Undermanned Bulls put up valiant fight in two-point loss to Celtics

With Zach LaVine and Lonzo Ball sidelined, a starting backcourt of rookie Ayo Dosunmu and Coby White helped the Bulls almost pull off the unlikely victory. The team showed some much-needed fight. Coach Billy Donovan wants to make sure that attitude is here to stay.

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Alfonzo McKinnie wouldn’t have been coach Billy Donovan’s first choice to be the starting power forward a few weeks ago.

Ayo Dosunmu and Coby White weren’t the ideal starting backcourt for a first-place team.

Newly signed Malcolm Hill wasn’t supposed to be a rotation player.

And yet Donovan was embracing it all on Saturday in Boston.

“I don’t like to see any of these guys sit out or I don’t like to see any of these guys deal with COVID, so when I say this, I say this from a competitive standpoint: I like when stuff like this happens,’’ Donovan said of his undermanned team. “Because you find out what you’re all about and where your mettle is. You want to be able to walk off that court and know that you competed at a level and controlled the things that you can control.

“For me as a coach to dwell on the fact that we have guys out . . . I’m hopeful this will make us better. It will harden us, it will make us mentally and physically tougher, and I think that for any team that really, really wants to win, you have to deal with suffering. How you deal with the suffering is really critical. Do you pout, do you feel sorry for yourself, do you not get up off the mat, do you not fight?’’

The Bulls did put up a fight, coming up just short in a 114-112 loss to the Celtics.

The team left for Boston on Friday night knowing they would be without Zach LaVine (left knee) on the two-game road trip, then Donovan woke up Saturday to find out that he would also be without Lonzo Ball.

“[Ball has] soreness in his knee joint right now,’’ Donovan said. “He’s dealt with that over a period of time.’’

So his starting backcourt was out, and the power-forward spot was still a game of musical chairs. You would assume it would be an easy night for the Celtics, right?

Well, Dosunmu and White had different ideas. They combined for 40 points, including Dosunmu’s 21 in his first 20-point game. The rookie also had 10 assists.

It didn’t hurt that the Bulls (27-14) still had two of their stars up and running. Nikola Vucevic (27 points) had one of his better performances of the season on a night his team needed it, and DeMar DeRozan was solid despite 7-for-20 shooting.

Both veterans would get a chance to play hero late.

Boston cut the Bulls’ lead to two with 1:06 left, and after a lost possession, Robert Williams III drew a foul with 31 seconds left and made both free throws. DeRozan missed the go-ahead basket, and Vucevic was called for a loose-ball foul to put Williams back at the line.

He again made both free throws, but the Bulls had a chance with 9.7 seconds left.

Vucevic had a wide-open three to win it, then DeRozan had a chance to tie it after an offensive rebound, but both missed.

The Bulls were undersized and out-talented on paper, but Donovan was still glad that the defense, which had seemingly disappeared in the last month, returned to its scrappy self.

“You can’t control your circumstances, but you can control your response,’’ Donovan said. “To me sometimes, when our response is not where it needs to be, that’s where I think the habits really start to go. When it gets challenging and a little more difficult, we’ve got to handle it a lot better and rely on our habits to rebound the ball. We have to lean into the challenges that come with guys maybe being in different spots, rotations being different than they would normally be, and we’ve got to lean into that competitively.’’

They just couldn’t lean enough on Saturday.

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