CHICAGO — It didn’t matter that the Celtics players wanted to do everything possible to give coach Brad Stevens something to smile about. He was in Indiana at the bedside of former Butler player Andrew Smith, who is battling cancer.
Stevens left the team Thursday afternoon, handing the coaching responsibilities to assistant Jay Larranaga, but the Celtics’ problems remained impossible to overcome. They turned in another putrid shooting night and wasted numerous chances to steal a road win, dropping a 101-92 decision to the Chicago Bulls at United Center.
“We got a little anxious,” Larranaga said. “We can’t get distracted with things we can’t control. I thought a couple of times we started worrying about the referees instead of playing our game and we let some of their guys get open for a couple of open shots.”
A night after shooting 29.4 percent in the final three quarters in a home loss to Detroit, the Celtics (19-17) shot 32.8 in the final three periods Thursday, unable to even hit an open layup at times.
Isaiah Thomas, who went 6-for-20 against the Pistons, was 5-for-17 for just 14 points, 6 below his season average. Thomas, who missed practice Tuesday with a sprained right thumb, is now 11-for-37 shooting in his past two games. Boston again was errant from the 3-point line, missing 20 of 25 in losing four of five games.
Larranaga used primarily seven players on the second night of a back-to-back and the Celtics looked fatigued and frustrated in the final period. Chicago (22-12) , winners of six in a row, were whipping the ball around the floor, trying to wow the crowd with acrobatic shots.
The Celtics, meanwhile, were unable to put together consecutive positive possessions. They were 7-for-32 shooting in the third period as Chicago extended its lead to 12. Four times the Celtics got within 6 points in the fourth quarter, the last time at 87-81 with 5:39 left, but were unable to get any closer.
“They had a big second quarter on us and things changed at that point,” said Jae Crowder, who led the Celtics with 17 points on 6-for-17 shooting. “We came out a little sluggish and didn’t get it going until the fourth quarter, a little too late.”
Pau Gasol controlled the paint with his rebounding, pulling down 18 boards in addition to 17 points.
Jimmy Butler paced the Bulls with 19 points and Derrick Rose added 18, scoring on an array of runners.
The Celtics played a solid first 20 minutes, racing to a 43-33 lead with gritty defense and some timely shooting. But the Bulls used staunch offensive rebounding and Gasol’s pinpoint shooting to end the half on a 15-4 run and take a 48-47 lead.
Chicago began the third period with a 13-2 run. It enabled the Bulls to build a 61-49 lead after a decisive 28-6 run over the two periods that appeared to take the life out of the Celtics.
“Brad always said the focus is to win the next game one possession at a time,” Larranaga said. “That’s really how I approached it, obviously thinking about Brad, wanting to represent him well and our players wanting to do right by him.”
Sullinger has no worries
While other players expressed dismay and concern over the team’s recent losing skid and poor sub-.500 home record, forward Jared Sullinger appeared optimistic about the team’s prospects as they begin a difficult three-game road trip.
“We’ll figure it out,” Sullinger said. “We let one slip by us [Wednesday against Detroit]. We’ve got a great opportunity [Thursday] and we’ve just got to change it around.”
The Celtics led Detroit by as many as 13 Wednesday before allowing 33 fourth-quarter points and losing 99-94.
It was another painful loss and dropped Boston to 9-10 at TD Garden. The 10 home losses are tied for second-worst in the Eastern Conference.
Sullinger said the Celtics need to put a better emphasis on defense late in games and argued with the perception that the team’s issue is scoring.
“We’ve got to constantly keep defending, we’ll be all right,” Sullinger said. “I got a lot of confidence in this team. We have a lot of great playmakers. We can put the ball into the net. But I think people focus on shooting than playing defense. I’m not talking about in here, I’m talking about outside people.
“They see us struggling with our shot but in order to win basketball games, you’ve got to defend too. We can’t let our offense dictate our defense.”
The Celtics were 20 for 68 from the field (29.4 percent) in the final three quarters.
“In order for us to win, we know we have to make some of the shots, but we also have to defend,” Sullinger said. “They made shots, ran their offense super smooth. We’ve got to be more physical on defense, but we’ll be all right.”
Father knows best
When he found out he would be coaching his first NBA regular season game, Larranaga reached out to his father, Jim Larranaga, the head coach at the University of Miami.
Through text message, dad offered some instruction, “Don’t talk to the refs,” he relayed to his son.
Larranaga stuck with the same starting lineup as previously, with Kelly Olynyk starting at center and Evan Turner at shooting guard. David Lee, who was told by Stevens he was out of the regular rotation, did not play in the first half.
Olynyk had 16 points, 10 coming in the first period while Tyler Zeller, who did not play Wednesday against Detroit, pulled down seven rebounds in six first-half minutes.
Thomas admitted following Wednesday’s loss that some players are irritated by their inconsistent roles and playing time. Larranaga used nine players in the first half, with Lee and Jonas Jerebko most notably sitting.