There are always a few hurdles on the way to the NBA title.
"This was much like what has been happening the last few games even though we were winning," Bulls coach Scott Skiles said about Saturday night's 101-97 loss to the Boston Celtics. "We haven't been quite there and it caught up with us."
The Bulls lost a six-point lead with a little more than four minutes left in a grindingly long game in which the teams combined for 76 free throws and were called for 62 fouls. The defeat broke the Bulls' five-game winning streak and left them 22-20 as they head out for six of seven road games before the All-Star break.
"We'll see what happens," Skiles said.
Skiles appeared worried about his young team that had been riding so high with a 13-3 January that was being ranked with some of the best months in team history. Skiles says he has seen some slippage lately, much of which the team has overcome with anxious victories.
Center Eddy Curry showed his inconsistency again when he had only two rebounds, none on the defensive end.
"We're having a hard time with our basic sets, knowing where we're supposed to be all of a sudden," Skiles said. "I write it off as a young group riding high and getting a lot of attention. It's not until sometime you get slapped in the face that you wake up.
"We got beat up pretty good. Paul Pierce had 13 defensive rebounds. Our center had none. That's a pretty evident stat. We weren't doing what we were supposed to be doing."
Skiles also said the defensive rotations were poor, allowing the Celtics to isolate Ben Gordon and steal the game late. Gordon had a thrilling offensive effort with 31 points that helped the Bulls to a 13-point lead late in the third quarter after what seemed like a Celtics meltdown with Kendrick Perkins getting ejected after a technical foul against Curry and a flagrant foul against Tyson Chandler.
"It felt like they were definitely on the ropes," said Curry, who had 13 points as the starters struggled again on 15-of-43 shooting. "They didn't give up. They wanted it badder than we wanted it."
Gordon was then in the midst of a 15-point third quarter, his 19th double-digit scoring quarter of the season, and the Bulls went into the fourth quarter leading 76-68.
"[Boston] came to play tonight and win this game," Skiles said. "We got the lead because Ben got it going and that's almost the only offense we could find."
The Celtics are a weak interior team but strong at the perimeter with Pierce, Gary Payton and Ricky Davis off the bench. Though Pierce had a miserable 2-for-12 shooting game, he had 15 rebounds. Payton had 23 points and Davis burned Gordon down the stretch as he finished with 24 points.
"Gary, Paul and Ricky got down low and stayed there," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "That's where we have the size advantage and we talked about using it. They have the advantage at four and five. We felt whoever took advantage of their [positions] would win."
The Celtics did, breaking from a 97-97 tie with 1 minute 41 seconds left when Davis saw a double team coming to help Gordon and found Payton alone for a three-pointer. Luol Deng then missed twice and, with 7.5 seconds left, Chris Duhon missed both free throws. That forced the Bulls to foul, effectively ending the game.
"It's probably a fluke if you win the game when you turn it over 20 times and miss 14 free throws," Skiles said. "We really didn't have an answer for [Pierce and Davis]."
It didn't help that Kirk Hinrich fouled out with 6:29 left, leaving Gordon to try to fend off the bigger Celtics guards.
"We both had the hot hand," said Gordon, who tied his season high while battling Davis. "They got the better of us tonight."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times