BOSTON – It was the Bulls against the Celtics, and Rajon Rondo was far and away the best point guard on the floor, in large part because Derrick Rose was on the bench for the second consecutive game with a sore back.
As good as C.J. Watson has been while filling in for Rose, he was no match for Rondo in the Bulls’ 95-91 loss Sunday at TD Garden. With Rose watching from the bench, Rondo had his way, scoring 32 points to go along with 15 assists and 10 rebounds as the desperate Celtics held off the Bulls.
Watson, meanwhile, was only 8-for-23 from the field and twice failed in the final seconds to help the Bulls steal an improbable victory.
“Rondo’s a great player,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “Even if you’re defending him well, he still has the ability to make great plays.”
The Bulls needed their second-best player and first-time All-Star to ride to the rescue. Luol Deng did his usual fine job defensively in holding Paul Pierce to nine points, but he needed to shoulder more of the offensive load. In letting the game come to him, he finished with only 10 points on 3-for-12 shooting.
With Rose out, the Celtics focused more on Deng, which didn’t help, either.
“It’s the way the game went,” Deng said. “I know I need to be more aggressive, but I didn’t want to hunt shots or chase down shots out there.”
In many ways, this one was predictable. The Bulls were playing the last game of a nine-game road trip, the third-longest in team history, and the improved Celtics had won nine of 10 before back-to-back losses to the Lakers and Raptors. What wasn’t expected was the Celtics scoring 33 fast-break points to the Bulls’ six.
The Bulls had a chance at the end mostly because of Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer, who combined for 38 points and 16 rebounds. The Celtics led by 14 after consecutive alley-oop plays from Rondo to JaJuan Johnson and Chris Wilcox with 5:08 left, but the Bulls had cut that lead to three when Watson penetrated the lane. His off-balance one-hander rimmed out. A few seconds later, with 27.6 seconds left, the Bulls had the ball back after a timeout. Watson quickly shot an off-balance three-pointer and missed again.
It was a curious decision because the Bulls had all their best shooters on the floor and plenty of time on the clock to tie the game, but Thibodeau said the way the play was set up, Watson shooting a quick three was the first option.
“[Watson] makes those shots,” Thibodeau said. “I’m not going to second-guess that. I want him to be aggressive, and he was. I didn’t have a problem with that.”
With the most difficult stretch of their schedule behind them, the Bulls have more victories than any team in the NBA, but that was little consolation after the loss.
“Overall, I felt they out-competed us,” Noah said. “It was a great environment, a great opportunity, and we let it slip away.”