CHICAGO - The question for Doc Rivers is whether his team is capable of sustained efforts or whether this is the way the Big Three will end their Boston tenure - with flashes of dominance followed by puzzling disappearances.
The Celtics spent last night at United Center maddening Rivers with a series of spurts followed by stretches of ineptitude. This has become more of a characteristic than an aberration. After tying the game with 8:29 left, the Celtics allowed the Bulls to run off 12 consecutive points and couldn’t respond as they lost, 89-80.
Without Derrick Rose (back), the Bulls relied on depth, getting a combined 46 points from Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer and a total of 31 rebounds between Boozer and Joakim Noah.
Deng canned six 3-pointers, all of them daggers for the Celtics. His final one, with 47 seconds left, gave Chicago a 9-point lead.
The Celtics were uneven offensively, as Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo, and Ray Allen were a combined 17 for 46 (40 percent).
They played adequate defense, but when they needed to match the Bulls basket for basket, they couldn’t.
“It was a strange game because we got a lot of great shots, and we couldn’t make any of them’’ said Rivers. “We got Ray wide-open shots. Paul had wide-open spots. Maybe it was a benefactor of playing last night, but like I told them at halftime, I wasn’t upset about the shots but I wish some of them would go in.’’
Kevin Garnett returned to the lineup after a one-game absence (hip pointer) to record his eighth double-double (18 points, 10 rebounds), but he was the lone post threat.
The Bulls were coasting after a Noah jumper gave them a 53-37 lead with 9:14 left in the third. The Celtics appeared helpless, and had scored 2 points in a span of 7:14.
But they began chipping away by pounding the ball inside, and a modest 9-1 run turned into a serious 22-7 surge as Allen drained three 3-pointers. The Celtics even had a chance to take the lead before the end of the quarter but Garnett missed a streaking dunk while being defended by Noah.
A leaner by Allen tied the game at 69 with 8:29 left, but the Celtics proceeded to miss their next six shots. On the Bulls’ two possessions after the tie, Taj Gibson grabbed a fumbled ball with the shot clock at two seconds and scored a layup, and Deng buried a desperation 3-pointer to beat the shot clock.
Chris Wilcox was hit with a technical foul following a non-call on his layup attempt, and Deng followed with another layup. In the end, the Bulls shot just 39.5 percent, but collected 16 offensive rebounds for 12 second-chance points.
Chicago outrebounded Boston, 52-37, including a stunning 19-3 in the second quarter.
“It’s definitely demoralizing, you work so hard on defense, a guy misses a shot, and then you give them another opportunity,’’ Pierce said. “You know that about Chicago, you know about Joakim and the energy he likes to bring, you know about Carlos Boozer. As guards and forwards, we have to do a good job of helping [the big men] out also.’’
The Celtics were responding well after Wednesday’s loss to the Pistons until midway through the second quarter, after Rondo converted a bank shot for a 33-29 lead. Boston missed its next seven shots as Chicago applied stifling defense near the 3-point line. The Bulls forced Rondo to over-dribble, and Pierce couldn’t get an inch of space from Deng.
The result was one field goal in the final 4:44 of the quarter, a contested Pierce jumper, as the Bulls ran off 13 straight points, 6 by Noah. And once again, the Celtics couldn’t check Deng, who drained three 3-pointers in the first 24 minutes.
For the second consecutive night, the Celtics had ample opportunity to jump on an opponent in the first half. And yet they were unable to put any real distance between themselves and the Bulls, and it cost them.
Rondo continued to dominate the ball in the first quarter with eight of the Celtics’ 25 field goal attempts. He scored 8 points, while Pierce was more aggressive than Wednesday and added 6 as the Celtics raced to a 24-18 lead.
The Bulls converted just 6 of 19 field goals in the first quarter. The Celtics stunned their opponents by hitting the boards early. They went on an 8-0 run after the Bulls took a 16-14 lead, Rondo scoring 6 consecutive points.
As usual, however, the Celtics were chased down from behind, unable to sustain offensive momentum while the Bulls bullied them for the final three quarters.
“We had opportunities to push the lead and for some reason just couldn’t,’’ Garnett said. “The ball bounces like that sometimes. It was a tough game.’’Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com.