The Bulls edged out the Celtics 93-86 at the United Center to prevent a three-game losing streak on Thursday at the United Center in the 12th straight game Derrick Rose has missed with a groin injury. Luol Deng scored a game-high and personal season-high 26 points on 21 shots (8-for-8 on FTs) with six rebounds, four steals, and three assists in over 41 minutes to lead the Bulls out of a deficit as high as 13 for their NBA-leading 43rd win of the season.
A game defined by energy saw the Celtics force eight turnovers in the first half, with almost perfect footwork to prevent ball movement from the Bulls. The Bulls wanted easy buckets and Boston prevented them by simply not allowing the ball to get inside and exploited that to negate great defense from the Bulls with 15 points off of those eight turnovers, leading 49-38 at the half.
In the second half, the Bulls didn't have an answer to create easy buckets, but raised their energy level to crash the boards harder while taking better care of the basketball.
There's a basketball axiom that you use your energy on defense and rest on offense, but the five offensive rebounds in the third quarter were elongating so many possessions that Boston couldn't rest. Both squads had four second chance points in the quarter, but the Cs lost their legs from spending so much more time on defense. They were left unable to execute their halfcourt defense for the duration of the quarter, in the ways that stifled the Bulls earlier. Then, the ball started moving again for Chicago.
Before the fourth quarter, the Celtics expectedly used the break to gather some of their energy back. Without Rose, it was clear that Deng would have to knock down big shots or the Bulls would have to rinse and repeat the energy-consuming second-chance strategy of the third quarter, that could be easily negated with smart rotations and timeouts by Doc Rivers.
Deng picked on his mismatches, as the Celtics had no one with a combination of quickness and length to stop him. His heroic fourth quarter line: 12 points on 6-for-8 shooting with two assists in 8:59.
Thursday's game was defined by energy -- which team could play with more of it for longer stretches and how each team could use the others' aggressiveness against themselves. The Bulls squeaked out this edge.
The Bulls killed the Cs on the boards 44-38 and, despite the horrid first half, won the turnover battle 14-12. More impressive, when Boston's energy began to sink, the Bulls attacked in ways to get them to the FT line against a defense that's so great because they don't foul, and shot 22-for-26 at the charity stripe.
After shooting a vomit-inducing .343 eFG%, having bricked all six of their 3s, in the first half, the Bulls shot .522 in the second on 45 shots that forced the Celtics to attempt grabbing at energy that just wasn't there anymore.
Rose warmed up with team and the buzz is that he will play this weekend against the Knicks, but forgive me while I curb my enthusiasm, as he's been a gametime decision for over three weeks now. The Bulls are 8-4 over this stretch without him, looking everything from dominating and inspired to flat and inept over various stretches. In 22 games without him this season, the Bulls are 15-7 and 2.5 games ahead of the Heat in the Eastern Conference.
Stats via NBA.com [pdf].