Game Preview: Celtics at Bulls

BOSTON – Two Eastern Conference title contenders will face off at 8 p.m. tonight in Chicago when the Bulls (23-12) host the Boston Celtics (28-7) for the first time this season.

The Celtics sit atop the Eastern Conference, but the Bulls aren’t too far behind. Chicago has picked up the pace and crawled within five games of the C’s in the standings. Both teams would likely own even more impressive records if they hadn’t been hit with numerous key injuries this season.

Boston’s injury-riddled season has been well chronicled despite their winning ways. Seven different players have missed extended periods of time due to injury, and most of those players were anticipated to be mainstays in the rotation. Chicago, on the other hand – no pun intended – has been forced to play through separate injuries to the right hands of their two big men, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah.

Boozer missed the first 15 games of the season while recovering from a broken right hand that he suffered prior to the season. He has since returned to the lineup for 20 games and is averaging 20.3 PPG and 10.1 RPG.

Those numbers are similar to his frontcourt partner, Noah, who has also been taken out of the lineup with a major injury. Noah had surgery in mid-December to repair a torn ulna collateral ligament in his right thumb and is expected to miss a total of 8-10 weeks. He had been averaging 14.0 PPG and 11.7 RPG through 24 contests.

All of the injuries these teams have endured hasn’t slowed them down as much as many anticipated. Both teams are still in position to grab a top seed in the playoffs, and that is why tonight’s game holds great importance.

Boston is 2-0 against the Bulls this season, having won both games in the confines of the TD Garden. Their most recent meeting, on Dec. 3, 2010, was a 12-point victory for the C’s in which Kevin Garnett recorded 20 points, 17 boards and six assists against the recently-returned Boozer. A similar game will not take place tonight, because Garnett will not play and Boozer has since found his rhythm.

Boozer has helped lead Chicago to seven wins in their last 10 games. He has scored at least 20 points in nine of those games and grabbed at least nine rebounds in eight of those games. Twice during that span he has broken the 30-point, 10-rebound barrier.

While those stats are gaudy and his team’s overall record is impressive, the Bulls will stumble into tonight’s game having lost two consecutive games to two of the weaker teams in basketball.

With Boozer riding the bench down the stretch Wednesday night, the Bulls fell 96-94 to the Nets in New Jersey. Chicago followed that performance up with another dud on Friday night in Philadelphia, where the 76ers took them down 105-99. After Friday’s action, the Nets and 76ers have combined to win a total of just 25 games this season.

Clearly something has gone awry for the Bulls, but everything is right on target in Boston. The C’s have won four straight games since Rajon Rondo’s return to the lineup and they are coming off of a blowout win over the Raptors on Friday night. Boston ripped Toronto’s defense into pieces en route to a 122-102 victory that was highlighted by Luke Harangody’s 17 points and 11 rebounds. Six Celtics finished the game with at least 12 points.

It surely won’t be as easy to grab a win in tonight’s contest against a hungry Bulls team, but there’s no doubt that Boston is capable of doing so. The C’s have already beaten the Bulls twice this season and neither team has been fully healthy in either of those contests. Both teams will play at less than full strength again tonight, and the C’s hope the trend of them winning such contests will continue as well.

No Noah for Bulls

There may be no player in the league who is more of a pain in Boston’s side than Noah. He put up monster numbers against the C’s in these teams’ first two meetings of the season, averaging 20.0 PPG on 61.9 percent shooting from the floor, as well as 11.0 RPG that included 2.5 offensive boards per contest. His high-energy play helped him get to the free-throw line for an average of 8.5 attempts in those games.

Tonight, however, he will be forgotten. Noah will not be in the lineup and the Bulls will continue to tread water with Kurt Thomas holding down the center position. This will make life much easier for nearly every big man on Boston’s roster, because Glen Davis, Shaquille O’Neal and Jermaine O’Neal are all likely to see minutes at center. Without those players having to worry about a guy like Noah on every single play, they may be able to step up their game and be the keys that lead the C’s to a fifth straight win.

All-Star Implications

If you haven’t heard, these two teams have pretty good point guards running their shows. Rondo and Derrick Rose will compete on the floor tonight, but they’ll also be competing in the ballot box in their attempts to win the starting point guard spot for the Eastern Conference in the All-Star game.

In Thursday’s latest voting results released by the NBA, Rondo (929,781 votes) barely led Rose (917,753 votes) for the starting point guard spot for the East. Clearly, tonight’s head-to-head matchup will hold quite a bit of leverage in their campaign to win the starting spot.

In two games against each other this season, Rondo has been the superior player. He has averaged 11.0 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 15.0 APG and 3.5 steals a night in two games against the Bulls. Rose, meanwhile, gets the nod in scoring, but nothing else. He has averages of 19.0 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 8.5 APG and 0.0 steals against Boston.

Rondo has better head-to-head statistics and overall statistics, and also owns a better overall record that includes two wins over Rose’s Bulls this season. Those numbers would lead you to believe that he would be running away from Rose in All-Star voting, but that isn’t the case just yet. Dominating this matchup once again tonight would make another huge statement to fans across the country that Rondo is the top point guard in the East.

While we’re on this subject, go cast your votes for Rondo and the rest of the Celtics’ starting five for the All-Star game. They need your votes, so click here to go cast yours and send them to L.A. for the game. You are allowed to vote once per day.

Cool Off Deng

Paul Pierce is going to have his hands full tonight. Luol Deng, who hasn’t necessarily lit the C’s up this season, has been on fire of late.

Over his last six games, Deng has put up elite numbers of 21.5 PPG on 49-of-98 shooting (50.0 percent). He has taken either 17 or 15 shot attempts in every one of those contests.

He has been much less productive against Pierce and the Celtics this season. Deng does carry an average of 17.5 PPG against Boston this season into tonight’s game, but he has scored those points on only 40.6 percent shooting from the floor. He has also only gotten to the line for three free throw attempts per game, which is an indicator that Pierce hasn’t had much trouble slowing him down.

Pierce will always be relied upon for scoring for the C’s, but his defense will be extremely important tonight. If he can take away Chicago’s third offensive option, behind Rose and Boozer, the Bulls will have a very difficult time winning this game.