CHICAGO — A team that showed so much promise as it flirted with .500 in mid-December is beginning to lose steam and reveal its warts.
The Celtics had every opportunity Thursday night at United Center to begin an arduous January schedule in a positive fashion. Instead, they were overwhelmed by the Bulls’ hustle and looked inept on offense for stretches, missing countless layups and committing silly turnovers.
With a plethora of chances to keep the game competitive, the Celtics simply fell apart in the fourth quarter, allowing a 19-6 Chicago run and finally fading away in a 94-82 loss.
Boston lost for the fifth time in six games and will play Friday’s home game against the New Orleans Pelicans with little rest as inclement weather kept the team in Chicago Thursday night. They Celtics were scheduled to fly back to Boston at 10 a.m. Friday.
The Celtics stayed close throughout the first three quarters but then collapsed at the end of the third frame and continued to melt down in the fourth. The Celtics scored just 23 points in the first 20 minutes of the second half, with plenty of blown layups, forced jumpers, and careless turnovers.
The fact his team played hard was a source of encouragement for coach Brad Stevens.
“I actually leave very encouraged and the reason why is I thought we played very physical,” Stevens said. “I think they’re very physical and really aggressive. We didn’t make some chippies there at the rim but those things don’t really weigh on me all that much. I think this is the best we’ve played in a lot of ways in the last seven games.”
Jordan Crawford led the Celtics with 22 points and Jared Sullinger, his badly bruised left hand bandaged, added 11 points and 11 rebounds. They didn’t get much help. Jeff Green (11 points) got into foul trouble while Brandon Bass (6 points, 3 rebounds in 22 minutes) was passive on offense.
Meanwhile, the Bulls entertained a crowd that weathered a snowstorm and freezing temperatures with their hustle and relentless attacks on the basket. Six Bulls scored in double figures and Celtics nemesis Joakim Noah tallied 17 points, 11 rebounds, and 9 assists. Carlos Boozer added 16 points.
Chicago scored more than half of its points (48) in the paint and attempted 28 free throws. The Celtics simply couldn’t match Chicago’s intensity and Crawford was the lone offensive threat in certain stretches. Boston shot 16 of 43 from the field (37.2 percent) in the second half, scoring 12 of its 37 points after the break in the final four minutes.
“We played hard, we just couldn’t make shots or free throws,” Avery Bradley said. “Toward the end of the game, I wish we could play defense like that the whole time because we would be a hard team to play against but we’re building every single game.
“You’re supposed to be positive. You’re supposed to stick together and continue to have a positive mind-set because we know we’re a good team.”
The critical juncture occurred late in the third period when the Celtics blew numerous chances to slice the deficit to 2. After Gerald Wallace had the ball stripped by Mike Dunleavy, Jimmy Butler made a streaking layup for a 68-62 Bulls lead.
After Kris Humphries blew a 4-footer on the other end, the Bulls ended the quarter with a Dunleavy putback with 0.3 seconds left for an 8-point lead. And with the way the Celtics were missing chip shots, they would be hard-pressed to rally.
The Celtics began the second period on an 11-2 run — kicked off by two straight layups from Sullinger — and took their biggest lead of the half at 32-26. Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau picked up a technical foul and that appeared to spark the Bulls defense.
The Celtics had a difficult time scoring around the basket, with Chicago’s array of big defenders challenging every shot. The Bulls went on a 20-9 run behind the inspired play of Toronto castoff D.J. Augustin, who scored 4 consecutive points, and Boozer, who hit one of his rain-drawing jumpers for a 44-38 lead.
The Celtics scored just 11 points in the final seven minutes of the half. One of those hoops was a steal and breakaway dunk by Vitor Faverani, his only field goal of the night.
Meanwhile, Green took himself out of the game with three silly first-half fouls. The first two were for overaggressive contact while defending the dribble, and the third was for hacking Butler on a wild jump shot. He missed six of eight shots in the first 24 minutes.
Crawford managed a scoring flurry to end the half and his two free throws cut Chicago’s lead to 48-45 at the break. The Celtics committed nine turnovers and 11 personal fouls and missed all five 3-point attempts in the half but remained within striking distance.
Sullinger has been nursing a badly bruised left hand and it affected him as the game wore on.
He finished with just 4 points in the second half and none in the fourth quarter when the Celtics allowed the Bulls to pull away.Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.