Bulls can hang with East-leading Celtics for just one half

One way to avoid loading more minutes on your top players is to get blown out.

That's not the ideal solution to one of the Bulls' biggest problems, but that's how it worked Thursday as they returned from the all-star break with a 129-112 loss to Boston, the team with the NBA's best record. The Bulls were playing at the United Center for the first time in 16 days.

There were plenty of reasons why the Celtics (44-12) pulled away in the second half, but long-range shooting topped the list. Boston more than doubled up the Bulls from the 3-point line, knocking down 23 of 47 attempts. The Bulls were just 10 of 28.

“That third quarter, when we weren't scoring, they maybe took their intensity up to a different level,” coach Billy Donovan said. “I thought when we came up with do many empty possessions, we didn't match that intensity.”

The Bulls (26-30) were cold to start the game and fell behind by 16 points, but they recovered to take a 62-59 lead into halftime. Boston started the third quarter determined to get all-star Jayson Tatum rolling, usually setting screens to get him away from Alex Caruso. Tatum scored 15 of his 25 points in the third quarter, the Celtics took a 16-point lead into the fourth and the Bulls never made a run in the fourth.

Center Nikola Vucevic scored 20 points in the first half as the Bulls let him go to work in the post against Boston's Kristaps Porzingis. A 40-point game was not in the cards, though, as the Bulls either couldn't work the ball into the post or chose not to.

Vucevic scored just 2 points in the second half, hitting 1-of-7 shots. Donovan didn't start the twin-center lineup this time but used Vucevic and Andre Drummond together at times. Big lineups tend to backfire against the Celtics, though, when their role players are knocking down 3-pointers.

“That's probably the best team in the league,” Vucevic said. “So there were things we could have done better tonight, especially in the second half, to give ourselves a chance. But credit to them, they played a great game.”

Vucevic thought Boston did a better job of slowing the game down in the second half, where he had to operate against a set defense more often. Coby White also struggled, having to go against a strong defensive combination of Derrick White, Jrue Holiday and Jaylen Brown.

White hit 6 of 17 shots for 20 points. DeMar DeRozan finished with 19 and Ayo Dosunmu (14 points, 8 assists) also couldn't build on a strong first half.

White and DeRozan rank 1-2 in the NBA in total minutes played, while DeRozan leads in minutes per game at 37.7. DeRozan checked back in with 4:37 left and the Bulls down by 17 but still managed to stay below his season-average, logging 35:40 in this game. White finished with 35:10.

Before the game Donovan said he looks at consecutive minutes as much as total minutes when judging the workload of his top players.

“Quite honestly, I have at times put those guys in some challenging situations,” Donovan said. “Where I've played DeMar from, let's say, the six-minute mark of the third quarter throughout the game. Or have done that to Coby a little bit.

“Certainly, I'm checking with them. Coby has been great at times saying, ‘Hey, can I get a quick one here?’ And I'll do that.”

With Torrey Craig (knee) and Patrick Williams (foot) both sidelined, rookie Julian Phillips provided some decent minutes against Boston. He and Dalen Terry should probably play more. Phillips scored 9 points in 18 minutes. Derrick White led Boston with 28 points.

Twitter: @McGrawDHSports

Boston Celtics' Derrick White, right, blocks a shot by Chicago Bulls' Julian Phillips (15) as Celtics' Kristaps Porzingis, second from left, also defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast) AP
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