By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — The NBA, ladies and gentlemen.

The Celtics were robbed of a win in Chicago on Thursday night, when referee Zach Zarba called a foul on Marcus Smart after he slightly grazed  — tickled, even — Jimmy Butler’s elbow on a last-second bid at a game-winner with 0.9 on the clock. Zarba appeared to call the foul after seeing the shot had no chance at going in, putting Butler on the line for a pair of freebies. The Bulls forward drained them both, giving Chicago a 104-103 victory and leaving the Celtics stunned.

“It was a bad call,” Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas said after the loss. “It cost us the game. That’s horrible.”

There was contact on the play, which you could argue does warrant a call. But it was a bailout call to end all bailout calls, as Butler nonchalantly dribbled out the clock and put up a bad fall-away shot that had little chance of actually going in. Smart played his usual stellar defense on the play, and in the end was punished for it. That’s simply not right. But that’s simply the NBA, for better or worse.

“I’m one of the best defenders in this league. I played hell of a great defense right there. I know I did,” Smart told reporters. “I got punished for playing good D, I guess.”

Smart said Butler asked for the call, and Zarba granted it to him, as the league tends to do with star players.

“When Jimmy shot the ball, I heard him scream, ‘No foul?’ As soon as he said that, the whistle blew and I looked and I saw [Zarba] raise his hand to call the foul and I couldn’t believe it,” said Smart.

Nor could Thomas, and according to him, the Bulls.

“I might’ve been the first one to run on the court, and you see him raise his hand up like it was a foul,” Thomas said. “The Bulls were even shocked. That’s horrible when it costs you a game that you should’ve won. That’s a bad call. We had it won. Great defensive stop by Marcus Smart and the referee called a horrible call. That was bad.”

What makes the call even more frustrating is Smart had already stolen a potential game-winning possession from the Bulls just a few seconds earlier. The guard smothered Butler just inside the three-point line before he could even put up a shot, which should have sealed the victory for Boston. It would have been their 12th win in the last 13 games.

But Thomas missed badly on the other end, and the Bulls had another possession. Zarba bailed out Butler, a call that sent Boston fans into a tizzy on social media and even got a naughty word out of Celtics head coach Brad Stevens on the sidelines.

It’s a good thing for Zarba that Tommy Heinsohn wasn’t in the building.

The loss stings, but it was a game the Celtics probably shouldn’t have won in the long run. The Bulls corralled 15 offensive rebounds, further highlighting Boston’s deficiencies on the defensive glass. But it’s also the kind of game the Celtics have been winning this season, toughing it out in the end. They did just that, until it was taken from from a man dressed like a zebra.

If the Celtics’ postseason seeding comes down to one game, it will be hard not to look back to Thursday night. But in that same breath, we can also gander back to that disappointing loss to the Sacramento Kings (without DeMarcus Cousins) that was Boston’s only blemish of the last month until the robbery in Chicago. Things have a funny way of evening themselves out in the NBA, so for now, vent your frustrations, call for conspiracies for a day or two, and move on to the post-All-Star break push the C’s will need to secure their spot near the top of the Eastern Conference.

The wound is still fresh, and it will sting for a week thanks to the break. But if nothing else, Thursday night’s outcome will just provide more motivation to a Celtics bunch still trying to prove themselves.


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