Defensively, the Celtics did everything they could. They bottled up every Chicago weapon, forcing the Bulls into scramble mode as the clock melted under five seconds. Marco Belinelli, whose previous shot hit the top of the backboard, had no choice but to force another.
He gathered an errant Carlos Boozer bounce pass with his left hand, and in one motion, spun and fired, canning a 14-footer that ruined an impressive Celtics rally and the opportunity to end a five-game homestand with a victory against a conference power.
Belinelli’s shot with 3.1 seconds left in overtime was the difference in a 100-99 Bulls win Friday at TD Garden, Boston’s second straight loss after six consecutive victories.
A win Friday would have provided needed confidence heading into a two-game road swing, but the Celtics blew numerous opportunities with missed free throws, a controversial jump ball call, and just bad luck down the stretch.
Ahead, 99-98, with 12.5 seconds left after Jason Terry’s 16-foot jumper, the Celtics harassed Joakim Noah with the ball 30 feet from the basket. Noah hurried the ball to Boozer, who bounced a pass to Belinelli, who was guarded by Terry.
By the time the ball fell through the basket, Belinelli was on his backside. The Bulls seemingly got all the breaks down the stretch.
“It’s a loss, we want to protect home court and the last two games we slipped,” point guard Rajon Rondo said. “We were playing well as of late but to lose this game like this tonight is devastating.”
The Celtics were close to sealing this one in regulation, ahead, 88-86, with 12.1 seconds left after Kirk Hinrich hit the second of two free throws. After a timeout, Rondo threw the inbounds pass to Paul Pierce in front of the Bulls bench. Pierce turned and Noah and Jimmy Butler converged on the ball. Butler grabbed it briefly from Pierce’s back while Noah reached in the front.
Rondo said he called a timeout in front of official Marc Davis, who then called a jump ball. Noah won the tip with Pierce and Belinelli raced down the court, lost the handle in the middle of the key, the ball bouncing directly to Hinrich, who canned the tying 15-footer.
Pierce was left to explain how he couldn’t secure the ball enough to get fouled. He thought he was fouled.
“I came out with a busted lip but the ref don’t see it that way,” he said. “It was definitely a huge play. We got the lead. I think all we got to do is get the ball in and get in a better position where we could get fouled and then we wouldn’t be talking about the loss tonight.
“I think we had the game in our hands a couple of times and it just slipped through our fingers. Just goes to show you that little things can prove costly.”
In overtime, the Celtics rallied from a 98-95 deficit behind two free throws from Pierce, that Belinelli shot that hit the top of the backboard, and a 15-footer from Terry with 12.5 left.
Pierce and Garnett combined for 10-for-33 shooting and 29 points as the Celtics struggled scoring most of the night. Garnett scored 13 of his 16 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, as the Celtics rallied from an 8-point deficit to take their first lead at 80-79 with 4:37 left.
But Garnett also missed three free throws in the final 5:27 of regulation as the Celtics were repeatedly one play away from clinching the game. Rondo drained an open 20-footer with 36.8 left in regulation for an 86-84 lead. Boozer was fouled with 22.5 left, and he missed the first of two free throws while Garnett sank both for an 88-85 lead with 20.1 left.
Coach Doc Rivers elected to foul Hinrich and he made one of two free throws, giving the Celtics a 2-point lead and the ball, before the chaos began.
The Celtics had issues with Richard Hamilton all evening and his 9 third-quarter points was the reason the Bulls led, 68-62, after the period. He canned three pressure jumpers and Noah added three layups as the Bulls threatened to pull away.
Rondo, however, refused to relent, scoring 9 points in the third with just one assist, a testament to how much his teammates were struggling. Garnett and Pierce combined for 1-for-8 shooting in the period. Noah’s two layups and a Hamilton runner gave the Bulls a 66-59 lead at the 1:51 mark.
Jared Sullinger, who once again produced off the bench (7 points, 15 rebounds before fouling out), ended the period with a conventional 3-point play.
With Pierce and Garnett both erratic from the field, it was apparent Rondo was going to have to do the bulk of the offensive work. The Celtics had few chances to make runs because Chicago’s big men bottled up the interior.
Still, the Celtics had their chances.
“Well, listen, part of me wonders how we [could have] won it, too — had a chance to win it, the way we played,” Rivers said. “I didn’t think we played very well. And we made a lot of little mistakes and they won the game. But they did make some unbelievable shots.”Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe