Bulls fall to Celtics in first game back from All-Star break

We pretty much all grew up with dreams of athletic achievement until encountering our epiphany. Mine came in college. I was a pretty good baseball pitcher, and then the next preseason in comes Bruce, 6-foot-2 and 190, fastball mid-90s, curveball to make Sandy Koufax jealous. A splitter, a cutter; stuff I hadn’t even heard of. The coach took me aside and suggested I spend more time going to class.

Classwork also continues for the Bulls, though it’s hardly an insult like the rest of the NBA to be chasing these Boston Celtics, who have the NBA’s best record and sure look like the favorites to annoyingly hang yet another banner after their 129-112 win over the Bulls Thursday.

“Their whole starting five can shoot it,” noticed Bulls center Nikola Vučević, who had a career first half with 20 points, 22 for the game with a game-high 14 rebounds. “They almost hit as many threes (23) as we shot (28), and also in the third quarter they took it to us and we didn’t respond well.”

That was the game-turner after the Bulls fell behind by 16 points in the first quarter, but then hung 39 points on a very good Celtics defensive team and actually led 62-59 at halftime. But then you got the sense the Celtics it was money time for Boston.

The Celtics scored 10 straight points to begin the third quarter, and that wonderful momentum and reverberating United Center from the Bulls scoring on 12 of their last 14 possessions of the second quarter dissipated. Boston got back ahead by 13 points after three quarters, and a few minutes into the fourth the Bulls were trailing by 20, DeMar DeRozan was raging himself into a technical foul and even Boston’s mad stork, Luke Kornet, taught me something with his “dabbing” celebration after his fifth dunk.

It seemed to me he was calling timeout multiple times, but I learned it was a hip hop thing. We all also learned Boston is pretty hip with this basketball stuff this season.

“We had been better this season (shooting threes) at times, but when they really get hot and are making shots, and in general we are not a great shooting team for threes like that,” said Vučević. “Obviously that is a big difference. They made some tough ones, for sure, but they are a great team, probably the best team in the NBA right now. They play great basketball and they showed it tonight. They have two All-Stars (Jayson Tatum with 15 of his 25 points in that decisive third quarter and Jaylen Brown with 21) and two other guys borderline All-Stars (Derrick White and Jrue Holiday, two of the best two-way players in the league, White with a game-high 28 points). And (Kristaps) Porziņģis has come on this year. 

“There are things we could have done better, especially in the second half to give us a better chance,” said Vučević. “But they played a great game in especially that third quarter and never really looked back. They really amped it up and we didn’t respond.”

And so it’s a disappointedly eye opening start to the NBA’s stretch run for the Bulls, now 26-30 and five losses behind Indiana, Orlando and Miami, which all are in position for tiebreaker wins that will make it more difficult for the Bulls to get into a playoff spot by avoiding the play-in tournament. And then you really don’t want to be eighth opening against those Celtics. Of course, Tatum could sprain an ankle again like he did last year when they had a chance for that great comeback against Miami. Though that’s not exactly a strategy. 

Boston is 44-12 with seven straight wins overall and seven consecutive on the road.

And now it’s the Bulls suffering through the injury woes with Zach LaVine out for the season, Torrey Craig with apparently another long absence coming with a sprained knee and uncertainly about a Patrick Williams return anytime soon with a lingering foot/leg issue. It’s all put undue strain on the roster even coming out of the weeklong All-Star break without any Bulls participants in Indianapolis.

The result for the Bulls without Craig and Williams was often playing three and four guards against multiple 6-foot-7 and 6-foot-8 players.

The Bulls make up as best they can with hard work rebounding as Andre Drummond added eight and Ayo Dosunmu with 14 points fought his way to seven more. Dosunmu also had a team-most eight assists. 

The Bulls had a 45-36 rebounding advantage (13-5 offensive boards) and without the three-point firepower in their arsenal, the Bulls attacked for a 50-30 inside advantage. Which is often enough to win. Except when the other guys are 23-of-47 on threes. And it’s not like they were all so wide open. The Bulls do scramble defensively, and Boston doesn’t go inside all that much since Porziņģis prefers the three, and Al Horford is kind of ossifying. But with all that shooting the Celtics just square up. They shot 54% overall.

The Celtics had 11 blocks and added 10 steals, at least the steals the category where the Bulls usually have the advantage. But with the limited roster the work is that much more difficult for the Bulls.

The more powerful Brown got in the post and backed Dosunmu into the paint and scored. Several Celtics on switches also took turns challenging White, who was 6-of-17 overall shooting, one of five in the first half. On side pick and rolls, Boston threw a big at him in a trap and forced a lot of ball movement to get shots. The Bulls did have 30 assists, but the attempts were often with a high degree of difficulty trying to shoot over Tatum, Brown or Holiday.

And those guys sure don’t worry about shooting threes as bad as that makes the game, at least to me.

Heck, you know they’re thinking four-point shot after seeing some of the All-Star weekend stuff.

The Celtics made clear from the outset just who they were, their first four field goal attempts of the game three pointers, a dozen in the first quarter and 10 more in the second quarter.

And then they got serious about shooting threes in the second half with 25 more.

If I’m the Bulls, I’m at least bringing Caitlin Clark and Sabrina Ionescu to training camp to help level the shooting field.

As Ernie Johnson might say, Charles Barkley is rolling over in his grave watching this.

“We always look (to measure) against elite teams and teams that have championship aspirations. Clearly they’re one of them,” Donovan said. “When you are playing against a team like that you have to capitalize on opportunities. We just didn’t capitalize on offense, and when you have a team where you can play really good defense and they can still make a bucket, a lot of times it becomes a little deflating. The first half I think we challenged 90% of their shots. So you’re not going to do much better.

“The intensity level was going to go up (to start the second half), and we had to get off to a good start,” lamented Donovan. “We missed some opportunities, and with how explosive they are scoring and shooting the basketball you’re going to have to match and there was a period of time we were held scoreless. They’re a team on contested shots they shoot well above the league average. They are unique because they are just rising up and shooting and we are just not that way. It’s a credit to their individual talent. We don’t have a lot of guys who are going to come down, dribble, dribble, dribble and take step back threes. That’s not who we are.”

The Bulls were who we thought they were, which was a lot better than that 27-point November defeat in Boston that was the season’s 5-14 nadir, and the team that doesn’t give in, or give up on games.

It looked to begin like they’d have to with the Celtics cruising out to a seemingly effortless 31-15 lead eight minutes into the game. Derrick White, perhaps the most underrated player in the league, had three blocks, including on Vučević in a mismatch. The 7-foot-3 Porziņģis had a pair of blocks, and it started early for DeRozan, who was fuming about some rough play. But the Bulls closed that first quarter with an 8-0 run that included a Dosunmu runout score after an Alex Caruso block, Caruso pestering Tatum with offensive fouls drawn and steals into just five first half points. Drummond rolled in on a slick pass from Caruso to close that first quarter trailing 31-23.

And then there was some sweet stuff for the Bulls in the second quarter. Vučević was too quick — yes, Vooch — for Porziņģis with a number of post drop-step moves, rookie Julian Phillips as sixth man made a three and a fancy driving score, and a hey-maybe-we-can-get-this-one close to the first half with a wiggle waggle Dosunmu drive for a score and then an uncanny Caruso play retrieving his own deflected pass and directing it to Coby White for a three to end the first half with a 62-59 Bulls lead. Just moments previous the Bulls had taken their first lead since 2-0.

And then came the Celtics. Oh right, that’s what it looks like.

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