CHICAGO — The Celtics saw it coming. Dwyane Wade, in his first game with his hometown team after 13 glorious seasons in Miami, with an open 3-pointer and the game on the line.
Wade flicked the ball with confidence, knowing fate was on his side, and the ball rattled through. He then motioned to the United Center faithful that the game was over, that the Celtics were done.
They were, losing 105-99, on Thursday night.
In a game that can best be described as frustrating, the Celtics had two chances to tie or go ahead in the waning minutes and wasted both. Al Horford missed an open 3-pointer with 1:10 left that would have given Boston a rare lead.
After each team hit two free throws, the Celtics had another chance to tie, but rookie Jaylen Brown, playing critical minutes, committed in the air and was called for a crushing travel. Wade then followed with his homecoming 3-pointer on a scramble play with 26.3 seconds left.
Wade finished with 22 points on 7-for-18 shooting, but he canned 4 of 6 3-point attempts after hitting just seven all of last season. The Celtics were pushed around on the boards, getting outrebounded, 55-36, and giving up 18 second-chance points.
Jae Crowder, who got into a shoving match with former Marquette teammate Jimmy Butler late in the first half, was angry after the loss.
“I’m not in a good mood right now,” he said. “I felt like we got punked all night. We lost the game in a fashion that we didn’t want to lose it.”
A team that considers itself tough, especially with the addition of Horford, was battered by the Bulls, who didn’t necessarily win the game with offense, they just hit big shots. Butler, Wade, and Rajon Rondo were a combined 14 of 44 from the floor, but nine of those makes were 3-pointers.
Each time the Celtics rallied, the Bulls responded with an putback basket or difficult jumper. Chicago shot 35.6 percent in the second half and Wade hit one shot in the final 11 minutes, but it decided the game.
“For a guy that’s been in the league as long as he has, that says a lot about him that he’s willing to work and add an element to his game,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said of Wade’s 3-point shooting. “He shot with a lot of confidence in the preseason and it carried into the game.”
The Celtics shot 50 percent from the field and allowed the Bulls to convert just 39.1 percent, but they lost the game in the paint and at the free throw line. Isaiah Thomas led Boston with 25 points, but the career 86.4 percent free throw shooter missed four, including two in the closing minutes.
The Bulls were simply tougher and more physical, bullying the Celtics on the boards, getting away with their physicality in the paint. They shoot poorly from the field but won because they attempted 16 more shots and six more free throws, a byproduct of aggressiveness.
The Celtics sliced the deficit to 86-81 early in the fourth quarter, but Hamilton, Mass., native Michael Carter-Williams, acquired recently from Milwaukee, sparked a 9-0 run with a 3-pointer and a putback. Butler added a difficult bank shot for a 95-81 lead with seven minutes left.
Once again, the Celtics got off to a slow start, and again the genesis was 3-point shooting. One of the Bulls’ predicted weaknesses was long-range shooting, but they canned 7 of 13 from beyond the arc in the first half, including a combined 6 of 7 from Wade and Butler.
Butler ended the half with a damaging long ball for a 57-49 lead after the Celtics spent most of the half attempting to rally from an early 15-point deficit. The defense steadily improved but the 3-point shooting was costly, including a 28-foot Wade three that extended the lead to 49-43 late in the second quarter.
The Celtics didn’t look fully engaged in the first half. Horford got into foul trouble and produced just 5 points and four rebounds in 16 first-half minutes, while Amir Johnson picked up two fouls in the first 75 seconds and finished with no rebounds in 11 first-half minutes.
Chicago dominated the boards, scoring 10 second-chance points in the first half, attacking the rim and breaking down the Celtics’ defense. Wade scored 14 points in 17 first-half minutes. Rondo added six assists and four rebounds in the first half of his Bulls debut.
Yet the Bull the Celtics had no answer for was power forward Taj Gibson, who scored 8 points with six rebounds in the first 24 minutes. He bullied the Celtics’ bigs in the paint, grabbing as many rebounds as the Boston frontline combined.
Avery Bradley and Thomas combined for 23 points on 10-for-15 shooting to keep Boston within striking distance, but the rest of the roster was 9 for 24, including a mere two field goal attempts from Crowder, who picked up an offensive foul and technical for his skirmish with Butler, an episode that also involved Thomas and Rondo late in the first half.
It was a frustrating first 24 minutes for the Celtics in their road opener. They never got any offensive flow and struggled with ball movement, a surprise considering how well they whipped the ball around the court during the preseason.