Any game pitting teams coached by close friends Tom Thibodeau and Doc Rivers should be expected to be a barnburner and Monday nights showdown between the Bulls (4-3) vs. Celtics (4-3) was no exception.
After a disappointing initial three quarters, particularly on the defensive end, the Bulls stormed back in the final frame behind the inspired play of Luol Deng and Joakim Noah, as well as the first primetime moment for rookie Marquis Teague, but ultimately fell short in a 101-95 defeat.
After recording his first game since 2003 without a field goal, Carlos Boozer (15 points) was aggressive from the outset, both in the post and shooting his mid-range jumper, helping the Bulls take a slight edge in the early going. On the other end, however, future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett (15 points) was just as assertive, and with All-Star floor general Rajon Rondo (20 points, 10 assists, nine rebounds) running the show, the Celtics quickly overtook their hosts.
While the Bulls also got contributions from the likes of Deng (26 points, 11 rebounds), a strong quarter from Paul Pierce (10 points) and a surprising lack of defensive resistance from the home team allowed the visitors to shoot a gaudy 63.6 percent from the field in the period. At the conclusion of the first quarter, the Bulls trailed, 33-27.
Deng and the Bulls second unit opened the second period, but couldnt chip away at Bostons lead, despite reserve shooting guard Marco Belinelli matching the instant offense of Celtics counterpart Leandro Barbosa. The hosts combined one of their periodic offensive droughts, less-than-stellar defense and sporadic ball-security issues in a recipe that resulted in a double-digit deficit.
Two uncharacteristically loose periods defensively, compounded by the Celtics capitalizing on almost every lapse possible put the Bulls in a hole as halftime approached. At the intermission, the Bulls trailed, 58-46.
After the break, the Bulls inability to deal with Rondos all-around game, ability to penetrate and finish, orchestration of the Celtics offense, and improved outside jumper permitted the visitors to maintain complete control of the game. While Deng and Boozer were still effective, the latters counterpart for Boston, Brandon Bass (16 points), also got his game going, giving the Bulls another headache to deal with.
Boston continued to get quality shot attempts and knock them down, hold a slight edge on the glass and on the other end of the floor, make the Bulls work extremely hard for every bucket they got. Following an improbable three-pointer by rookie power forward Jared Sullinger with 0.7 seconds left in the period, the Bulls trailed, 82-70, after three quarters of play.
At the outset of the final stanza, it appeared that the Bulls would continue their one step forward, two steps back strategy that put them in such a tenuous position to begin with. But a lineup featuring Teague, led by the play of Deng and Noah (17 points, 11 rebounds), quickly brought them back within striking distance, raising the spirits of a previously listless United Center crowd.
Down the stretch, Thibodeau surprisingly stuck with Teague who was as fearless as a 19-year-old facing an All-Star could be and as Deng and Noah took over, making plays on both ends of the floor, but especially carrying the offensive load, the Bulls further narrowed the gap. Deng was fouled with 54 seconds on the clock and shockingly missed both free throws, but after Taj Gibson secured the offensive rebound of his second miss, Deng made a tough layup to bring the score to 95-93, in favor of Boston, with 49.5 seconds remaining.
Out of a timeout, Rivers drew up a brilliant inbounds, resulting in an alley-oop from Rondo to Garnett, again making it a two-possession game with 41.9 seconds to go. Gibson stepped to the line with 40.2 seconds left and missed a pair of attempts at the charity stripe and on the other end, Bass slammed home a dunk to put the game out of reach, though the Bulls valiantly fought until the final buzzer sounded.