CHICAGO — The Celtics weren’t going to go undefeated, but there are different varieties of losses and Monday’s drubbing by the Chicago Bulls was humbling for a team that had looked so impressive through the first week.
The Celtics played eight brilliant minutes and then looked completely befuddled by the Bulls’ switch to zone defense and their aggressiveness in the paint. The 3-pointers stopped falling, the defense crumbled, and then frustration set in.
Joe Mazzulla was ejected for the first time in his brief head coaching career and Grant Williams joined him in the locker room. The Celtics yielded 70 points over the second and third quarters, and completely lost control of the game in a 120-102 loss at United Center.
Matters went from bad to worse with 4 minutes, 53 seconds left in the third and the Celtics down 84-69. Jaylen Brown was fouled and was approaching the free throw line when Mazzulla began yelling across the floor at official Natalie Sago, trying to get her attention. Official Marc Davis, approximately 10 feet from Mazzulla, heard the words and called Mazzulla for multiple technical fouls, leading to his first NBA ejection. Assistant Damon Stoudamire took over.
Mazzulla said he did not curse and was only trying to get Sago’s attention.
“I just have to have better composure under the circumstances,” he said. “I was just trying [to get] the referee’s attention. In moments like that when things aren’t going your way, you just have to be more composed, do a better job.”
Mazzulla said he was unsure why he received the second tech, other than he continued to try to get Sago’s attention. The coach said he apologized to the team.
“We have to be more composed in all situations,” he said. “In a situation where the game’s not going your way something like that just adds to a distraction. Regardless, we have to be more composed and it starts with me.”
Considering the free-throw disparity was 19-3 for Chicago at halftime, the Celtics said they realized it was going to be a difficult night with the officiating. But spending games complaining about calls was last year’s bugaboo. It returned Monday with a vengeance.
“The way the game was being called was a little antsy for everybody,” guard Marcus Smart said. “Emotions were high on both ends. I understand it. It was a good test for us tonight and we learned from it.”
The Celtics began 8-for-9 from the 3-point line and then hit nine of their next 36. They were manhandled by the Bulls on rebounds, not surprising considering Chicago’s size. And second-year guard Ayo Dosunmu continued his Andrew Toney-like run against the Celtics with 20 points on 8-for-9 shooting,22 points on 9-for-10 shooting, improving his clip to 26 of 2927 of 30 in his career.
DeMar DeRozan led Chicago with 25 points, but it was the 18 points and 23 rebounds from burly center Nikola Vucevic that was most distressing for the Celtics, who are going to face rebounding issues until Robert Williams returns.
Jayson Tatum led Boston with 26 points but he scored 15 of those in the first 7 minutes, 34 seconds. Jaylen Brown added 21, but he was 8-for-23 shooting. The rest of the Celtics were porous, including Grant Williams, who was ejected in the fourth quarter after making contract with official Cheryl Flores after he stumbled protesting a foul call.
Yep, it was that kind of night.
When asked what he said to Williams once he stormed into the locker room after his ejection, Mazzulla said: “Yeah we talked, but who am I to talk (about getting ejected). At the same time, we have to be better.”
The Bulls continued their barrage after Mazzulla’s ejection, outscoring the Celtics 31-13 to end the third period, dominating the paint and living at the free throw line. The Celtics, who made an early third-period run, couldn’t get defensive stops and couldn’t make consistent baskets. The Bulls punished them in every phase.
The Celtics thought they left their wild inconsistency back in 2021-22 but their first half Monday at Chicago was their best and worst all wrapped up into a 24-minute show that was rather stunning.
Boston jumped on the Bulls quickly, splashing 3-pointers, whipping the ball around the court, tossing backdoor passes to a cutting Tatum. They appeared intent on ending this one early. And the Bulls faithful, which watched the home team allow 132 points on Saturday to Cleveland, sarcastically cheered when the Bulls scored their first points nearly four minutes in.
Prosperity gave Boston trouble last season, and after jumping out to a 35-16 lead following a Smart 3-pointer the Celtics seemingly lost themselves. They fell in love with the 3-pointer, they stopped being defensive in transition, they allowed the Bulls to peck away at the lead.
Chicago ended the period with a 14-4 run as reserve Derrick Jones sparked his club with his athleticism and activity at the rim. The run turned into a barrage in the second period. The Bulls’ surge grew to 23-7 and while Mazzulla replaced the ineffective reserves with the starters, they couldn’t stop it, either.
With Noah Vonleh again in foul trouble (five fouls in 12 minutes), the Celtics were battered on the boards (60-44), with Andre Drummond helping Vucevic with 12 rebounds in 15 minutes. The Celtics couldn’t rebound and couldn’t score against Chicago’s matchup zone, a Billy Donovan coaching adjustment that changed the game.
The Celtics made 14 baskets in the opening period and 23 in the final three.
“We have to be better,” center Al Horford said. “The way that we’re playing, with four guards out there, it’s an understanding that everybody has to get in there and rebound.”