The early-game inconsistencies that have characterized the Celtics’ season led to their downfall again last night.
The Celtics struggled to another slow start, failing to get defensive stops and misfiring in half-court sets, then rallied in the second half before falling, 88-79, to the Chicago Bulls.
In falling behind by as many as 20 points in the first half, the Celtics looked slow and out of synch. They recovered with a spirited rally, pulling within a point of the lead early in the final quarter, then were finished off by Derrick Rose in the final minutes.
Rose broke down the Celtics’ defense with a combination of drives and perimeter shooting, scoring 12 of his 25 points in the final quarter.
This marked the second three-game losing streak of the season for the Celtics (4-6), who visit Indiana tonight.
“It’s been frustrating,’’ Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “But, listen, I’d rather have it now. You’re going to go through adversity or stuff, I’d rather have it right now. Like I told our guys, ‘If you get through this, it’ll make you a [heck] of a basketball team.’
“And I always use the word ‘if,’ because you have to. You have to fight through it. And, I love what I saw in the second half. My question to them, ‘Why, why did it take so long?’ ’’
Rivers went with Brandon Bass in place of Jermaine O’Neal in the starting lineup. But the change did not seem to throw off the Bulls, who stifled Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett in the first quarter. Paul Pierce, still recovering from a heel bruise, had another difficult shooting night, going 3 for 12.
The Celtics were ineffective in half-court sets and failed to get transition opportunities in the first half, failing to produce a field goal for 8 minutes 29 seconds, a stretch that spanned the second and third quarters.
Luol Deng upped the Bulls’ lead to 61-41 with 7:20 left in the third quarter.
But the Celtics closed the quarter with an 18-6 rally, capped by O’Neal’s dunk off an Allen assist.
The Celtics scored on their first three possessions of the final quarter, with Avery Bradley’s defense on Rose, plus airballs by Carlos Boozer and Deng, putting the Celtics in a position to gain the lead.
Mickael Pietrus’s 3-pointer capped a 13-0 run that spanned the third and fourth quarters, cutting the Celtics’ deficit to 67-66 with 10:01 to play.
The Bulls failed to score out of a timeout, but Pierce missed a potential go-ahead jumper.
“That’s not something that’s going to discourage me,’’ Pierce said. “I’m still going to go out and shoot the shots I’m normally going to take. I know they’re going to fall. I think you guys are more discouraged than me.
“I’m not going to say I’m 100 percent. I didn’t come back 100 percent. I’m getting back in basketball shape, my heel isn’t all the way where I’d like it to be - nothing I’m worried about right now. I know I have to play better for us, bottom line.’’
Rose soon took over, scoring on a drive, two free throws, then a 3-pointer to counter a Garnett jumper and give Chicago a 74-68 edge with 7:31 remaining.
Garnett’s basket would be the only Celtic field goal over a 5:30 stretch, until Bass’s drive beat the shot clock to cut the deficit to 80-73 with 4:31 remaining. Ronnie Brewer’s jumper at the shot-clock buzzer, followed by a Rose drive out of a timeout, increased the advantage to 84-73 with 2:15 to go.
Allen hit two free throws, but Deng countered with a 3-pointer and Joakim Noah’s free throw made it 88-75 with 55 seconds remaining.
“The positive things - we look at the way we played the end of the third quarter, defensively and offensively,’’ Pierce said. “That’s something we can kind of build on and take to the next game. Then again, it’s up to the starters and myself to play better at the start of games.’’