Bulls relegate Celtics to fourth
CHICAGO — In the end, the Chicago Bulls were more desperate last night, something the Celtics realized before they even stepped foot on the floor.
Turmoil followed the Bulls throughout the year, bubbling over yesterday with a report that their coach, Vinny del Negro, and executive vice president, John Paxson, got into a shoving match. They needed two wins to clinch the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics were still clinging to the slim possibility of beating out Atlanta for the third seed, but health and rhythm were more of a priority.
“You knew if it came down to desperation, we were in trouble,’’ Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “I don’t care how mentally tough you are, when you have one team fighting for their lives and another team in the first or fourth seed, you knew, no matter what, that would be tough.’’
Derrick Rose poured in a career-high 39 points and Kirk Hinrich dropped another 30, and even with Paul Pierce (28 points) doing his best to spoil the Bulls’ hopes, the team that needed the game more took it.
The Bulls’ hopes are alive with their 101-93 win, and the decision locked the Celtics into a slot they didn’t necessarily want to be in, the fourth seed, but one they’ll have to live with.
They’ll face either the Heat or the Bucks in the first round, Miami more likely to clinch the fifth seed with a game against lowly New Jersey tonight. Boston hosts Milwaukee tonight.
A team pegged at the start of the season as one of the favorites to reach the Finals, the Celtics now find themselves as sort of a sleeper.
“We made our bed and now we’ve got to lay in it,’’ Kevin Garnett said. “We’ve just kind of got to make the best out of it. I think our goals were a lot higher than this, but we’ll take it.’’
Garnett played 28 minutes, coming in in the fourth quarter as the Celtics ate away at a Chicago lead that got as large as 9 after Rivers took him off the floor with 3:53 left in the third. Rivers had deliberated before the game about how much to play Garnett, not wanting any freak injury to cost him a key piece of his team for the playoffs.
“We just had to [sit him late in the third],’’ Rivers said. “We needed him in, but I just wasn’t going to do it.’’
Pierce was hot in a 12-point third quarter when he treated Luol Deng like a lab rat, taking jumpers and driving to the rim as if he were experimenting with things he’d like to do in the playoffs.
Rose and Hinrich were clutch in the final minutes, nailing jumpers, getting out on fast breaks, and drilling free throws that put the Bulls ahead, 99-90, with 20 seconds left.
With the loss, the Celtics will have to take one of the tougher paths to the Finals, with the possibility of facing the first-place Cavaliers and possibly the Magic in the Eastern finals. They’ll also go in striking less fear in the hearts of opponents than in the past two seasons, when they were a 60-win machine.
“I’ve been used to it as an individual my whole career so it doesn’t matter to me,’’ Pierce said of getting no respect. “Nobody’s favoring us, nobody’s pampering us. So, hopefully we’ll be in a good position to sneak up on some teams and try to find ourselves right where we need to be in the finals.’’
The Celtics lose the home-court advantage after the first round, but if there’s a benefit it’s that they’ve been a better on the road than at home this season.
“I know that there will be a lot of teams that don’t want to see us as a fourth seed,’’ said Ray Allen, who scored 25 points on 8-of-14 shooting. “We’re going to have to win in other teams’ buildings. That’s what it’s going to take.’’
It doesn’t take away from the fact that they didn’t meet expectations that they had set at the start of the season.
“I would like the three, two, or one, but we didn’t get it,’’ Rivers said. “It’s going to be a tough series whoever we play, but we’ve just got to be ready to play.’’
The Celtics let another team reach the century mark and let another star player put up a big number on them, something they see as a red flag for the postseason.
“Once the playoffs start we’ve got to be ready,’’ said Kendrick Perkins. “We’ve got to have that mindset of getting stops at every position and playing good team defense.’’
If they make a run in the playoffs, they’ll have to do it with defense.
“We’re going to have to or we’re going home,’’ Perkins said.