BOSTON -- Joakim Noah nailed it. The basketball gods were on the side of the Chicago Bulls Friday night. The Bulls were lucky to win, except for the fact that they pretty much controlled the whole game and should not have had to resort to divine intervention.
The Boston Celtics, meanwhile, lost a game they should have won, except for the fact that they really didn't deserve to win it in the first place. Does that make sense? They shot 42 percent. They missed 11 of 14 threes and eight of 28 free throws. They had a measly 15 assists (11 at the end of regulation, which would have been a season low.) They forced 21 turnovers, but got only seven points off those turnovers. But they held their own on the glass against a good rebounding team -- thanks, Jared Sullinger (15 rebounds) -- and still could have, no, should have won this one.
But when it came down to making plays, both at the end of regulation and in overtime, the Bulls made them. OK, they weren't really plays in the "designed-on-the-chalkboard" sense. They were plays that turned into scrambles that turned out quite nicely for Chicago, which escaped with a 100-99 overtime victory.
It's difficult to make any sense of this one or take anything meaningful away from it. The Celtics' loss to New Orleans was your basic trap game, although the Hornets are playing much better than they were earlier in the season. The presence of the Bulls, Derrick Rose or no Derrick Rose, should not have required any sort of extra motivation.
The Celtics fell behind by 10 in the first six minutes and did not take their first lead until a Rajon Rondo free throw with 4:37 left in regulation. They never led by more than three. Kevin Garnett (1-for-10) and Paul Pierce (3-for-12) played the first three quarters underwater. Garnett eventually awoke, scoring 13 points in the fourth quarter and overtime.
Pierce? He was a different story. You want someone to wear the goat horns in this one? He's your guy. He was horrible all night from the floor (5-for-17), he was victimized like a callow rookie on arguably the biggest play of the game. It was a mistake a veteran such as Paul Pierce is not supposed to make. But he made it, pure and simple.
The Celtics led 88-86 with 12.1 seconds left. They had the ball in the Chicago end. What could be better? Rondo (a season-high 30 points) inbounded the ball to Pierce, who was immediately swarmed by Noah and Jimmy Butler. The Celtics knew the Bulls were going to try to force a turnover before fouling. Pierce somehow allowed himself to get tied up for a jump ball with the taller Noah, who won the tip.
"We executed it perfectly," Noah said. "We were able to get the trap and the jump ball. The basketball gods definitely were on our side in a competitive game. We got a few bounces go our way."
(Not to mention a few calls by the totally clueless trio of Marc Davis, Eli Roe and Sean Corbin. Tommy Heinsohn must be dealing with an exploding head and a stroke in his vocal chords after this one.)
Celtics coach Doc Rivers said he told his players that "they never foul right away. They're going to trap and then foul. I thought they did do a little of both."
You can say Rondo shouldn't have made the pass -- and he shouldn't have. Jason Terry, for instance, was open in the backcourt. You can say Rondo should have called time before the tie-up (which it appeared he may have done.)
But Pierce cannot get called for a jump ball in that situation. He just can't.
"You've just got to do whatever you can not to get tied up," Rivers said.
Pierce said he thought the call could have gone either way and noted that he came out of the trap with a busted lip.
"Definitely a huge play of the game," he said. You think? "All we had to do was get the ball in," he went on, "maybe in a better position where we can get fouled. Then we wouldn't be talking about the loss right now."
But we are talking about the loss because Pierce allowed himself to get tied up, didn't get fouled and then lost the jump ball to Noah.
The Bulls still had to make a basket to tie the game and had 9.4 seconds in which to do so. Marco Belinelli drove into the paint and Rondo swiped the ball away. As the Celtics converged en masse to stop Belinelli, the ball squirted out to a wide-open Kirk Hinrich. He nailed the jumper with two ticks left.
The Bulls had even better fortune at the end of the overtime. After Terry put the Celtics ahead 99-98 with 12.5 seconds left, the Bulls called time. Their play was going nowhere. The Celtics' defense smothered Noah and Carlos Boozer (19 points, 20 rebounds), but Boozer somehow got a bounce pass into Belinelli, who was being guarded by the smaller Terry.
Belinelli fell back in an almost flailing motion as he attempted his shot. It went down with 3.1 seconds left. With the Celtics out of timeouts, that was the ballgame. Rondo called the loss "devastating." Given whence they came, it was.
Now you know why Noah felt the basketball gods were smiling down on the Bulls. (Chicago, by the way, remained the only NBA team to be undefeated on Fridays.) They did get the bounces. They did get the calls (Rondo fouled out on a play moments after Sullinger got absolutely leveled by Boozer going for a rebound).
But the Bulls did something else, something the Celtics did not do. They made the plays and, in the end, that is what separates the men from the boys and the winners from the losers.