When the Celtics raced to a 19-point lead late in the third quarter Monday against the Bulls, there was a sense of relief from the TD Garden crowd, the Celtics having yet to win in the building this season. Stars were dominating, confidence was flowing, and fans were shimmying.
On the bench, though, Celtics head coach Ime Udoka was uneasy. He called a timeout after Chicago whittled the deficit to 14 and told his players not to let up. He told them not to let the scoreboard impact their play.
“We weren’t playing as hard as we were [before],” Udoka said. “We started to relax. Got a little cute, careless.”
But the warning was either not heeded, or it arrived too late. The Bulls, one of the NBA’s surprising teams during the season’s opening month, sensed an opportunity. They seized a 128-114 win, having pounced with a precise, relentless, and unforgiving 43-12 run.
“We can’t let our guard down,” forward Al Horford said. “We need to continue to play. And when we put teams down, we have to keep them down. That’s kind of the thing.”
The season is just three weeks old, but the Celtics have already compiled a diverse portfolio of losses. There was the blowout home defeat against the Raptors, the double-overtime setbacks against the Knicks and Wizards, and now this colossal collapse, the most jarring and humbling of the bunch. And the calendar just turned to November.
Udoka said the Celtics lost because they did not take the game as seriously as they should have.
“I think it was a lack of killer instinct,” he said, “kind of took our foot off the gas and thought the game was over.”
The fourth-quarter statistics, in many ways, are unfathomable. The Bulls made 13 of 16 shots, 10 of 10 2-point attempts, and the Celtics did not grab a single defensive rebound. Chicago failed to score only when it turned the ball over. The Celtics, meanwhile, missed all eight of their 3-pointers, committed nine fouls, and turned the ball over three times.
It is quite rare to be outscored by 28 points in a period, and it is even rarer for that to happen after a team has staked itself to a 17-point lead with less than a minute left in the third.
“They showed up and they came back and did what they do,” guard Marcus Smart said, “and we fell right into it, and they trampled us.”
Smart, the longest-tenured Celtic, has been this team’s heartbeat for many years. After Udoka was hired last summer, Smart reached out and essentially requested more responsibilities as a playmaker. After this collapse, though, he made his frustrations with the current setup quite clear.
The Celtics go to great lengths to get the ball into the hands of All-Stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The Bulls, who constantly looked to trap and double-team Tatum in particular, are the latest team to realize that.
Smart wants to help, but he’s not sure how he can through the current approach.
“There’s only so much I can do without the ball in my hands,” he said. “I’m just standing in the corner. We’re running plays for our best players; every team knows that. They do a good job of shutting that down. We can’t allow that. When they shut that down, we can’t keep trying to go to those guys. We’ve got to avoid that and find another way to give them the ball in the spots where they need the ball.”
“Like I said, for me, I can only do so much just standing there in the corner or when I give the ball away. I do everything I can on the other end to try to combat that. I try to talk, I try to make plays, get those guys the ball where they need it, where they want it.”
Udoka said the Bulls did well to swarm Tatum, but the Celtics did not capitalize on the resulting opportunities elsewhere.
“When they’re blitzing to take it out of someone’s hands, someone else has to make plays,” he said. “We felt like we had our best offensive playmakers out there, but turned it over a few times, weren’t strong on the pocket pass, and didn’t make the shots.”
Brown led Boston with 28 points, and Tatum’s struggles continued. He made just 8 of 22 shots and 1 of 4 3-pointers, and finished with 20 points and three assists. DeMar DeRozan had 37 points to lead Chicago.
The Celtics led by as many as 19 late in the third quarter, and still held a seemingly comfortable 102-85 cushion with less than 30 seconds left. Then Zach LaVine sparked a quick and strong 21-3 Bulls run that gave his team a 106-105 lead.
Horford briefly steadied the Celtics with a putback dunk and a 3-point play with 6:02 left that gave Boston a 110-108 lead. But that provided just fleeting hope. The Celtics managed just 4 points over the final six minutes, as the Bulls methodically pulled away with free throws and focus.
The Celtics, meanwhile, appeared to give up. By the time DeRozan drilled a 3 from the left corner with 1:16 left, the 19-point deficit had been improbably flipped into a 124-112 Chicago lead, and boos poured down for the third time in as many home games this year.
“We’ve got to figure it out,” Smart said. “Nobody’s gonna figure it out for us. Sometimes I tell people before you see the rainbow, it has to rain. We’re going through the rain right now.”