Bulls 96, Celtics 83

Celtics flattened by Bulls

Visitors take advantage of a tired and erratic team

Celtics forward Paul Pierce has his shot blocked by Chicago Bulls guard John Salmons in the first half. (Barry Chin / Globe Staff) Celtics forward Paul Pierce has his shot blocked by Chicago Bulls guard John Salmons in the first half.
By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / January 15, 2010

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The Chicago Bulls resembled the team that pushed the Celtics to seven games in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs last May. And against an exhausted, depleted, and underwhelming Celtics team, that was plenty good enough last night for a wire-to-wire win.

Wasting myriad chances to rally, the flat Celtics paid for their miscues, dropping a 96-83 decision to the Bulls at TD Garden, their sixth home loss.

Chicago’s defense forced the Celtics into perimeter shots, and they failed miserably, missing 13 of 17 3-pointers and 13 free throws.

Each time the Celtics would gain momentum with a mini-run, they would lose it with a turnover, missed free throw, or missed 3-pointer. And there was no go-to guy in the critical moments. Paul Pierce (6 for 18, 20 points) was uncharacteristically off, while Ray Allen (4 for 10, 8 points) was not his usual aggressive self offensively.

There was a point in the fourth quarter when fans were depending on Brian Scalabrine to drain a big 3-pointer with the Bulls leading, 85-77. That missed, too.

Luol Deng was stellar with 25 points, and Derrick Rose added 17 points and eight rebounds for the Bulls (17-20).

Chicago attacked Boston from the opening tip and the Celtics couldn’t sustain momentum past a few possessions. With Rasheed Wallace and Kevin Garnett out, and in the sixth game in nine nights, the Celtics showed their mortality against a team they had beaten soundly in two previous meetings.

“We don’t make excuses,’’ Pierce said. “We feel like [when] we’re at home we should be a better team than what we have been playing of late, and we should win these type of games regardless of how many games [we play].

“We need to make this building a place where teams feel like they can’t win and we haven’t been doing that of late.’’

The Celtics’ six home losses equal the number they amassed each of the past two seasons. Boston has dropped home games to Chicago, Philadelphia, Orlando, Phoenix, and Atlanta (twice). While four are excusable, opponents don’t fear the Celtics in TD Garden as they did in the past - especially when the Celtics are shorthanded.

The Bulls pressured the Boston guards and forced perimeter shots. And Chicago features so many athletic forwards - Joakim Noah, Tyrus Thomas, and Taj Gibson - that any rebound was going to be contested.

At this point, the Celtics lack the muscle to compete in the paint with the Bulls. Kendrick Perkins battled as much as he could, but he and Glen Davis constitute the Celtics’ big men.

“They came out and jumped us from the start,’’ Perkins said. “They were hitting us first, instigating. We were retaliators. They just came out with it on their mind tonight that they were going to beat us and they did.’’

Boston has a roster spot that general manager Danny Ainge has kept open for the purpose of flexibility. And coach Doc Rivers stopped short of calling out for help, but did say that if Perkins got into early foul trouble, the Celtics would be in major trouble.

“When you have a lot of injuries, when three of your top six players go out, pick any team you want and it’s going to be tough,’’ Rivers said. “Like I said a few days ago, we want to win all those games. And we’re working our way through it, we’re doing OK, but we want to do even better.’’

Better than 11-6 at home and better than 18 turnovers and better than a combined 10 for 28 from Allen and Pierce.

The defensive intensity increased in the second half and Pierce made Deng work for his shots, while Rondo was able to get in front of Rose. Pierce’s jumper followed by a Rondo layup sliced the margin to 62-56. The Celtics ended the period on a 7-4 run for a 70-63 deficit.

Pierce took 15 shots to score 14 points through three quarters, constantly bothered by Deng’s length, while Allen had attempted just eight shots. He was hounded by Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich, who didn’t allow Allen space to create shots.

“The game turned personal in some ways,’’ Rivers said. “Guys were getting off and we were trying to go back at them. I think the one thing people see when they see this team play well is great ball movement, great body movement, sharing the ball, getting to the second and third option. And there was very little of that.’’

The Celtics fell behind by as many as 11 points in the first quarter as Chicago shot 57 percent and Deng tallied 8 points. Boston had no one to blame for its troubles, missing seven free throws in the first period, including four by Rondo.

The second quarter was just as much of a struggle. The Celtics had no answer for Deng, who tallied 16 points on 5-for-5 shooting in the first half. A John Salmons 3-pointer put Chicago ahead, 33-20, but the Celtics worked feverishly to cut the deficit to 41-36 after a 3-pointer from Scalabrine and a short jumper by Allen.

The Bulls responded with 6 straight points before an Eddie House 3-pointer cut the deficit to single digits. Following a dominating performance Wednesday against New Jersey, the Celtics were a step slow and shoddy at times in the first 24 minutes.

And it wouldn’t get much better in the second half.

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