For two days, the Bulls were saying there was a chance Derrick Rose could make his return from a groin injury on Thursday against the Boston Celtics.
The smart money stuck with the Bulls using a cautious approach. They may have been riding their first losing streak of any kind in more than a year, but these games are beyond meaningless if Rose isn't healthy for the playoffs.
About an hour before tipoff, Rose walked gingerly into the locker room with a thick ice pack taped to his right thigh and admitted the obvious -- he's not ready to go yet. Rose was inactive for the Bulls' 93-86 victory over Celtics at the United Center.
The Bulls (43-13) managed to turn this one around after a lackluster first half that ended with Boston ahead by 11. The Bulls outscored the Celtics 55-37 after intermission as Luol Deng tallied 12 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter.
"I thought the entire team -- and I could sense it at the half -- they were ready," coach Tom Thibodeau said. "Sometimes you sit there and you're searching a little bit. But some of things that were said, I could tell we were going to be OK."
Coming off consecutive losses for the first time since February 2011, the Bulls figured to bring the energy from the opening tip. But it turned out to be a delayed reaction.
"I think in the first half, we all played with our heads down," center Joakim Noah said. "We just didn't feel like we were playing Chicago Bulls basketball. We hadn't for a while, for a couple games. We wanted to come out swinging."
Trailing 49-38 at halftime, the Bulls scored the first 6 points of the second half and eventually took the lead when C.J. Watson knocked down consecutive 3-point shots. Watson shot just 21.9 percent from the field in the previous four games.
"We were not playing like us," Carlos Boozer said. "We're a team that's honest with each other. In the first half, we were playing low energy. For us to win big, that's how we've got to play -- high energy, high octane, aggressive, getting stops, diving on the court, going for loose balls, rebounding. That's why we have the record we have."
The Bulls took a 67-66 edge into the fourth quarter when Deng blocked a shot by Paul Pierce, was fouled on the ensuing fastbreak and hit 2 free throws. They slowly built a lead in the fourth quarter, going ahead 87-79 with 3:10 remaining after Deng scored 3 straight baskets.
Pierce led the Celtics, who had won 15 of their previous 21 games, with 22 points. Guard Rajon Rondo dished out 12 assists, extending his streak of double-figure assist games to 15.
This was the 12th game Rose has missed with the groin injury. At the morning shootaround, he said if he didn't play against Boston, he'd be back "for sure" on Sunday at New York. But even that scenario seems questionable.
"You're cautious because of where you are in the season," Thibodeau said before the game. "He has to be healthy. We're not going to rush him back just to have him back. He's got to be healthy."