Celtics’ Late-Game Lapses Help Bulls Make Their Own Luck in Boston’s Second Straight Loss

Kevin Garnett, Marco Belinelli, Joakim NoahBOSTON — Paul Pierce was careful with his phrasing, stepping lightly around anything that might be construed as criticizing the officials. Still, while the Celtics’ captain clearly did not have any desire to pay a fine to the NBA, he clearly was displeased with a controversial call toward the end of regulation in Friday’s game.

“I think it could have went either way,” Pierce started, framing his comments as neutrally as possible. “I thought I was fouled on that. I came out with a busted lip, but the ref didn’t see it that way.”

The play in question came with 9.4 seconds remaining in regulation and the Celtics clinging to a two-point lead over the Chicago Bulls. Rajon Rondo was inbounding at midcourt, putting Boston in the enviable position of being able to ice the win with free throws, provided they inbounded the ball safely. They did not. Rondo passed the ball to Pierce in the corner, quickly drawing two Chicago defenders. As Bulls center Joakim Noah reached for the ball, he appeared to foul Pierce.

When the whistle blew, though, the call was not for a foul, which would have sent Pierce to the foul line, but for a jump ball.

“It was definitely a huge play in the game,” Pierce said. “We went out and we got the lead. All we had to do was just get the ball in, maybe get a better position where we could get fouled. Then we wouldn’t be talking about a loss.”

A lot happened after that, with Noah winning the jump ball and the Bulls taking the ball downcourt in less than eight seconds for Kirk Hinrich‘s tying jump shot. The back-and-forth overtime ended with Marco Belinelli hitting an absurd, off-balance, fadeaway jumper with 3.1 seconds on the clock to wipe out a one-point Celtics lead. But none of that would have happened, as Pierce noted, had the Celtics been tighter with their execution down the stretch in the fourth quarter.

The Bulls certainly got their share of fortunate bounces. Before Belinelli’s circus shot, Rondo was called for his sixth personal foul after getting pushed from behind by Hinrich and colliding with Jimmy Butler‘s lower body as he fell. Freak plays like that enabled the Bulls to maintain a lead for most of the game and stay close late despite losing the rebounding battle 43-42 and barely edging Boston in second-chance points 15-14. The Celtics could not moan about those unlucky breaks, though, because unlike them, the Bulls made their own luck and capitalized when their opportunities came.

“We had this game won and we gave it back to them,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “They made two really tough shots. … The ball bounced their way and they had to make the shots. They did, so give them a lot of credit.”

Recognizing that Pierce and Kevin Garnett, who combined to shoot 10-for-33 from the field, were not at their best on offense, Rondo took the scoring responsibilities into his own hands. The Celtics’ point guard scored a season-high 30 points off an array of shots, including a midrange jump shot he hit time and again over the sagging Bulls defenders. Leandro Barbosa and Courtney Lee filled in ably for Avery Bradley, who missed the game with bruised ribs.

Not even a monster night by Carlos Boozer, who picked up 19 points and 20 rebounds, or a solid 14-point, 13-rebound game by Noah, buried the Celtics. Jared Sullinger aided that effort with 15 rebounds, and Jason Terry came alive in overtime. Twice in the extra session, Terry hit big shots that could have given the Celtics the lead for good, such as his 16-footer to pull Boston ahead by a point right before Belinelli’s game-winner.

In other words, the Celtics made some plays, but the Bulls made more. Some of those plays may have seemed like simple good fortune, but that would belittle Chicago’s effort — and gloss over the Celtics’ own inability to keep themselves out of a situation where one debatable call could cost them a win against a conference rival.

“We had the game in our hands a couple of times, and it just slipped through our fingers both times,” Pierce said. “Just little things. It goes to show you that little things prove costly in this league if you’re not on point throughout the whole game. It hit us [Friday].”

The Celtics have actually been hit with that reality the last two games. The white-knuckle nature of Friday’s contest just made the small things loom larger than in Wednesday’s loss to the Hornets. The Celtics have taken one step forward from early in the season, when they got dominated on the glass and exposed in the paint. Those “big” things are less of an issue lately.

Close games do not come down to the big things, however, but to the crazy shots, wacky bounces and questionable calls. The little things still need some big attention.

Have a question for Ben Watanabe? Send it to him via Twitter at @BenjeeBallgame or send it here.

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