Chicago Bulls — playing without Zach LaVine and Lonzo Ball — lose their 3rd straight after a buzzer-beater falls short in a 114-112 loss to Boston Celtics

John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/TNS
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DeMar DeRozan seemed poised for another miracle with the final handful of seconds ticking off the clock in Boston on Saturday night.

DeRozan already had scored 14 points in the fourth quarter to lead a short-handed Chicago Bulls team within punching distance of the Celtics. He already had dished a pass to Nikola Vučević for a wide-open 3-pointer to take the lead, then launched himself inside the arc for the rebound.

And he already had done this before in spectacular fashion — hit the buzzer-beater, won the game, sucked the air out of an unfriendly arena, sent fans off the edge of couch seats back home in Chicago.

But DeRozan’s fourth-quarter magic ran out Saturday. His last-second shot fell inches short of the rim. Celtics fans drowned out the ensuing buzzer. Even as DeRozan moved to immediately comfort Vučević, the 114-112 loss hung heavy on the shoulders of a Bulls team in flux.

“The basketball gods spread their wealth,” rookie Ayo Dosunmu said after the loss. “We got blessed back-to-back. You can’t hit them all. It was a great shot. From where I looked at it, it looked like it was going in. ... The reality of it, you can’t expect to get it out every time. They’ve got to spread the wealth out.”

Stripped to only 11 available players and missing three starters — Zach LaVine, Lonzo Ball and Javonte Green — the Bulls went into Boston hoping to prove their recent success was more than a fluke. The team had lost three of its last four games after winning nine straight, a dismal drop-off punctuated by injuries.

Entering the game, coach Billy Donovan said the recent series offered a new test for the Bulls — how to suffer without losing the team’s identity.

“We may not have enough tonight,” Donovan said before the game. “But you want to be able to walk off that court and know that you competed. ... I’m hopeful that this will make us better. It will harden us. It will make us mentally and physically tougher. I think that for any team that really, really wants to win, you have to deal with suffering.”

The Bulls suffered in Boston, even when they came within inches of stealing a win. They were outrebounded 56-38, floundering around the rim against the size of Enes Freedom and Robert Williams III. At times the defense reached a frantic fever pitch, sprinted crosscourt in an attempt to cover rotational mistakes with hands thrown desperately skyward.

But even this haphazard approach was not enough. Vučević scorched the Celtics with 27 points to keep the game in hand before DeRozan led the fourth-quarter surge, knocking down a go-ahead basket with 8:37 left in fourth quarter.

In the wake of Ball and LaVine’s injuries, the difference for the Bulls came from a source built during the COVID-19 outbreak — the growing production of Coby White and Dosunmu, who hit 3-pointers in the fourth quarter to tug the Celtics’ lead within a basket.

White scored 19 points while adding five assists in an explosive starting performance, and Dosunmu matched his previous career-best of 18 points through three quarters after dropping 10 points in the third quarter alone, finishing with 21 points and 10 assists for the best game of his rookie career.

Dosunmu wasn’t the only local product to stand out throughout the loss. Chicago native Alfonzo McKinnie scored four points in his first start for the Bulls. Former Illinois star Malcolm Hill scored five points and drew two charges in his first appearance as a Bull after signing a 10-day hardship contract Friday. Hill stayed on the court through the final seconds of the game to guard Jaylen Brown and Jason Tatum.

After LaVine underwent an MRI on his left knee Saturday morning, the Bulls said the star guard wasn’t expected to miss “significant time” as he recovers from a non-structural injury.

But any absence is significant for the Bulls as they attempt to correct a free-fall of three losses in four games — including consecutive blowouts — with seven players sidelined by injury.

LaVine exited in the first quarter Friday against the Golden State Warriors at the United Center. The injury appeared to happen after LaVine went up for an offensive rebound. He walked to the locker room without assistance.

The MRI confirmed “no significant structural damage” in LaVine’s left knee, according to a Bulls statement. Donovan said LaVine played through swelling and discomfort in his knee throughout the last two weeks.

“He came down a little funny and he’s got some discomfort there right now, and they want to take a look,” Donovan said after the game. “He didn’t feel like he could return. ... The length and the duration of the season, the number of games, these guys are always dealing with different issues.”

The team has not released a timeline for LaVine’s return. Knee injuries have been a concern for LaVine since he tore the ACL in his left knee while playing for the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2017.

The Bulls are beginning to feel the pressure of a diminished roster as injuries pile up. Derrick Jones Jr. hyperextended his right knee Wednesday against the Brooklyn Nets.

The injury will sidelined Jones for two to four weeks. Jones is the third Bulls power forward to land on the injury report after Javonte Green and Patrick Williams. Those injuries stripped the Bulls in the paint, forcing the team to play severely undersized when Vučević isn’t on the court.

Guard depth hasn’t fared much better. Ball also sat out Saturday night’s game because of left knee soreness.

The team still is awaiting Alex Caruso’s clearance from COVID-19 protocols. Caruso was sidelined for several weeks with a left foot injury before contracting the virus. His return will bolster the defense and refurbish some guard depth.

Defense was a key focus for the Bulls as they attempted to balance the recent skid. The Bulls allowed the Nets and Warriors to score 138 points in back-to-back games as defensive depth slowed the team’s strong start to the new year.

Saturday’s game completed another brutal cycle of five games in seven days, including two back-to-back matchups.

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