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Rob Peterson

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Celtics' toughness will be tough for Bulls to overcome

By Rob Peterson, NBA.com
Posted Apr 16 2009 1:10PM

Because of an 11-point loss to the Toronto Raptors at home on the final night of the season, the Chicago Bulls slid to the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. Instead of drawing the Orlando Magic, a team that has gone 5-5 in its last 10 games and a team whose toughness people question, the Bulls will meet the defending champion Boston Celtics in the first round.

"The motivation is to improve," Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro said. "We're not the first or second seed. We're the sixth or seventh. So we need to get better. The way you do that is by preparing and executing."

Meanwhile, no one questions the Celtics' postseason toughness, but the Celtics may be without the toughest of their bunch: Kevin Garnett. KG, who missed 22 of the last 26 regular season games with a right knee strain, could miss the entire postseason according to Boston coach Doc Rivers.

"He's not going to be ready. After watching him practice, there's no way," Rivers said on WEEI-AM on Thursday. "The way I saw him move today, I don't know if he'll be ready."

Historically, the numbers are still on Boston's side. The Celtics have won six of the last seven regular season meetings and are 10-0 all-time in three Playoffs series against the Bulls.

Head-to-head

The matchup to watch will be between the men playing the point: Boston's Rajon Rondo and Chicago's Derrick Rose.

Most anyone who watched the Celtics last season wondered how much better the Celtics would be if they had a top flight point guard. They got a glimpse this season when Rondo played at an All-Star level and led Boston to a 29-2 start. Rondo's dribble penetration and improved decision-making when he gets into the paint is the trigger for Boston's offense. On defense, Rondo is capable of locking down opposing guards.

But will he be able to lock down the presumptive Rookie of the Year in Rose, who has been everything anyone has expected from this year's No. 1 overall pick? Rose, obviously, will be getting his first taste of the postseason. It will be interesting to see how he handles the rough-and-tumble, grind-it-out style that most teams resort to at this time of year.

Behind the numbers

16.2 -- Boston's average margin of victory in its last six wins against Chicago

Five big questions

1. What now, now the Celtics possibly won't have KG?

Kevin Garnett, the heart and soul (as well as the long arms, the basketball brains and fount of energy) of the Celtics' championship-level defense, has missed 25 games this season, and 22 of the Celtics last 26 with a right knee strain. On Thursday, Celtics coach Doc Rivers said KG could be shutdown for the entire postseason.

While no KG means the Celtics have no chance of repeating, they still have the experience and the muscle to subdue Chicago in this series. With Kendrick Perkins, Leon Powe, Glen "Big Baby" Davis and Mikki Moore, the Celtics still have four decent big men they can rotate through the lineups.

Davis is no KG, but the second-year forward has averaged 12.6 points per game in the 16 starts he has made in Garnett's place this season. The big question here is can he stay with an athletic big like Chicago's Tyrus Thomas?

2. Can the Celtics stay interested?

Boston has home-court advantage, and last year that same advantage saved the Celtics in the Playoffs. Boston didn't win a game away from the TD Banknorth Garden in the first two rounds, defeating Atlanta in the first round and Cleveland in the conference semis in Game 7s at home.

To avoid stretching out any series, the Celtics need to bring that Boston intensity with them on the road.

3. How tough is Chicago's frontcourt?

You see a lot of yelling after dunks (Tyrus Thomas) and blocks (Joakim Noah), but can that regular season bravado translate in the Playoffs? Neither Thomas nor Noah have started a Playoffs game. Even without KG, the Celtics have guys who have been through the postseason grind. Perkins has played 31 Playoffs game, which include 25 from last year. Powe was also instrumental in the Celtics' run to the title, which included a great Game 2 against the Lakers in The Finals.

After Thomas and Noah, it's Brad Miller and not much else. Youthful exuberance is nice. Postseason experience is better.

4. How will Del Negro handle the pressure?

Chicago, in addition to having a rookie point guard, also has a rookie coach in Del Negro. Thankfully, he's flanked by veteran assistants Del Harris and Bernie Bickerstaff, both of whom have extensive postseason coaching experience. Harris took a 40-42 Houston team to The Finals in 1981. Bickerstaff was an assistant on Washington's 1978 title team. There is nothing they haven't seen or heard.

Still, Del Negro has to put his sages' lessons into action. At times this season, Del Negro, who had never been a head coach at any level before this season, has looked lost on the sidelines. It will be up to the wily vets behind Del Negro to point him in the right direction.

5. Will the real Bulls please stand up?

Prior to their embarrassing loss to Toronto on the final night, the Bulls had won 12 of their last 15. Which team can Bulls' fans (and the Bulls themselves) expect to see against the Celtics: the one that Bulled its way into the postseason or the one that got outhustled and outworked by a team playing for nothing other than pride?

"That's the million-dollar question,'' Del Negro told reporters after the Raptors loss. ''Who knows? If it was that easy, every coach would have the answer. Maybe because we had a big win at Detroit [on Monday], we thought it would just happen."

Prediction

Celtics in seven. Boston can still win this series without Garnett, but they'll be pushed to the limit by a healthier, younger Bulls squad.

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