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The Chicago Bulls hosted the Boston Celtics at the United Center Tuesday night. The Bulls were looking to keep their playoff hopes alive, needing a victory to do so. For the Celtics, there was still a chance to win the three-seed for the playoffs, however it would take a victory Tuesday, Wednesday, and an Atlanta loss on Wednesday to do so. There was also the issue of balancing the wish for the three-seed with the desire to rest starters in preparation for the playoffs.
It was a back and fourth battle throughout the game until the fourth quarter, when the Celtics suffered one of their typical late-game collapses. The defense was completely unable to stop either Derrick Rose (39 points) or Kirk Hinrich (30 points), especially during the fourth quarter, when the Celtics were out-scored 34-25. The final score of the game was Chicago 101, Boston 93.
On an individual level, two players played especially well tonight. Paul Pierce started off slowly but heated up in the third quarter. He finished the game with 28 points. At a close second was Ray Allen, who scored 25 points. This is not to say that the Celtics played well offensively tonight. For the first time in a long while, the Celtics were poorer at spreading the ball around than their opponents, losing the assists battle 22-18. Too many times did they try to force it into the paint, where there would inevitably be more Bulls than Celtics. While this put Boston on the line from time to time, it did not garner enough points to make it an effective strategy. Less than half of Boston’s total points (42-93) came from inside the paint.
However, it was not as if they shot well from the outside either. While they scored as many three-pointers (five) as Chicago did, they only shot 33.3% from beyond the arc. And that shot was not effective for them until late in the game when they were already down.
Overall, the Celtics looked listless on offense. None of the other starters played particularly well on offense, and they got not help from their bench, which only managed 20 points between the five-man bench. While Pierce and Allen played well, the offense on the whole never really established itself, constantly getting harassed by Chicago’s swarming and physical defense.
The defense played decently for the first half of the game, but they began to break down during the second half. They looked especially bad against Chicago’s pick-and-roll. Rose and Hinrich found it easier and easier throughout the game to move off of Bulls screens to get open looks from the outside, and as the game progressed their shooting got hotter and hotter. By the time the final few minutes arrived, they were barely ever missing shots.
While the Celtics played better in the paint (only 42 of 103 Chicago points were scored in the paint), they struggled to get back on defense on fast break plays, allowing 15 points in those situations. Overall, the Celtics looked as unsettled on defense as they did on offense, and while they played well against the frontcourt, they were destroyed by the backcourt. They also struggled mightily to rebound, losing the rebounds battle 49-40. Rasheed Wallace botched one rebound so badly he actually knocked it back into his own basket.
This game was another case of the Celtics failing to defeat a playoff-caliber team. This situation has arisen over and over again. The Celtics struggle against good teams, and this does not bode well for the playoffs. Playoff teams play faster defense. Their starters play longer minutes and give way to capable benches. And their teams are stacked with shooters who can get hot at a moment’s notice. Fast defense, strong bench play, and singularly-hot shooters are all facets that the Celtics have shown considerable weakness towards this season.
They’ll likely be able to beat their first round opponent, either Miami or Milwaukee (which will be without star center Andrew Bogut). But come the second round, where they’ll almost undoubtedly face Cleveland, they’re still not playing enough to win. If they can’t pick all the facets of their game up, it will be an early exit for your 2009-2010 Boston Celtics.