Bulls head for All-Star break with star crossed ending


Feb 14

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The Providence Steamrollers Wednesday defeated the Chicago Stags 71-69 in a game…

Huh? That was an NBA game in Boston Wednesday with a 24-second shot clock? Without a jump ball following free throws? Not with a six-foot lane? It was the Boston Celtics scoring 19 combined points from the end of the first quarter to the start of the fourth. Yes, and winning.

I’m sure I heard Tom Thibodeau and Doc Rivers say they were going back to Doc’s place to watch Sid Caesar and Your Show of Shows.

Joakim NoahThey were dressed sort of modern, but this one looked like it came from 60 years ago as the two playoff contenders — No, you take Miami — trudged through the kind of game both teams like to call a grind, though it was more grind to watch.

The Celtics, 28-24, hung on in the end as Marco Belinelli had a last, desperate attempt on an offensive rebound blocked by Jason Terry and a Taj Gibson follow that he retrieved come up short. Brandon Bass led the Celtics with 14 points while Belinelli led the Bulls, who didn’t have a player in double figures until the fourth quarter, with 12 points.

The Bulls committed 22 turnovers to give them a two-game total of 750 (actually 41, but it seemed like more) as both teams headed into the All-Star break on fumes, the Bulls much more so with five losses in seven games this month. Both teams shot 36 percent, but the Celtics won their eighth in nine games since Rajon Rondo’s knee injury.

Still, it seemed apparent it was two teams with one eye on the scoreboard and one foot out the door for All-Star break.

“The break will be good physically, mentally to get away eachother a little bit,” said Luol Deng, who had eight points as the starters combined for a season low 37 points. “I think it will be good for all of us. We think we can get a lot better. This is not the way we wanted to go into the break, but it will be good for us to be away and recharge and come back with out minds set on the second half.”

Deng and Joakim Noah took a little extra time soaking in the ice tubs, Noah with 10 points and 16 rebounds in 43 minutes, as the Bulls locker room looked like the last day of school. Players were packing hurriedly and exchanging hugs as most were heading to homes around the country or Caribbean weekends, most to warm weather sports. A few, like Derrick Rose, who told reporters (see accompanying story) he is contemplating not returning to play this season given his knee injury rehabilitation schedule, were heading back with the team to Chicago to get their minds off for a bit what has been, actually, a relatively impressive first part of the season. Given the Bulls have played 52 of 82 games, it’s not precise arithmetic, though we think the sabermetrics people have that figured out.

“We did well,” said Deng of a bumpy season with Rose out and the starters Deng, Noah, Carlos Boozer, Kirk Hinrich and Richard Hamilton missing a combined 36 games. “I think we can do better. Injuries have helped some guys play better (with time). It also has affected us a little bit in terms of rhythm. The bottom line is we want to get healthy and play together more.”

“We definitely need a break right now,” said Noah, who heads for the All-Star game in Houston with Deng. “It’s been a long first half of the season and we need to regroup because we’re not playing very well right now.”

They’re not machines, though they wear down as well.

“I don’t think anyone (had their legs),” said Rivers. “I’m serious. On both teams. We’re talking about our legs. We won and we scored 71 points. So I just thought it was one of those games. As we all know, the last game before All-Star, before break, is a strange game. You’ve got half the guys who are tired, you’ve got a group of guys who are already in Dominican Republic, and then you have banged-up guys. So you have a lot of things going on in that game and you could see it. You could visibly see it on both sides. I kept seeing Deng trying to stretch his legs, Rip. It was obvious.”

Sort of oblivious as well as the Bulls hammered the Celtics on the boards, as expected, 49-39 and inside scoring 38-24. But the creaky, old Celts had triple the Bulls fast break points as the Bulls continued to force in those interior bounce passes that went awry, Noah with five turnovers, Jimmy Butler with four and Belinelli with a crucial one early in the fourth quarter that changed the game.

One play never decides things in a basketball game, though when you are scoring so few points it comes close. The Bulls after falling behind by 11 early in the first quarter did play hard, as they always do, if not efficiently or gracefully. And the Celtics reached toward historic futility with the NBA’s third lowest ever combined scoring second and third quarter. So the Bulls went into the fourth quarter leading 49-43 and then Dean Smith called for the four corners.

“There was one point when both teams missed layup after layup after layup right in a row and you just look up and say, ‘Hey, it’s just one of those days, one of those games,” said Paul Pierce, who matched Deng’s eight points. “You’ve got two teams anxious to really get to the break, but still emotionally involved in the game, both teams dealing with injuries. A lot of similarities going on between us and the Bulls, to tell you the truth. We knew this was probably going to be an ugly game. Both teams probably couldn’t wait to get to the break.”

It seemed like it could have been that college slowdown. The Celtics were moribund as Belinelli made a three pointer for a 52-45 lead with about a minute gone in the fourth and Noah tipped in a Marcus Teague drive. Boston coach Rivers was mostly resting Kevin Garnett, whom he almost didn’t play as the team has a long road trip after the break with a growing injury list with Leandro Barbosa the latest to fall. The starting backcourt is early season reserves Courtney Lee and Avery Bradley. They basically have nine players as they don’t use rookie Fab Melo.

“I told them before the game I wasn’t going to play Kevin much, and there was a chance I may not play him,” said Rivers. “And then he wanted to go a little bit. I told them that it’s going to be an ugly game. I said you can just see the game is lending itself — and this is before the game — that it’s going to be a nasty game. I said, ‘We’ve just got to find a way to win.’ And I just kept saying, ‘We’re going to win the game, but I don’t know how.’ I said, ‘We’re just going to figure it out during the game.’ And that’s why it’s funny, that third quarter, we didn’t score, couldn’t score, missed shots – you know part of it was self-inflicted with our dribbling. But when the quarter ended I said, ‘Guys, it’s a one-point game and this is what we thought it would be before the game. So we’ve just got to figure it out and win it.’At the end of the day it’s a make-miss league. There’s a lot of misses, and we had some makes at the end.”

The Celtics did seem done.

But Belinelli, who did have just that turnover, tried to drop one inside to Noah, those interior passes that looked so pretty earlier in the season teams now beng anticipated by the opposition. Bass intercepted and turned it into a fast break score, waking up what often is a raucous Boston crowd.

Boston has among the most college students of any U.S. city with about a quarter of a million. Many seem to enjoy alcohol. You come to a Celtics game and there are waves of young people dancing in the stands and screaming and chanting, and it got going after that Bass dunk.

“(Turnovers) cost us the game,” said Thibodeau. “We had a few bad possessions in a row to start the fourth and that got the game going the other way, and I thought that our defense was good for the first three quarters, and then we didn’t close out the game the way we should have. So we started slowly and we finished poorly.”

Bass made a jumper after a Deng miss. The Bulls called time. Butler had his shot blocked, Garnett made an 18-footer, Noah lost the ball, then Butler again. Garnett made another and Bradley turned the Butler miscue into a fast break for a 55-54 Boston lead with 7:35 left.

The arena was rocking, though the Bulls have fared well in Boston before under similar circumstances. But this group was dragging to the finish.

Taj Gibson“I think collectively we just have to do a better job of moving the ball,” said Noah. “Sacrificing a little bit for the team, moving the ball around and just knowing if our third, fourth and fifth options, when plays break down. I think teams have been doing a good job of just denying the wings, and I just feel like we’re a little lost.”

After nine consecutive empty possessions to fall behind 59-54 with about five minutes left, the Bulls seemed to realize winter break was just five minutes away and revived a bit.

Butler got a mismatch with Terry, which the Bulls exploited twice, once for a three-point play. And the Bulls got Noah in a pair of pick and rolls to the basket for fouls to get within 65-62 with 2:46 left just after Pierce made the most unlikely of threes, a Boston Garden leprechaun special in which the ball hit the rim, bounced straight up, came down and rolled around a few times and fell through.

“It’s a make or miss league,” reiterated Thibodeau. “One bounces around and goes in, one bounces around and doesn’t go in. Sometimes that’s the difference between winning or losing right there.”

It seemed over when Garnett a moment later banked one in as a straight up jumper went long for a 67-62 Boston lead with 2:24 left. It was still Celtics by five after a long Nate Robinson, high arching shot with about 1:20 left. But Garnett missed a hook, Deng cut strong for a score, the Bulls caused a five-second inbounds turnover after a timeout and Belinelli made an amazing falling away runner to bring the Bulls within 67-66 with 44.6 seconds left.

But like the Spurs earlier in the week, the Celtics are a smart team. They play tough and move the ball well. They did so in the crucial possession as Garnett was along the baseline after four drives and kicks for a 14-footer with 19.8 seconds left for a 69-66 Boston lead.

“He (Rivers) gave me the opportunity to take the night off,” said Garnett, who had 12 points and 11 rebounds. “I should have took that. But I’ve seen everybody playing through everything, and I’m no different from that. Paul’s tired, everybody’s tired, and no one’s full of energy right now. So I felt like that was unfair. If he wasn’t going to give everyone the night off, then that wasn’t an option. So I just came out and gave what I could.”

The Bulls gave it one last shot that didn’t get the bounce. Robinson’s three hit the rim, bounced up and down and… came off. Noah tipped it in easily, but for the two and not the tying three. Boston called timeout and the Bulls had to foul, Pierce obliging with one of two to make it 71-68 Boston with 10 seconds.

Robinson dribbled up the side, where Bradley stepped up and fouled him before he could shoot, though the Bulls hoped for three shots when Robinson threw the ball up. Robinson made the first, and with no timeouts and 6.2 seconds left he purposely missed the second. The Bulls scrambled for the ball and got the shot, but Terry got Belinelli’s attempt and Gibson didn’t get his to the rim as time expired.

The Bulls made it interesting, anyway.

“I think it’s important to recharge (this weekened),” said Thibodeau. “Just getting away for a few days will be good. We really haven’t done anything. Our road is not going to get easier; its going to get a lot tougher. Our mindset has to be, we have to come with a greater fight to scratch out wins. We’re shorthanded. We’ve been down multiple starters for a good part of our season, the entire season. So we exhale, relax, we’re in trouble. So we’ve got to come out with the right mindset, the right approach.”

With that, Rivers, Thibodeau’s old boss in Boston, called to him about dinner and getting together. Thibodeau waved. He was going to watch more film, we assumed.

“We have a few days where we can sort ourselves out and recharge,” said Thibodeau, “come back with the fire that’s necessary for us to be successful.”

Fifty two down and 30 to go.

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