For much of this season the Celtics have been searching for ways to get All-Stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to dominate simultaneously rather than taking turns and leaving gaps. On Saturday night neither player really had his way with the Bulls, and that typically leaves Boston with little chance.
But this time, they received some help.
There was Robert Williams drilling four free throws in the tense final seconds, as Boston clawed back from a late 6-point deficit. There was Dennis Schröder, giving Boston a quick burst at the game’s start and dancing through the lane for a big layup near the end. There was Al Horford, connecting on four consecutive second-quarter baskets after the Bulls had erased an early 12-point deficit.
The Celtics needed all of these contributions, as well as several others, and still, it almost was not enough. But a season filled with unfortunate bounces saw one land in Boston’s favor, as Bulls center Nikola Vucevic missed an open and potential game-winning 3-pointer in the final seconds and Boston held on for an encouraging 114-112 win.
“It’s huge,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “[Tatum and Brown] shouldered so much of the load on both ends of the court, especially when you got a guy like [DeMar] DeRozan that they’re defending as well. So to see all these guys in double figures contributing is needed. It’s obviously a welcome sight.”
In most cases, a loss to the Bulls would have been forgivable. Chicago has surged to the top of the Eastern Conference and turned into an improbable power this season.
But these Bulls hardly resembled those Bulls. Chicago was without seven players Saturday, including star guards Zach LaVine and Lonzo Ball, while the Celtics took the court missing just guard Marcus Smart.
Still, it’s been unwise to expect a win out of the Celtics when it seems like the obvious result. And as this game crept toward its end, another demoralizing loss seemed imminent. Then Boston’s wobbly defense steadied itself and held the Bulls to just one field goal over the final four minutes, led by their strong coverage of DeRozan, who has emerged as a leading MVP candidate.
“I thought once I told them to get up and deny and really take the ball away from him, Jayson did a hell of a job there not letting him get it back,” Udoka said. “Credit us, when we needed to, we got stops at the end and converted some big baskets.”
That finishing kick is an important development for these Celtics, who have been one of the NBA’s worst fourth-quarter teams this season. Of their last five wins, two have come in overtime, and now this escape can be added to the list.
Tatum had 23 points on 8 for 24 shooting and added 12 rebounds. Williams finished with 14 points, 13 rebounds and 6 assists, one of six Celtics to reach double figures in scoring. Vucevic had 27 points to lead Chicago, but he missed the potential game-winner near the end.
With the win, the Celtics once again clawed back to .500. This time, there will be a real opportunity to climb higher thanks to a light upcoming schedule. Five of Boston’s next seven opponents have losing records, and the other two games are against the Wizards and Hornets, who have improved but are hardly title contenders.
At this point, the Celtics know better than to assume a hot streak will be handed to them, but their path to one will at least be visible.
“I feel like we still have a way to go to continue to be better and develop consistency,” Horford said. “We’ve taken some strides in that, but tonight we’ll just take this win.”
The Celtics led by as many as 12 points in the first half and pushed away several Chicago rallies before they turned into concerns. But in the fourth quarter the Bulls finally broke through behind DeRozan, whose consecutive jumpers put Chicago in front, 94-93.
The Celtics trailed, 110-104, when they called a timeout to regroup. Then Tatum threw the ball away before committing an offensive foul on the next possession.
Still, Boston had a chance. Schroder capped an unsettled possession with a layup, and a 19-footer by Brown pulled Boston within 112-110 with 1:02 left.
After a Bulls miss, Williams was fouled and hit two free throws to tie the score at 112 with 31 seconds to play. DeRozan’s ensuing jumper rimmed out and Vucevic was called for fouling Williams on the rebound with 9.7 seconds remaining.
Williams, who used much of the rim on his previous two free throws, swished this pair to put the Celtics back in front.
“It’s a moment everybody in this league wants and waits for,” Williams said. “I’m just glad I made them, glad my teammates had my back and boosted my confidence. It’s part of my job.”
After a timeout the Bulls created a wide open 3-point look for Vucevic at the top of the key, but the shot caromed off the rim, and DeRozan’s putback attempt was well short. After starting the fourth quarter by making three of four shots, DeRozan finished by missing five of six.
“We’ve been in a lot of tough games like this and the guys are growing from it,” Udoka said. “And you can start to figure out what we want to do at the end of games, the shots we want to get. And to credit our guys, they got down a little bit, never hung their heads, continued to fight, and dug their way back out of it.”