Shorthanded Bulls narrowly fall to Celtics

Chicago had final shot opportunities from both Nikola Vucevic and DeMar DeRozan as Boston escaped with the 114-112 victory.
by Sam Smith
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So now we know the Celtics at least have the NBA League Pass game package. They weren't going to let DeMar DeRozan Saturday shoot a three pointer at the buzzer to beat them, too.

So Nikola Vucevic did, instead, and it came up just a bit short—though DeRozan did remarkably get a chance for a tie on the long rebound and also came up just a bit short—and the Bulls lost their third consecutive game and fourth in five, 114-112 to the Boston Celtics.

But feeling a lot better about it as losses go the way the previous two went.

"It's one of those things where the basketball god spreads his wealth," rookie Ayo Dosunmu said with the hint of a knowing laugh. "We got blessed back to back; you can't hit ‘em all. When I looked at it, it looked like it was going in. Great shot; he missed. We'll take that shot all the time. The reality is you can't expect to get it every time; they've got to spread the wealth out."

DeMar DeRozan shoots a fallaway jumper in the final seconds that would've tied the game against the Celtics.

DeMar DeRozan had an opportunity to tie the game after getting an offensive rebound in the final moments but his shot fell short.

Dosunmu is a believer in the fates, and so the basketball gods being egalitarian, at least to Dosunmu, weren't smiling so much on the Bulls this time as their record fell to 27-14 at the exact halfway point of the season.

Still on the way to 54 wins?

That's a reason to smile, and Dosunmu had reason to even in defeat with the game of his young career, 21 points, 10 assists and 90 percent shooting on nine of 10 field goals, another statistical rarity with the aggregates a first for an NBA rookie. Even more impressive and a further indication of how quickly Dosunmu responds and learns, it came the night after his poorest game as a pro, scoreless without an assist in 32 minutes in the 42-point loss to the Golden State Warriors.

Which was't even the worst news that night with Zach LaVine leaving the game with a knee injury.

Then came the first good news in 24 hours when Bulls coach Billy Donovan said before Saturday's game the MRI for LaVine showed no significant injury.

"Very optimistic and very grateful it wasn't something more," Donovan said. "He'll continue to get therapy and we'll reevaluate him. I don't think it's something that's long term, weeks on end or something like that, which is a good thing. I think everyone was happy it wasn't anything more than that."

Though Donovan did add that Lonzo Ball would be out and probably in Memphis Monday, also, with ongoing knee soreness which apparently worsened. So the Bulls coming off their worst losses of the season traveled into Boston for the second of the back to back set without seven players, also including regular rotation players Alex Caruso, Javonte Green and Derrick Jones. And then played a game that made Donovan smile, and really even until the end when the Bulls threw off an early 12-point deficit and then led by six points with under two minutes left.

But did it have to even out now?

"Listen," explained a philosophical Donovan, "the result is not what we wanted. We played well enough to win the game. But I'd say on the flip side of that, there were a lot of games we won we didn't play like we did here tonight and managed to win. It happens sometimes in this league where sometimes you don't necessarily play great or get fortunate and things go your way and you win, and there's nights when you really, really give yourself a chance by doing all the things you should be doing and you fall on the short end. I thought we gave a great, spirited effort. When we got down we fought our way back. We didn't get the result we wanted, but I liked the way we played better than some games we won, to be honest."

Which also defines the difference between a fan and a basketball coach.

Fans play a zero sum game. It's all about the win, and let the other guy enjoy the loss. Coaches tend to prefer the longer game.

Tap to watch full game highlights as the shorthanded Bulls came within one shot in the final moments of beating the Celtics.

Donovan actually offered a remarkable soliloquy before the game, to his point, that he actually was pleased about the Covid absences and injuries.

Wait, we're not saying this right. What he meant was, well, I'll let him explain:

"I don't like to see any of these guys having to sit out or I don't like anybody having to deal with Covid, so when I say this I say it from a competitive standpoint: I like when stuff like this happens. Because to me you find out what you are all about and what your mettle is. We may not have enough tonight, but you want to walk off that court and know you competed at a level and controlled the things you can control. I'm hopeful this will make us better, it will harden us, it will make us physically tougher, and I think for any team that really, really wants to win you have to deal with suffering. I think how you deal with the suffering is really, really critical. Do you feel sorry for yourself? Do you not get up off the mat? Do you not fight? All those things, to me, are really, really indicative of teams. It's really hard to be successful. No question we are a better team with Lonzo and Zach and Alex and Javonte, absolutely. But this confrontation is good, how we respond. We're going to have to be able to fight as hard as we can. That was the thing that was disappointing to me. When things against Brooklyn and Golden State got a little bit sideways our response wasn't a competitive response we need to have. And if we can learn from this and learn to become tougher mentally and physically and grow from this, I think it would be a positive. I do think when it comes to trying to win and trying to win at a high level you have to deal with the suffering, and how you handle the suffering is really important.

"There's pain in all this, but this is what you do when you go through a season," Donovan added after the game. "You have to come together and fight and scrape and claw, and there are going to be setbacks. And to me it's about how you respond."

The Bulls response without basically three starters was impressive. Which explained Donovan's post game ambivalence. It's about winning the game, but perhaps this game will ease the path to games more vital to win four or five months from now.

The Bulls did get beat up on the backboards, 50-32 and 17-7 on second chance points with DeRozan the leading Bulls rebounder with eight. But the Bulls got 31 assists led by Dosunmu starting at a point guard, and shot 51 percent overall with Dosunmu's uncanny nine of 10 and leading scorer Vucevic 12 of 20 for his 27 points. Dosunmu's makeshift backcourt made Coby White made five of 10 threes for his 19 points.

Tap to listen to postgame comments and reactions from Billy Donovan after Chicago's narrow loss to Boston on Saturday night.

"(Friday) night I had a tough night, didn't play to my standards," Dosunmu acknowledged. "But I knew we had another chance today to get better. So I wanted to come out there and establish that mentality. Coach Donovan said we weren't playing hard enough. So I wanted to go out here and play as hard as I can. That's the type of player I am. Whenever my coach asks for something, I know that he means it genuinely. I try to do whatever I can to follow through on his request."

The Bulls defense also was a bit better even as the Celtics shot 49 percent. Lead scorer Jayson Tatum had to work for his 23 points with eight of 24 shooting, 13 of his points on six of nine coming in the first quarter.

Which was showing the signs of another blowout loss when the Celtics hit the Bulls with a late 14-3 run to lead 30-18 and by 10 after the first quarter.

"When you win nine in a row it's human nature to relax a little bit when things are going well," said Vucevic. "And then you get hit, it's hard to respond and maybe it's a good time for that to happen. Now we know we still have a lot of work to do to get to be where we want to be as one of the best teams in this league."

The Bulls do remain first in the Eastern Conference, though it seemed to be slipping away. Until the Bulls began competing again, getting within a point midway through the second quarter on the shooting of DeRozan and White and trailing 54-49 at halftime. Donovan also started recent addition Alfonzo McKinnie and was giving prime playing time to the most recent addition, Illinois' Malcolm Hill who distinguished himself drawing a pair of charges.

The Bulls tied the game at 75 in the third, and from there it became a spectacle for trading shots. Vucevic cleared space for a pair of late scores inside to keep the Bulls within 84-83 after three quarters, and then it was an old fashioned New England town meeting debate with each side making its points.

It looked like DeRozan again would be too much, and he finished with 14 fourth quarter points in matching Celtics baskets early. And then when Vucevic made two straight and scored in the lane for a 108-101 Bulls lead with 4:07 left, it seemed like the Bulls were about to carry out the unlikely.

"Our effort level was much better," said Vucevic. "Even when things didn't go our way we kept fighting. There were times in the game things didn't go our way and they were able to make a run to get up eight or nine, but we'd crawl back. We played hard and we played together, had over 30 assets, so we shared the ball; defensively we competed as well. It was a good response. Just sucks we came up short."

Oh yeah, that.

Nikola Vucevic finished with 27 points, six rebounds, and six assists, in the loss to Boston on Saturday.

Nikola Vucevic finished with 27 points, six rebounds, and six assists, in the loss to Boston on Saturday.

The Celtics got the breaks this time perhaps as the Bulls did before DeRozan's winner in Indiana. The league's last two minute report for that game provided at least three missed calls that should have gone against the Bulls and ended the game. This time Jaylen Brown got credit for a three pointer that seemed clearly a two, that to bring the Celtics within 112-110 with 1:06 left. And the Bulls never scored again after DeRozan's 19 footer with 1:57 left for a 112-106 Bulls lead.

After that White missed a three, Dosunmu and Vucevic botched a handoff for a turnover, DeRozan held onto a dribble too long and Hill had to rush and missed a short shot, DeRozan missed a 20 footer, and the Celtics poorest free throw shooter, Robert Williams, who had 14 points and 13 rebounds with his 66 percent free throw shooting, made four straight free throws and the ultimate winner in the last 31 seconds.

And still setting up yet another DeRozan demigod moment?

With the Celtics' eight straight points and 114-112 lead with 9.7 seconds left. Dosunmu in front of the Bulls bench inbounded to Vucevic with DeRozan deep in the backcourt. DeRozan then sprinted up to take a handoff from Vucevic at that left sideline. Tatum stayed with DeRozan and Josh Richardson dropped off Vucevic to double team DeRozan. With six seconds left, DeRozan passed to the top of the three-point circle to an open Vucevic.

"We tried to get Vooch the ball in the middle and let DeMar be a cutter and I thought DeMar made a great read and threw it back to Vooch," detailed Donovan. "I thought Vooch had a great game and got a good look to go ahead. It (the play) wasn't necessarily to win the game. That was an option for Vooch to pop or DeMar to get downhill and they sent two guys to DeMar and he threw it back. It was a good look you've got to live with at the end of the game; we got the offensive rebound and a chance to at least tie it."

Which rushed with just over a second left by DeRozan came up short. Classy guy that DeRozan is he immediately went to Vucevic, saying, "Good shot."

"We were able to get a really good look," Vucevic agreed. "They both went with DeMar and I was able to pop to the three and he made the right play. Just missed the shot. Really good look. It's a shot I feel confident taking. Just came up short. Some nights we are able to get those shots at the end; tonight it didn't fall for us. Hurts a little bit, but it is what it is. Early on people were doubting us, are we going to be good this and that. Then we showed we are good, so teams are coining at us. It's on us to make sure we respond."

And everything but the W this time. Part II of the 2021-22 season begins Monday.

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The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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