Game Preview: Bulls at Celtics

BOSTON – We may be in the midst of the toughest stretch of the season for the Boston Celtics in terms of quality of opponents. The Celtics (4-5) just took on the defending champion Mavericks on Wednesday night, and now they’ll host the top team in the league, the Chicago Bulls (10-2), at 8 p.m. tonight in TD Garden.

Although the Celtics fell to the Mavs two nights ago, it may have been their best performance of the season. Boston looked like the Celtics for several long stretches of that game, and Doc Rivers acknowledged that on Thursday. He thinks the team just needs to clean up a couple of issues before they turn things around.

“Actually, I was more encouraged than discouraged,” Rivers said after Thursday’s practice. “The rebounding problem we have to fix, but a lot of the other things (looked great). Defensively we were really good until we gambled. We lost 12 big points on gambles, and nine were down the stretch, which you can’t do.”

The defense was so good, in fact, that the Celtics nearly won the game despite Paul Pierce and Ray Allen combining to score only 16 points.

One of the main reasons why the defense played so well was the debut of Mickael Pietrus. He logged nearly 18 minutes of play during his first game of the season and was electric. His presence on the floor literally changed the course of the game for the Celtics, and that’s why Rivers rode him in the fourth quarter instead of putting Pierce back into the game.

“Pietrus was playing terrific, and the energy was great,” said Rivers. “And Paul, that’s where Paul’s great. Obviously he wants to play, but he also saw that, too.”

With Pietrus on board, it seems as if the Celtics simply need to find their stride now. They’re inching closer to that, but it won’t be easy to take the next step tonight against Chicago.

The Bulls were the East’s top team a season ago, and they’re back at it again this season. Chicago is tied with the Oklahoma City Thunder for the best record in the league.

There are two things that stand out to Rivers about the Bulls. First, it’s that they find a way to win games that they probably shouldn’t. Second, it’s that their players work so well with each other.

“Chicago has won three games, when you look at their record, that they had no business winning, and they just will them,” said Rivers. “It’s the same thing they did last year.”

He continued: “They’re a great, great group. The fit so well. I think they fit [Tom Thibodeau]. I think they fit his personality. I think (Joakim) Noah, and (Luol) Deng, and (Derrick) Rose, and (Taj) Gibson… they’re like the same person: tough-minded, superstar role players. All of them, even Rose. They just do what they do, and they’re fun to watch.”

That’s probably the first and last time you’ll ever hear the reigning MVP referred to as a “superstar role player,” but that’s what Rivers sees. Rose, who leads the Bulls with 20.7 PPG and 8.6 APG, will do whatever his team needs him to do. He is what makes this Chicago team go.

The Bulls are playing the best basketball in the league right now and will be a great challenge for the Celtics tonight. Boston went through a similar test on Wednesday night against the defending champs and came up just short of a big win. With an improved performance from Pierce and Allen likely on the horizon tonight, the C’s might be ready to take that next step.

Hit the Open Shots

One of the issues that has hampered the Celtics of late is getting off to slow starts. Boston has averaged just 15.7 PPG in the first quarter of their last three games.

The good news is that the offense hasn’t been completely stagnant. It has actually worked well enough to get off great shots, but those shots haven’t been going through the basket.

“If you saw our first eight shots [Wednesday night], I think you would like those same eight shots every night,” Rivers said. “They weren’t open, they were wide open. We missed three layups and four wide open jump shots.”

The Celtics will not miss those shots very often, not with the talent on this squad. If they get the same looks tonight, they’ll need to make them count against this great Chicago defense.

Can Pierce Find a Rhythm?

Everyone has to realize that Pierce essentially went into the meat of this NBA season without a single day of practice. These games have been his practice, and he’s still working his way back.

With that being said, Pierce, the Celtics and the rest of the league know that if he continues to shoot at a 23 percent clip, as he has over his past two games, the Celtics will struggle. Boston needs to get him going, and tonight would be perfect timing.

Deng has been a fierce defender against Pierce in the past, so it won’t be an easy task. Boston’s captain averaged just 16.0 PPG on 42.4 percent shooting against the Bulls last season. We’ll see if Pierce can buck that trend tonight and find some sort of rhythm for the first time in more than a week.

Win the Fourth Quarter

One thing you don’t want to do against the Bulls is head into the fourth quarter in a tight game. If you do, you’re probably in trouble, because they have one of the game’s best closers in Rose.

Rose’s antics in the final period are on a Tim Tebow level. Just read Rivers’ quote from yesterday. The first couple of sentences could be applied to either player.

“That kid, I don’t know what happens to him in the fourth quarter,” Rivers said. “He’s already good, and then in the fourth quarter he like morphs into Superman or something. It’s amazing watching him. I mean, he could be struggling, and all of a sudden he makes – one game he made like four 3s, I think it was against Atlanta, out of nowhere.”

With that in mind, the Celtics will want to do everything they can to keep the game out of Rose’s hands in the fourth. To do so, they’ll need to outperform the Bulls in the money quarter and take home this win.