CHICAGO — What might be most inexcusable about Tuesday night’s disheartening loss to the Bulls was the Celtics had been in Chicago more than 48 hours before tipoff, well-rested and allegedly refocused on improving defensively.
The Bulls, meanwhile, arrived back in town early Tuesday morning after a rugged game against the Memphis Grizzlies, with every excuse to succumb to a fresher opponent. But it was the opposite at United Center. The Celtics never figured out how to play defense for longer than 10 seconds, allowing the slower-tempo Bulls to feast on their slippage.
The Celtics became frustrated and began free-lancing offensively, making for a rather easy opponent for the Bulls, who led by as many as 21 points in a 100-89 victory.
The Celtics lost all three games on a road trip they tabbed important, all by double figures. Chicago showed no signed of exhaustion as coach Tom Thibodeau used his bench extensively to help the Bulls pull away.
Former Celtic Nate Robinson scored 12 of his 18 points in the fourth quarter and each time he made a big basket, the showman whipped up the sellout crowd with a gesture. On the other side, Rajon Rondo seemed the lone Celtic interested in victory. He scored a season-high 26 points while his teammates looked lethargic, which has been a pattern of late.
During the final six minutes, Rivers sat on the bench and didn’t say a word, watching Robinson as he flexed for the crowd after rebounding his own free throw miss and scoring a layup for a 98-79 lead. The Bulls were showboating and the Celtics had no response. For the third consecutive game, the final minutes were garbage time, and the Celtics headed home more frazzled and unstable than when they left.
“I feel you can just [repeat] whatever I said the last two games pretty much,” said Paul Pierce, who scored 16 points on 6-of-10 shooting. “We didn’t sustain a defensive effort for four quarters, getting outworked. It’s pretty much every day. That’s one thing I think we control on a night-in, night-out basis. We may not shoot the ball. We may not execute the offense, but to say we got outworked, I’m embarrassed to even say it truthfully. But that’s just the facts.”
Rivers is dumbfounded. The Celtics arrived in Chicago Sunday afternoon and took the day off after back-to-back losses to Houston and San Antonio. They had a spirited practice Monday, apparently rejuvenated and refocused on fundamentals.
That resulted in one half of a good quarter, then the Celtics were two steps behind the rest of the night. Rivers is out of solutions.
“We’re going to keep searching, this team is not a good team right now,” he said. “It’s who we are right now. I’ve been saying that. This is who we are. We’re a .500 team and we play like that. We’ve won two games in a row [once this] season. Right now we’re not a good team. We’re going to find it, but we’re not right now.”
The Celtics’ final lead was 15-14 with less than four minutes left in the first quarter and they spent the final three periods chasing the Bulls in vain. The final run occurred when they sliced an 8-point deficit to 70-67 with 3:40 left in the third following a Rondo layup.
The Bulls powered back with a methodical 9-0 run, using extra passes for layups as the Celtics’ impatient defense wilted. Chicago scored 48 points in the paint and 21 on free throws, making jump shots rather unnecessary.
Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer each scored 21 points and Joakim Noah collected a triple-double (11 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists).
A team that has prided itself on defense the past six years has allowed 100 or more points in the past four games.
“Right now we have no identity, that’s simple and plain,” Pierce said. “We’re supposed to be a defensive team, give up 100 points every night, inconsistent on both ends of the court.
“We’re searching, trying to find out who we want to be for this season.”
Jeff Green canned a 3-pointer to slice the deficit to 81-73 at the 10:49 mark of the fourth.
Robinson countered with consecutive 3-pointers, making his message clear to the Celtics, who traded him two years ago.
Taj Gibson then followed with an open jumper and conventional 3-point play for a 92-75 lead and the Celtics were done, showing little fight until Rivers inserted the reserves.
The Chicago crowd began jeering the Celtics, realizing this is a shell of the teams they have seen in previous years.
“That’s all it’s coming down to for us is extra effort,” Pierce said. “You’re watching just like I’m out there watching it. It’s got to come from all of us. Simple and plain.
“You can draw up the X’s and O’s, you can have a game plan, but if you don’t come out there and sustain play with a great effort then you’re going to get run out the gym like we did tonight.”Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe