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BULLS 126, CELTICS 116

Kyrie Irving’s 37 points can’t stop Celtics from losing to lowly Bulls

Bulls guard Zach LaVine got the better of Kyrie Irving, outscoring the Celtics’ star, 42-37, in leading the Bulls to the win.
Bulls guard Zach LaVine got the better of Kyrie Irving, outscoring the Celtics’ star, 42-37, in leading the Bulls to the win.(JONATHAN DANIEL/GETTY IMAGE)

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CHICAGO — Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving has often been the team’s thermometer throughout this mercurial season. After bad losses he has taken shots in visiting gyms by himself, consistently called out his young teammates, ignited questions about his commitment to the Celtics, and said that the team cannot be comfortable slipping to the No. 5 seed in the playoffs.

So after yet another stunning setback, this one a 126-116 loss against a Bulls team the Celtics had defeated by a total of 85 points in two previous games, there was no telling what kind of alarm bells Irving might sound. And then, he mostly shrugged.

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He dressed quickly at his locker and then he had already put the game behind him. He said he was focused on the playoffs, because “that’s where the fun begins.”

But the Celtics have now lost four of six games, including massive collapses against the Lakers and Clippers, and they are back in the No. 5 spot, the place Irving said last month he would like to avoid.

Irving was asked whether, with just 22 games left, he was concerned that these struggles might linger into the postseason. He shook his head. He was asked why he felt that way.

“Because I’m here,” he said.

Moments later, he was even more defiant when it was suggested that perhaps there was reason for worry.

“In the playoffs, when we can plan for a team, prepare for a team,” he said. “I still don’t see anybody beating us in seven games.”

The other Celtics, however, were more nonplussed by this latest misstep. Coach Brad Stevens, who has tried to take more blame following recent stumbles, tried to take even more Saturday, reiterating three times that he is the one who is most accountable, and the one who must help this team find its way out of this funk.

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“I’ve said this before,” Stevens said. “I’m disappointed in myself.”

In the locker room about 10 minutes later, Marcus Smart sat at his stall, fiddled with his cellphone and spoke in a hushed tone as he tried to explain what has sometimes seemed unexplainable. He called the Celtics’ effort “embarrassing.”

Smart played for the relentless, scrappy, underdog Celtics teams that never seemed to wilt in recent years, even when their lack of talent compared with some teams was obvious. He was asked Saturday what this group might be able to pull from those squads before it is too late.

“Our toughness,” Smart said. “Our will to fight. Our will to do everything. It’s just like, we don’t got the will to do it anymore. I don’t know how you teach effort, will, want-to. I don’t think you can. You’ve got to have it.”

The Bulls’ Lauri Markkanen (35 points) drives around Al Horford (19 points).
The Bulls’ Lauri Markkanen (35 points) drives around Al Horford (19 points).(JONATHAN DANIEL/Getty Images)

The Celtics have consistently said that they are primarily focused on being at their best when the playoffs begin. And they are all but locked into being seeded in 3-5 range, so wins and losses over the final 22 games won’t have a massive impact. But time is beginning to run short, and it is fair to wonder whether this team will find its rhythm before it is too late.

“Each and every game becomes closer and closer to the end for us,” Smart said, “and we haven’t been playing to the best of our ability. And it’s frustrating because we know the potential that we have.”

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When the Celtics and Bulls met at the United Center on Dec. 8, Boston pummeled Chicago, 133-77, tying the NBA record for the most lopsided victory in a road game. No one expected that to happen again Saturday, but it is unlikely that anyone expected Chicago to bulldoze the Celtics on the way to a 25-point lead, either.

Zach LaVine blitzed the Celtics from all angles, mixing in ferocious dunks with daring 3-pointers on his way to a career-high 42 points. Lauri Markkanen added 35 points and 15 rebounds for Chicago, which made 53.4 percent of its shots, 40 percent of its 3-pointers and 95.2 percent of its free throws. Irving had 37 points and 10 assists, but it surely provided little consolation. The Celtics were out-rebounded, 49-32, and did not have an offensive rebound during the first half. And all of that led to another loss that can be placed in a prominent spot on an increasingly crowded mantel of embarrassing defeats.

“Sometimes,” center Al Horford said, “you get humbled in this league.”

The Celtics’ 1-point loss against the powerful Bucks on Thursday actually left them encouraged. But the same could not be said this time. And now they will close out this three-game trip by facing the mighty Raptors on Tuesday night.

The Milwaukee and Toronto games, of course, figured to pose significant challenges, but they expected a brief respite against the Bulls.

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The Celtics took a 33-28 lead with a crisp and efficient first quarter, but everything unraveled quickly after that. Chicago went on an 18-3 run that was sparked by its bench and took a 64-51 lead to halftime. Then the third quarter began, and LaVine ensured that it would be even worse for Boston.

The guard scored 12 points in the first five minutes, with half coming on a pair of deep 3-pointers, as the Bulls stretched their lead to 84-60.

Jaylen Brown sparked a brief Celtics comeback with some hustle plays, and when Irving hit a 3 from the top of the key that made it 94-86 with 10:23 left, there was hope.

But LaVine and Markkanen combined to score their team’s next 15 points, including a 3-pointer, two 3-point plays and an acrobatic slam by LaVine that helped stretch the lead back to 107-91, and Boston was never a threat again.


Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach @globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.