The last time the Bulls lost three straight regular-season games, Vinny Del Negro coached them and Tom Thibodeau prowled the sidelines as Doc Rivers' right-hand man in Boston.
How fitting, then, that Rivers brought his Celtics to the United Center Thursday night for a late tipoff that tested more than fans' sleep habits.
Rarely since March 19, 2010, when the Bulls lost the last of an ugly 10-game skid, had so much angst and anticipation prevailed.
After a bumbling and misfiring start, the Bulls' energy and fight returned to help them erase an 11-point halftime deficit and prevail 93-86.
"In the first half, we played with our heads down," Joakim Noah said. "Basketball is a game of momentum. When things aren't going our way, our mentality has to be, 'We got to fix this fast.' We can't have the poopy face. Sometimes we play with the poopy face.
"I don't feel like we let go of the rope. We just didn't play Bulls basketball. It's a long season and there are no excuses. We feel like we hadn't played hungry basketball in a couple games. So this feels good where we played hungrier than the other team."
Luol Deng's season-high 26 points and four steals led a balanced offensive effort and active defensive one that also featured Carlos Boozer's double-double and Noah's 17 points, nine rebounds and three blocks.
The energy difference was noticeable in the second half -- particularly from Noah -- with the Bulls getting to loose balls, forcing turnovers and crashing the offensive boards. Deng scored 12 in the fourth.
"I definitely was more aggressive than I was in the first half," Deng said. "But we moved the ball well. My shot felt great. My midrange for the last three or four games has really been feeling a lot better. The wrist is getting better. It's either that or I'm getting used to playing with it."
In fact, this time it was Rivers' turn to say his team let go of the rope, which Thibodeau colorfully did following Monday's loss to the Rockets.
"We let go of the rope," Rivers said. "This was an unacceptable effort for us. It was a crime. We just thought we were cool. We were the cool Celtics. We were walking the ball around and having trouble getting it in bounds. No one wanted to work. You don't play basketball like that."
Playing without Derrick Rose for the 12th straight time, the Bulls' offense sputtered early, shooting 31.6 percent and committing five turnovers in the first quarter alone. So much for Thibodeau's plea following Monday's loss to the Rockets to play with more pace, get easier baskets.
Then, something changed.
"Some of the things that were said at halftime I could tell we were going to be OK," Thibodeau said. "Our team all year has shown great fight. We believe we can win with whoever we have out there. They've shown that all year. We're all disappointed with the way we played the last two games. Sometimes you go through periods like that. This was a great collective effort."
C.J. Watson, who again shot poorly but posted 15 points and eight assists, sank back-to-back 3-pointers to cap a 14-2, third-quarter run that changed momentum.
"I just tried to be aggressive," Watson said. "I knew I'd been in a little slump the last few games and not shooting well or attacking because of injuries."
Asked how injured he is, Watson said: "Next question."
Richard Hamilton scored seven of his nine points in the third quarter too.
"The first half, I was able to get to any spot on the floor I wanted to get to but just didn't make the shot," Hamilton said. "The second half, I tried to pick it up on defense and get some easy baskets."
The Bulls only committed four second-half turnovers and while still shooting just 41.3 percent, played inspired defense with greater energy.
"Everyone spoke up (at halftime)," Deng said. "We needed to play harder. A lot of things haven't been going our way and that's because we've been thinking too much. Good things happen when you just play harder."
The Bulls have done enough of them to convince Rivers they and the Heat are still the class of the conference.
"It's still Miami and Chicago," Rivers said. "We believe we can beat anybody. But Chicago had the best record in the East last year and Miami won the East last year. So until someone says something different, it has to be those two teams."
The offense needs to be better. In going 6-4 over the previous 10 games before Thursday, the Bulls crossed the century mark just once and failed to crack 90 points five times.
But for one half at least, those concerns faded in a burst of energy.
"When we lose and don't play well, it's more us than the other team," Noah said. "We feel when we're playing hard and for each other, we're a different team. Our energy in the second half overwhelmed them."
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