From coach Tom Thibodeau to an injured Derrick Rose, the Chicago Bulls know there are no moral victories for a team that has championship aspirations. They had plenty of opportunities to steal Sunday afternoon's nationally televised contest against the Boston Celtics at TD Garden, but they never once led and played catch-up all day, closing a nine-game road trip with a 95-91 defeat.
"Like every game, there's good and bad," Thibodeau told reporters after the game. "I was disappointed with some things defensively that I thought allowed them to get easy baskets. But I liked the way we fought at the end to come back and put ourselves in position. We've got to be better."
From the outset, the Celtics had an edge to them and wasted no time to pounce on a Bulls squad that was without its star. In place of Rose, C.J. Watson and John Lucas III scored a combined 30 points. But they missed 21-of-32 shots and had no answer for Rajon Rondo, who played with the type of aggressiveness that would lead one to believe he was fuming because of his All-Star snub. The Celtics point guard was masterful from start to finish, putting up a triple-double of a 32 points -- a season-high and tied for his career-best -- 15 assists and 10 rebounds.
The Celtics, who led by as many as 14 points for the game, shot 49.3 percent from the field, outrebounded the Bulls 44-42, blocked nine shots and forced 13 turnovers, scoring 18 points off of them. Meanwhile, Thibodeau's bunch shot a paltry 38.6 percent, and for a team that prides itself on its defense, allowing a whopping 33 fast-break points was both frustrating and inexcusable. Boston was the squad that most believed wouldn't be able to keep pace with the Bulls. But not only did Doc Rivers' Celtics hang with the Bulls in transition, they ran the visitors out of the gym.
After Paul Pierce knocked down a backbreaking three-pointer to give the Celtics an 82-71 lead with just over seven minutes to play, Thibodeau called a timeout, and surely Bulls fans could feel the game slipping away. Then two minutes, 21 seconds later, the reigning Coach of the Year burned another one as the Celtics capped off a 14-4 run by connecting on a pair of alley-oop dunks, both of which followed Bulls' turnovers.
"We were a little careless with the ball," Thibodeau said. "Not that we had a lot of turnovers early, but they were costly ones ... so it gave them a cushion, they played from a lead and that's a tough thing to do against a quality team."
And yet the Bulls never folded and kept their composure. They were within 91-88 with one minute, 23 seconds left and put themselves in position to, at the very least, send the game into overtime. Most importantly for the Bulls, they did all of that without Rose (back), the reigning NBA MVP, and Rip Hamilton (groin, thigh), who missed his 18th game of the season Sunday, and despite putting up a meager offensive outing. Not to mention the fact that the Celtics have been playing very well over the past couple weeks, piling up 10 victories in their last 13 games.
"Rondo's a great player," Thibodeau told the assembled media. "Even if you're defending him well he still has the ability to make great players. And that team is very experienced and I think they're playing at a very high level. When you have Pierce, Ray Allen, Kevin [Garnett] and Rondo running the team, and their bench is playing very well. They're getting a lot of contributions from a number of different people. They're going to be a dangerous team."
The Bulls know they will also be a dangerous team when the postseason rolls around. Although Sunday's loss was discouraging for everyone in the locker room, the Bulls finished their season-long road trip with a 6-3 mark, and they are now an Eastern Conference-leading 23-7 this season in a stretch where they have played 20 of their first 30 contests on the road. On Tuesday night, Chicago will play the first of six straight home games -- five of which before the All-Star break -- tied for their longest homestand of the campaign.
"The 3 losses we had are not something we like," Boozer said of the road trip. "We wish we could go back and play them again and win them all. But the challenge for us now is to go home and take care of our home court."
While the loss hurts, Thibodeau has instilled a mindset that forces his players to solely focus on the task at hand. It was to defeat the Celtics on Sunday, and it will be to get past the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday. In the meantime, the Bulls have no reason, or moment, to hang their heads, because for them it's always on to the next one.
"It was a great road trip," Bulls forward Luol Deng said. "We wanted to win every game. At the same time, we got to spend a lot of time together off the court, [which] kind of helped us. But there were a lot of games that we came out and played great. We wanted to end it better. Even though we didn't play great tonight, we still gave ourselves a chance to win the game and it came right to the end."