggle for us. We've got to find different ways to score, but it's the other things, the precision on offense, the precision on defense, the competing and battling and fighting on offense rebounds, on transition. These guys have worked really hard to get to this point and give themselves an opportunity after the regular season is over."

But, Billy, would just one Oklahoma City or Portland or Houston where they're basically playing G-league guys been too much to ask?

The Bulls, who had been one of the best shooting teams all season, shot poorly again, 30 percent from three and 44 percent overall. Though as Donovan has sensibly noted these are better defensive teams.

It's not like Donovan is enjoying this. But I've rarely been around a coach like him. A little bit of Pat Riley, at times, but perhaps more of John Calipari. Media members like to joke sometimes about the duration and detail of Donovan's answers, some longer than Tom Thibodeau spoke for a month.

But it's also rare to hear a coach so honestly extrapolate in such a granular way; not necessarily in strategic aspects since Donovan is typically and appropriately circumspect about his lineups and strategies. It's just unusual among NBA coaches to drill down about the core strengths and ambitions required of a player.

These sound almost like Shakespearean soliloquies when the principal turns to the audience and reveals his inner most thoughts and desires. Unfortunately, most of those soliloquies don't usually end well or augur good times as MacBeth and Hamlet might attest

But Donovan has hardly lost hope with this Bulls group. It's just that he's been there, and mostly they haven't.

DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic.

"What happens is when you are winning you have a false sense and a false reality of who you are," Donovan reminded those who preferred that nine-game winning streak back in the winter and DeRozan's winners. "And when you're losing you have a false sense of reality of who you are. You have to fall back to some common beliefs in knowing exactly what you have to do; it's easy to compete when everything is going good.

"What happens sometimes is the schedule falls crazy," Donovan pointed out with an eye toward this past month. "What I mean by that is you get three really good teams in a row and you drop all three. Then the schedule kind of falls and you win eight in a row. But what I was excited about coming out of the All-Star break is we had the toughest schedule of any team in the league. I think that was great for this group. I saw all this coming. I'm not surprised one bit. We're not as bad as we've played, but we probably weren't as good as when we went on an eight or nine-game winning streak; probably the truth is somewhere in the middle."

Now you tell us.

Actually, Donovan has been sending up warning flares on occasion, like around the All-Star break when the Bulls stormed in with five straight wins, two All-Stars and Donovan and his coaching staff one win out of being there. Donovan came back from Florida saying not to get too cocky, and we just thought he was out in the sun too much. Or had actually seen it.

I can't quite believe he saw this because it does seem to be some fatigue beyond the excellence of the opponents. Which perhaps is to be expected since the Bulls more than most teams needed a fast start to regain the credibility that had been missing most of the last five years. Donovan remains relentless about lessons and learning, if not supporting so much losing.

"There's a fight that you have to have this time of year," he continued. "Because you're fighting for margins. When we have these huge losses, you know why we have these huge losses? Because Milwaukee and Boston understand the margins. They're fighting like crazy for them. We've gotten dominated on the margins. That's why we've lost by 20. There's this elite, laser focus of moment by moment, playing what is going on now. For some of our guys, this is kind of like, ‘Wow. we've got to get better at it. We've got to put more into it.'"

Riley probably was the monarch of motivation. He frequently sought out war imagery and famous battles, though my favorite was when he stuck his head in a barrel of ice water and left it there for so long some of his players thought he'd drowned. You win, he then explained, when you believe winning is important as your next breath.

I haven't seen any water dripping from Donovan's warmups yet.

Of course, maybe Donovan just was inspired by the presence at the game of a pair of famous orators, former President Barack Obama and TV Blue Bloods actor Donnie Wahlberg. Because all the world can be a stage.

"I don't want to say it's eye opening," Donovan said about what many of these Bulls players are experiencing for the first time. "But it's a little bit like, ‘Wow, I think I'm playing hard.' But it's not good enough. These moments where you're playing against really good quality teams you just get to a point where it's like, ‘Enough.' You're competing for everything on every single possession. You're competing on the screen. You're competing to get out there and contest. You're competing on the glass. It can't be, ‘Ah, I forget to get back in transition. I lost sight of my man. I forgot to block out. Oh, that was a silly foul. I left my feet.' Those things inevitably add up over a period of time. You can't get by on that. There's got to be precision and concentration and this intense focus. We've got to get that. I don't feel like we have that.

"When you are going through these things with some of these guys it's new," Donovan admitted. "Our starting point guard has never played an NBA season before. And he's done a lot of great things for us. But this is all new for him. Patrick Williams has been out for five months. What I am saying is there is a growth period that you have to become tougher, nastier. You just become hardened, understand what it's all about. I've loved these guys. They've been great. And what they're going through is going to be really, really valuable in terms of helping them grow. But there's a lot that goes into this. It can't be, ‘I'm sorry, my fault.'"

OK, got that!