After an ugly loss to the defending champion Lakers on Saturday, the Bulls faced another title contender at the United Center on Monday in the form of the Celtics. While Kemba Walker got the night off on the second of a back-to-back, Jayson Tatum returned to the lineup after a stint with COVID-19. Tatum made his presence felt in his return, going for 24 points as he, Jaylen Brown (26 points), Marcus Smart (13 points and 11 assists) and Daniel Theis (19 points) crushed a sloppy Bulls team in a 119-103 blowout.
The Bulls turned the ball over 19 times in this one, leading to a whopping 35 Celtics points. While Zach LaVine scored 30 points on 11-of-19 from the field and 6-of-10 from 3, his five first-half turnovers set the tone for a generally awful performance by Chicago’s starters. His sixth and final turnover of the game came on an especially careless pass to open the second half (most of his turnovers were unforced), and the Bulls were nearly run off the court to open the third quarter after a brutal sequence to end the first half had them down 10 at the break.
That 10-point deficit hit 17 just a minute and a half into the third quarter, resulting in Billy Donovan yanking Daniel Gafford for Thaddeus Young. When the margin hit 22 a couple minutes later, Billy D pulled rookie Patrick Williams after a turnover and inserted Garrett Temple. Gafford and Williams didn’t see the court the rest of the night.
As they did in the first half after the slow start, the Bulls’ bench stabilized things and helped them get back in the game. Thaddeus Young was especially good all game, nearly racking up a triple-double with 16 points, nine rebounds and nine assists. The veteran continues to do an excellent job as a passer in the middle of the court, setting up his teammates for open looks time and time again while also making plenty of hustle plays.
The Bulls quickly trimmed that 22-point deficit down to 12, but the Celtics were able to keep them at arm’s length for the rest of the game. Chicago got to within nine points early in the fourth quarter and then 10 points with just under four minutes to go after three consecutive 3-pointers, but in both instances Boston got triples from bench guys to slow down the runs. First it was Javonte Green, who had hit one trey this season before hitting two on Monday. Then it was Grant Williams with the late dagger.
Williams later converted on a 4-point play for the cherry on top. It was amazingly the Celtics’ second 4-point play of the fourth quarter after Carsen Edwards also had one as the Bulls continue their nasty habit of fouling on made 3-point shots. While Chicago’s bench stood out in this game, the Celtics’ reserves deserve credit for shooting 8-of-15 on 3-pointers and hitting some clutch ones.
Speaking of that Bulls bench, it truly was night and day watching them play compared to the starters. While single-game plus/minus often isn’t the best gauge of effectiveness, it certainly told the story of this game. Lauri Markkanen had the best plus/minus among the starters at minus-15, and the other four starters were minus-20 or worse. While Markkanen shot the ball well (18 points on 7-of-12 shooting overall and 3-of-6 from 3), he didn’t do anything else. Meanwhile, Gafford, Williams and Coby White were all terrible:
Big yikes, and this was just the latest poor performance in the starting lineup for Gafford with Wendell Carter Jr. still out with his quad injury. While the outcomes the last two games probably wouldn’t have been different even with Carter, it’s clear why he should be starting over Gafford.
Otto Porter Jr. was the only Bulls reserve in the negative, but he played well with 13 points, five rebounds, three assists and two blocks. Chicago’s bench had 48 points and 21 of the team’s 28 assists. The bench outplaying the starters has been a theme all season, but it was especially drastic Monday against a Celtics squad with a terrific starting group, even without Kemba.
Boston shot 50.6% from the field and 15-of-29 from 3 in a stellar all-around performance. The Bulls did shoot an impressive 17-of-39 from 3-land after the poor shooting night against the Lakers, but it wasn’t nearly enough. Getting outscored by 12 points on free throws didn’t help, and Chicago narrowly avoided tying a franchise record for fewest made freebies in a game. The Bulls went 2-of-8 from the charity stripe in the first quarter and then didn’t shoot another free throw until LaVine hit two in the final minute.
Chicago is now 7-10 on the season, and there will be an unfortunate wait before the next game on Saturday against the Blazers due to Wednesday’s Grizzlies postponement.