Keys to the Game: Bulls at Celtics (12.23.17)

BOSTON -- Things have changed for both the Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics as they get set to meet for the second time this month Saturday night at TD Garden.

The Bulls, who opened the season 3-20, won their next seven games before a narrow defeat to LeBron James and the Cavaliers in Cleveland Thursday night. The seven straight wins, one of them a 23-point victory over the Celtics in Chicago, came after Nikola Mirotic returned from injury.

While Chicago has been on the rise, the Celtics have gone the other way.

Thursday night in New York, the Celtics lost their second straight game (within 24 hours) for the first time since dropping the first two games of the season amid the horror of losing Gordon Hayward for the season in the opener.

The Celtics (26-9) are just 4-5 in their last nine games.

The Bulls, who went through a travel ordeal to get to Cleveland (smaller plane, long wait to disembark, no actual stairs or ramp), had 34 assists and lost by three at Cleveland, the Cavs making it 19 wins in their last 21 games.

"We did some things tonight that were as good as any we've had in the last eight, to be able to make it one possession and have a chance to tie on the last possession shows the growth we've had with this team," coach Fred Hoiberg said after the game. "Last time we played Cleveland in our home building they absolutely drilled us, down 25 in that game.

"We are getting better. The biggest thing is the effort and I thought we had great effort the entire game. Lauri was phenomenal; great to see him have a breakout game like this. We battled them, stood toe to toe with them and gave us a chance to win; effort was tremendous coming on a back to back, sitting on a plane for 40 minutes when we got in with no stairs."

Lauri is Lauri Markkanen and he had 25 points in the loss.

The Celtics lost at home to a seriously depleted Miami team Wednesday night in Boston before the loss in New York. They are playing without the injured Marcus Morris (and, of course, Hayward) and Thursday night were also missing Jaylen Brown (sore Achilles) and Shane Larkin (knee, MRI Friday).

The enigmatic Michael Beasley came off the bench with 32 points and 12 rebounds for the Knicks.

"I just think he got going," Al Horford said of Beasley. "And he got into a good rhythm. And once those easy shots started to fall then he really started to make more difficult shots."

Celtics coach Brad Stevens thought his team played hard against Beasley, who has the talent to do what he did Thursday.

"It's a long year. It's a marathon," Stevens said. "We know that. I just told our guys: 'Listen, there's a lot of things we can improve on, but that was the kind of fight that we can build off of. The last couple (games), not so much. This one, we'll be OK if we play like that more often than not."

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