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Bulls 93, Celtics 86

Rivers blasts Celtics after loss to Bulls

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / April 6, 2012
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CHICAGO - While progress is being made incrementally against the league’s elite teams, the Celtics are coming away from this stretch of significant games with more frustration than encouragement. Take Thursday night in Chicago, where they stifled the Bulls on defense most of the night only to watch them bury a series of tough shots down the stretch.

The Celtics blew an 11-point halftime lead and lost, 93-86, at United Center, as the Bulls relied on the unstoppable Luol Deng in the fourth quarter. Deng, who simply cannot be defended by Paul Pierce, torched the Celtics for 12 fourth-period points, most on runners late in the shot clock.

Chicago could never consistently get into its offense, thanks to staunch defense from Celtics guards, including Avery Bradley, who started the game in place of Ray Allen. But as the Bulls hastily looked for quality shots, Deng seemingly also found a sliver a space for a jumper.

He finished with 26 points while Pierce countered with 22 for the Celtics but just 10 on 3-for-11 shooting after the first quarter as three of his second-half jumpers were blocked.

The Bulls simply out-executed the Celtics on offense in the second half. And the Celtics were relegated to another moral victory, perhaps hoping that Mickael Pietrus can return from his concussion in time to help in the final stretch of games.

Afterward, coach Doc Rivers wasn’t happy.

“I had to use two timeouts to remind us that we were actually in an NBA game. I thought this was the worst loss for us this year with the way we approached the game. And then in the second half, I thought Chicago, they’re just too tough for us. I thought their toughness made us let go of the rope.’’ Rivers said. “We wanted to use all these excuses all night. I thought Chicago was just too tough for us. We’re not going to go a lot of places playing with that type of mental toughness. We have three weeks, if we play like that tonight, we’ll be playing one of those [top teams] in the first round. We gotta get better. That was unacceptable.

Rivers didn’t limit his criticism to the players.

“That is on me first,’’ he said. “I didn’t see something tonight. It’s always on the coach. That’s an unacceptable effort for us. I don’t say that often. I don’t think I’ve ever said that. That was a crime. It was tough to talk after the game. About what? We gotta be better than that.’’

The 49-38 halftime lead melted away quickly in the third quarter as the Bulls began the quarter on a 9-2 run and the Celtics could respond with nothing but missed jumpers. Richard Hamilton canned a 3-pointer to reduce the Celtics’ lead to 51-47.

The Bulls then came back with another surge, this one, 14-2, as C.J. Watson drained consecutive 3-pointers for a 61-58 lead. The Celtics would regain the lead, but never really regained control of the game. They allowed Chicago to score the final 4 points of the period, including Deng free throws with 3.3 seconds left after the Celtics failed to close out on a defensive rebound.

The Celtics led most of the first half, using strong defense and 17 points from Paul Pierce. While Chicago put together two strong games against the Celtics without Derrick Rose earlier in the season, they desperately missed his versatility and effectiveness in the first half.

After a cold first quarter, Brandon Bass responded in the second with 5 consecutive points, the latter basket a rugged layup against two defenders for a 38-31 lead with 4:10 left in the period. Joakim Noah, always a thorn for the Celtics, came back with an acrobatic layup despite getting pounded by both Rajon Rondo and Ryan Hollins. His conventional 3-point play reduced Boston’s lead to 41-36.

Yet, after building double-digit leads only to allow Chicago to make short runs to stay close, the Celtics came back with an 8-0 run, including a late runner by Rondo for a 49-36 lead. Kevin Garnett had an opportunity to extend the lead to 13 again after two Watson free throws, but he missed an open jumper at the buzzer.

The Celtics held the Bulls to 34.3 percent shooting and forced eight turnovers in the first 24 minutes. They even limited Deng, who scored 23 points and canned six 3-pointers in the previous meeting here Feb. 16. Deng had 8 points on 2-for-9 shooting in 20 first-half minutes. The Bulls missed all six of their 3-pointers.

Allen came off the bench and added 5 of his 14 points and two rebounds in 15 minutes, his move to the bench the most stunning news of the day.

The move was done rather inconspicuously by Rivers. He answered questions about Allen before the game, telling reporters that Allen had made it fine through his first appearance since March 22. But when the starting lineups were released about 30 minutes before game time, Bradley was listed as the shooting guard.

He scored a team-high 19 points off the bench for the Celtics on 9-for-16 shooting in Wednesday’s loss to the Spurs. His defense has been key to the team’s quick starts in recent games.

Allen took a short time to drain his first shot against the Bulls, a jumper from the baseline with 2:23 left that gave the Celtics a 19-12 lead. But it didn’t take long for their 11-point halftime lead to unravel.

“Honestly, the playoffs are the furthest thing from my mind right now because that’s not us,’’ said Rivers. “We haven’t been that way but we were tonight. We were cool tonight. We were the cool Boston Celtics tonight. That’s what we looked like. You could see it, walking the ball [upcourt]. We couldn’t get the ball inbounds? Nobody wanted to work. It was a joke. We were the ‘cool Celtics.’ And there’s nothing about me that’s cool, I can tell you that. You don’t play basketball cool.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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