BOSTON -- The 43rd season in Bulls franchise history unofficially started when the winning Ping-Pong-ball combination of 11-7-9-13 from last May's draft lottery kept No. 1 pick Derrick Rose in his hometown.
It officially ended Saturday night at TD Banknorth Garden, when the combination of too much heart from the defending NBA champion Celtics and too little defense overcame these upstart Bulls.
The 109-99 final ended these spectacular, seven-game Eastern Conference quarterfinals in somewhat anticlimactic fashion.
It also placed a period on a wild season that featured injuries to Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich, Rose's ascension, the trade-deadline acquisitions of John Salmons and Brad Miller and the unexpected coaching debut of Vinny Del Negro.
"I'm not going to lie," a reflective Hinrich said. "There was a time this year when we didn't know we had this in us. To fight like this and play at a high level from the All-Star break on, and especially in this series, says a lot.
"It hurts to lose. But we showed a lot of heart."
Ray Allen's 23 points led the Celtics, whose maligned bench came through with 16 points and four three-pointers from Eddie House and eight points from Brian Scalabrine.
Ben Gordon's 33 led the Bulls. Rose scored 18 and Hinrich added 16 off the bench.
"It's heartbreaking we can't move on," Rose said. "But take it for what it's worth. We took the champs to seven games. I can't do anything but learn from it.
"I'm blessed to be in the playoffs my first year."
The Bulls looked blessed early, with Gordon scoring 13 first-quarter points and then adding five more in the first 59 seconds of the second quarter to push the Bulls up 33-23, their largest lead.
Then disaster struck. Think Jan. 3 home loss to Minnesota disaster. Think Jan. 10 home loss to Oklahoma City disaster.
The Bulls resorted to overdribbling, careless passing and bad shots. Gordon and Miller each had two of the Bulls' nine turnovers in the quarter.
That's six more turnovers than field goals.
In fact, after Tyrus Thomas' jumper with 8:01 left, the Bulls didn't make another field goal in the half and were outscored 22-2.
"We weren't moving the ball like we should've," Salmons said.
The Bulls, who were outscored 44-18 in the paint, suddenly trailed 52-39 at halftime.
Gordon finally sank two free throws at the 6:05 mark of the third -- his first points since those back-to-back jumpers in the first minute of the second quarter.
And then the inevitable happened: Joakim Noah and Miller whacked Rajon Rondo with hard fouls on consecutive possessions, escalating the flagrant-no flagrant debate anew.
The latter seemed to rattle the Celtics as Rondo first missed both free throws and shortly thereafter drew a technical foul. Gordon made that foul shot to make it 65-59 with 3:44 left.
The Bulls pulled within 89-86 on two Gordon free throws with 5:39 left. But Kendrick Perkins scored on a power move and hit two free throws as the Bulls had been over the limit for the final 8:20.
The Bulls' last gasp ended when, trailing 100-95, Gordon missed a baseline runner and Noah fouled out. Paul Pierce's two free throws with 46.8 seconds left made it 102-95.
"We became a team after the trade," Del Negro said. "Guys started believing in each other. Our young guys -- Joakim, Tyrus and Derrick -- have grown tremendously and there's still more.
"Our veteran guys have shown good leadership and played well. Things are going in the right direction and that was my mind-set going in. Build a team."
Said Gordon: "I think this was one of the best series ever. It's hard to see it end."
That's the crazy thing about any sports team in the playoffs. Players are always running 100 m.p.h., devouring game film, working extra on their shot, traveling to and playing in game after game.
And then it ends.
And all that's left are the memories.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun