The NBA playoffs will start later this month, but Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said this week that Boston’s postseason has already begun. The team is in a battle to stay out of the play-in tournament, so every game will be significant.
But on Friday, the Celtics certainly did not seem to have the urgency that their situation required. The Bulls were dominant in their 121-99 win, and they made Boston’s remaining path more rocky.
Kemba Walker had 33 points and Evan Fournier added 17 for the Celtics (35-32), but they did not receive much help in Chicago. Jayson Tatum had just 9 points on 3 for 15 shooting, and Boston made 28.2 percent of its 3-pointers. Jaylen Brown missed the game because of a sore ankle and Robert Williams sat out with turf toe.
With the loss, the Celtics fell to seventh place in the Eastern Conference, a game behind the Heat. Boston and Miami have a two-game set at TD Garden on Sunday and Tuesday.
The Celtics have had plenty of big comebacks this season, but one never seemed likely in this game. Boston’s defense seemed sleepy for much of the night and it trailed by 20 points at the start of the fourth quarter. But then they went on a quick 8-0 run, and suddenly the deficit became manageable.
A Grant Williams 3-pointer with 6:03 left pulled the Celtics within 98-90, and Walker had an open 3-pointer off of a steal that could have made it a 5-point game but the shot missed and the Bulls regained control soon after with a 12-0 burst.
Chicago connected on 18 of 40 3-pointers, led by Coby White, who was 7 for 12 and scored 25 points. Nikola Vucevic had 18 points, 14 rebounds, and 10 assists.
“They’re a tough matchup for us,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “Obviously, I think they played really well, and we did not shoot the ball well, and it kind of went from there. But they are a tough matchup for us. Their size and length is an issue.”
Observations from the game:
▪ The Celtics’ playoff positioning just became more complicated. The fifth-place Hawks own the tiebreaker between the two teams, so Boston needs to pick up two full games. That seems unlikely, in large part because the Hawks’ play the Rockets, Magic, and Wizards (twice).
Even though Boston is 2 games behind the Knicks following New York’s Friday night loss in Phoenix, they are more within reach. New York still has to play the Lakers and Clippers on the road, and the Celtics just have to be within one game of the Knicks before the season finale between the two teams, because the winner of that game would hold the tiebreaker.
The Heat are one game ahead of the Celtics, but Boston will have a chance to close that gap during this upcoming two-game set. Even if the teams split, the Celtics would then claim the tiebreaker and just need to gain a game against the Heat, who still have to play the 76ers and Bucks.
“Obviously, they’re important games,” Stevens said of the Heat matchups. “They’re all important right now.”
▪ There were few bright spots for Boston on Friday, but the official end of Fournier’s slump was one. He struggled after returning from his COVID-19-related absence but has now had three strong performances in a row. His first half in Chicago was all that kept the Celtics from being run out of the arena.
He started off by hitting a comfortable mid-range jumper, then added a 3-pointer, a runner in the lane, and another 3 from the left corner before drilling a wide open 3 from the left arc. Fournier, who was 16 for 24 over his previous two games, was 7 for 11 Friday. He and Walker needed more assistance, though.
“There’s no secret ingredient or something, you know,” Fournier said. “We have to compete hard. We have to play smart. We have to do our jobs. That’s it.”
▪ It was a quiet night for Tatum. He never seemed engaged at either end of the floor, and sometimes that becomes an issue when his shots aren’t falling. He was 1 for 7 in the first half, and when he started the second by making a tough, driving layup, it seemed that would perhaps ignite one of his trademark flurries. But then he missed his next two 3-pointers and never got untracked. When Brown is out, it obviously takes away one of Boston’s key offensive threats, but it also makes it easier for opponents to swarm and trap Tatum, which is exactly what Chicago did for most of the night.
▪ With Williams out because of turf toe, the Celtics’ lack of center depth was exposed. And it probably stung a bit more that they were playing against their former starting center, Daniel Theis.
Luke Kornet had an uninspiring stint in the first half, and in the third quarter Tacko Fall got a rare chance in a meaningful spot. Fall was unable to convert an alley-oop attempt moments after checking in, and Tatum tried to lob an even more ambitious one to him moments later, perhaps forgetting that Williams was not in the game. Fall’s length is an asset, but his mobility remains a liability on defense.
“I believe in our guys and we’re just going to have to find the right fit while Robert’s out,” Stevens said, “depending on the matchup.”
▪ Jabari Parker had been used sparingly recently but he received a chance in the second quarter. It did not go very well. He air-balled a 3-pointer, committed a turnover, and failed to recognize that he should switch onto Bulls star Zach LaVine, who confidently stepped into an open 3-pointer from the top of the key. Parker did have one nice follow slam, but it certainly seems unlikely that he will be part of Boston’s playoff rotation.