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Celtics can’t keep comeback alive, get bowled over by Bulls, 121-99

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An all-too-familiar comeback feel left fans unsatisfied as the Celtics overall effort led to another late-game collapse.

Boston Celtics v Chicago Bulls Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

How do the Chicago Bulls lose? Well, if you ask ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy, it’s because they foul too much and they turn the ball over. “If they can clean that up and stop beating themselves,” he said, “they can have a darn good team.” Now, to call Chicago a “darn good team” after defeating a shorthanded Celtics squad tonight, 121-99, might be a stretch. To say the Celtics beat themselves? That’s not nearly as bullish to suggest.

The game didn’t necessarily begin feeling like anything remotely close to a possible implosion. Evan Fournier, who’s finally looking like the player Boston traded for, started the evening perfect from the field, knocking down a silky pull-up jumper, a deep three off of a screen from Marcus Smart, and a leaning floater in the lane. Between Fournier and Kemba Walker, who had four points in the early going, Boston remained apace with Chicago and trailed by just one after the first five minutes, 12-11. While the Celtics were forced to rely on Fournier and Walker — the remaining three starters were 0-for-6 at the game’s first break — the Bulls shared the wealth. Four starters scored, with Nikola Vucevic providing much of the offense (he had five points and two assists midway through the first).

Without Jaylen Brown and Robert Williams III, who remain out due to injury, the Celtics are missing key rotational forces on the boards and defense. And though Boston was able to make up for its defensive shortcomings through the stellar starts from Fournier and Walker, who were eight-for-11 for 22 points in the first, the likes of Vucevic, former Celtic Daniel Theis, and even point guard Coby White helped Chicago corral five offensive rebounds in the first. Aside from Thompson, who has length, but not necessarily the burst required to deter stronger, sprier athletes from snatching rebounds and leading the break, the Celtics starting lineup tonight was made up of three smaller guards and Tatum. The Bulls made out-hustling Boston look relatively routine, and benefitted through an eight-lead change first, leading 30-28 after 12 minutes.

Though Boston’s second unit struggled offensively to start the second quarter — scoring just six points and turning it over four times through the period’s first five minutes — Chicago’s didn’t fare much better. They’d score just eight points in that same stretch, and overall, were shooting just 37 percent from the field. The ideal, however, is that a Boston lineup still boasting four typical starters would take advantage of an opponent that is on the second night of a back-to-back and has lost four of their last five, floundering as they fight to remain on the fringes of the Eastern Conference play-in line. Instead, they rushed jumpers and looked incapable of hanging on to the ball when even slightly pressured. Trailing 46-36 with a little more than four minutes remaining, Brad Stevens called a much-needed timeout. The team exited their brief chat with no extra fire.

You’d have thought the Celtics were coasting, already locked into the four seed, merely using tonight’s game to boost the confidences of struggling offensive contributors in Fournier and Walker. The inverse of their stellar efforts in the first half? The fact that Tatum’s latest heater cooled significantly in the first half. He had two points (two!!!) at halftime and shot a dismal 14.3 percent; his scoring clip was certainly a far cry from the 35.3 points per game, 51-percent shooting performances he poured in over his last six games. Not every game requires a 60-point outburst, but when Brown is out and the team’s collective offensive output is as non-existent as it was early on in this game, scoring struggles from Tatum will serve as Boston’s kryptonite.

Other kryptonite, you ask? Continued poor three-point shooting (six for 22, 27.3 percent at the half), incessant-seeming turnovers (seven), and only two free-throw attempts in the half, all of which played key roles in Boston’s 60-46 halftime deficit. The Fournier-Walker duo combined to finish the half shooting a combined 65.6 percent from the field, while Vucevic led the Bulls with 12 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists.

Missing five of their first six attempts to start the second half, the Celtics seemed primed for an early rally to start the third. And yet they’d squander that opportunity to the tune of their own poor start, making just two of their first seven shots. To douse salt in an ever-widening wound, Evan Fournier received a technical foul for throwing the ball against the basket stanchion, leading to an extra point for Chicago — perhaps negligible, but nothing something Boston could afford. The Bulls would eventually hit their stride as a team, with Zach LaVine draining a three and flushing a ferocious two-handed slam on consecutive trips midway through the quarter. Not once throughout the third did their lead ever dip below double digits.

With less than three minutes to go, Stevens seemed to implement a junk defense, a quasi-zone out of which every Celtic would matchup/switch onto the Bull nearest their position on the floor. The problem with junk defenses — as Indy Conrows’ Caitlin Cooper expertly outlined this week — is that, other than unfolding as their name suggests, they leave too many potential holes on the floor. On three straight trips, Chicago found open looks, whether they were in the paint or for threes on the wing. The Celtics reverted back to man-to-man; things didn’t exactly improve. Through three, Walker had picked up a technical foul of his own, and Boston had fallen behind by 20, 94-74.

If there was a (much) different story to be told about the fourth quarter, rest assured, I’d do my best to tell it. The Celtics made yet another epic-seeming bid at a comeback, introducing far-too-familiar late-game anxiety for fans (and beat writers), but ultimately only got within eight. They got to the line more often and continued to be paced by Kemba Walker, whose refreshing resurgence (33 points tonight) feels right on time. But unlike past runs, this one was fleeting. Led by — who else — Vucevic, LaVine, and Coby White, who scored 58 of Chicago's 121, the Bulls were able to answer every Boston bucket with under five minutes to play.

At the quarter’s 4:52-remaining mark, an ESPN notification reading “Can Celtics rally late vs. Bulls?” lit up my phone. I’ll let the narrator take this one: “They did not.”

There’s only so much you can do when shots aren’t falling. The Celtics shot below their season averages in shooting percentage and three-point percentage. But they didn’t turn the ball over at nearly as high a rate in the second half as they did in the first, and merely couldn’t sustain a comeback against a team that, in all likelihood, could miss the play-in.

The Celtics, meanwhile, inch too close for comfort. This weekend’s stretch against Miami suddenly feels even more vital than it already was.