CHICAGO — It’s not that the Celtics lost to a Bulls team that was without their best player two weeks ago, it’s that the Celtics again descended into the team that plays with urgency in spurts, lacks effort, and makes costly mistakes on defense when shots aren’t falling.
They got whipped by the Bulls, 121-99, Friday at United Center in front of a national television audience and all their flaws were exposed. Without Robert Williams, who is injured yet again, the Celtics couldn’t adequately defend Nikola Vucevic, who delivered his fourth career triple-double.
And when they tried doubling the skilled big man in the post, he swung the ball to shooters, especially second-year guard Coby White, who wore out the Celtics with seven 3-pointers.
The Celtics didn’t make many adjustments to White, who led a Chicago 3-point barrage that was the difference. Boston worked hard defending the paint and keeping the Bulls away from the rim, but the price they paid was allowing open 3-point shooters.
It’s a disappointing loss, especially since the Celtics call themselves “determined” to avoid the play-in tournament. The Bulls entered 12 games below .500 and beatable, but the Celtics allowed them to get comfortable from beyond the arc and could never recover.
It was so bad Friday that Celtics coach Brad Stevens opted for Tacko Fall in search of answers and the 7-foot-5-inch project looked overwhelmed. Meanwhile, the big man the Celtics relied upon most the past two years was playing for the Bulls, as Daniel Theis scored 9 points with eight rebounds against his former team.
Stevens said the organization was trying to limit Williams’s minutes to prevent injury and we now know why. He missed seven games with knee soreness, played four games, and is now out indefinitely with turf toe. The Celtics traded Theis to get under the luxury tax and because they had enough confidence in Williams to take his minutes. That gamble is backfiring so far and now the Celtics get a double dose of Miami’s Bam Adebayo, who pummeled Boston’s bigs last year in the Eastern Conference finals.
The play-in tournament appears to be a serious possibility because the Celtics are so flawed. Without Robert Williams, undersized Grant Williams becomes the backup center. They only have Tristan Thompson to effectively defend opposing bigs and when they have to double, shooters get left open.
Stevens kept saying after Friday’s game that the Bulls are bad matchup because of their size and athleticism. He’s right, but the Celtics could have put up more fight. Two players — Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier — scored in double figures.
The Celtics without those two were 18-for-53 shooting and 2-for-22 from the 3-point line. Jayson Tatum was stymied by the Bulls defense. Marcus Smart launched a bunch of early errant threes and had little impact. Stevens cleared his bench for answers with Jabari Parker and Luke Kornet. Nothing worked.
“We did not have a good shooting night and we also had some turnovers that probably didn’t give us a chance to cut it back in,” Stevens said. “I thought when we were in a more traditional look [defensively], we were just late. We didn’t get there in time and then we were scrambling. I would say generally all game we were a little late, but they knocked them down.”
Friday’s game appears to be more than just tactical. It was the biggest game of the season — because Stevens said every game is until the regular season ends — and the Celtics allowed 94 points in the first three quarters to the 20th-best offense in the NBA.
They made boneheaded plays, such as the end of the third quarter, when Fournier was called for a block on Lauri Markkanen with one second left and then Walker was called for a technical for arguing. It resulted in three free throws to end the quarter and a 20-point Bulls lead.
The Celtics tried rallying to begin the fourth but missed four free throws that would have sliced the deficit to 4. And after that rally, Chicago responded with a 12-0 run to seal the game. Those missed free throws and a Walker 3-pointer that would have cut it to 5 extinguished any momentum.
“Those are hard mountains to climb back,” Stevens said. “Inevitably, it’s like we said in the San Antonio game, it’s so unique that that last run doesn’t come back at you. This was a tough night, matchup wise and they put us in a bind in a lot of ways. They gave us fits but I believe in our guys and we’re just going to have to find the right fit while Robert’s out.”
But when you lose so many winnable games in such an inconsistent seasons, games such as these, when you are overmatched in the frontcourt and an average 3-point shooter (White) gets hot, are even more costly because it happened in Game No. 67.
One thing is for sure, the Celtics have to be better and play harder than they did Friday. The Bulls aren’t 22 points better than they are when they are totally engaged, and they Celtics can’t let poor offense lead to poor defense.