Game Preview: Bulls at Celtics

Make your picks now in Celtics 3-Point Play

BOSTON – The last thing you want to do heading into a showdown with the top team in your conference is to rack up two draining losses. That’s what the Boston Celtics (14-12) have done as they head into a 3:30 p.m. Sunday afternoon matchup with the visiting Chicago Bulls (23-6).

The Celtics had been dominating opponents for more than three weeks prior to facing off with the Lakers Thursday night, but an overtime loss to their biggest rival seemed to take a toll. Boston came out flat the next night in Toronto and trailed for the entire game in a loss to the Raptors.

Falling to Los Angeles can be justified, as the Lakers are still contenders with one of the best trios in the game. Playing uninspired basketball the next night against the Raptors, one of the worst teams in the league, is inexcusable, and that’s why Doc Rivers was visibly upset with his players both during and after the game.

“I was really frustrated with our execution,” Rivers said after being asked about his sideline tirade in the first quarter. “We couldn’t even run up a play out of a timeout, so that’s just frustrating. That’s focus or something. We have to fix that because we’ve been playing too well for this to go back down this road again. We’ve kind of worked out all our kinks and then all of a sudden the last couple of games it has returned back again out of nowhere.”

Many onlookers immediately pointed to the emotional loss Thursday night to the Lakers as the reason for Boston’s letdown Friday night in Toronto. Rivers would have none of that as he spoke to the media after the loss to the Raptors.

“If you’re mentally weak,” he said of considering the Lakers loss as a factor in Friday’s game. “If they want to use the overtime [Thursday] night, then we’re not mentally tough enough to be a winner. If you’re tough, you come in and you grind this one out and win it. If you’re not, then you use last night as an excuse.”

Based on the quotes from the rest of Boston’s team, the players did not use the Lakers loss as an excuse. They instead admitted, without placing blame, that they did not come out with enough energy and underperformed at both ends.

Everyone knows that if that happens again on Sunday, the Bulls will run away with a win. Led by reigning MVP Derrick Rose, Chicago has jumped out to the top record in the Eastern Conference since the start of the season. Rose, who scores 22.0 PPG, is one of six Bulls averaging at least 9.0 PPG. They are incredibly balanced and can always rely on their stellar defense, which ranks third in the league in opponent scoring.

One of Chicago’s 23 wins came against these Celtics in TD Garden. The Bulls won that Jan. 13 game by a score of 88-79. It was an interesting game, because Chicago jumped ahead by as many as 20 points, but the Celtics cut that deficit down to one in the fourth quarter. However, Rose’s 12 points in the fourth quarter were too much for Boston to overcome in the end.

The Celtics were just 4-6 after that game and were drastically underperforming as a team. They have turned their season around since then but ran into another rough patch in their back-to-back losses to the Lakers and Raptors. Now Boston will need a win over the Bulls on Sunday to avoid a three-game losing streak.

Return to Your Roots

It was no secret that Boston figured it out in late January and early February. The team figured out what it really was, what it really needed to do to win, and how to play well together.

Over the past two games, all of those characteristics have disappeared. All of the issues that plagued the team early in the season, from a failure to rebound to not communicating to turning the ball over, have all returned over the past two games.

Those things cannot happen on Sunday against Chicago, or the Bulls will run away with a win. The Celtics need to return to their roots as a team that will attack the boards and run an efficient and intelligent offense. If they do, they should have an opportunity to win this game.

Keep it out of Rose’s Hands

When we say keep it out of Rose’s hands, we don’t mean the ball. We mean the game. When Rose has an opportunity to take the game over in the fourth quarter, he almost always does.

“That kid, I don’t know what happens to him in the fourth quarter,” Rivers said of Rose back in January. “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 [every shot].”

The Celtics know all about that. Rose took over in the fourth quarter of the first matchup, scoring 12 points to lead the Bulls to victory. It’s easier said than done, but Boston needs to try to get the ball out of his hands if the game is in the balance in the fourth quarter.

Fired Up Pierce

There are no ifs, ands or buts about it: Paul Pierce was dominated by Luol Deng the first time these teams met. Pierce wasn’t quite himself at that point, logging just 1 points, one rebound and five assists, and he was completely outplayed by Chicago’s small forward. Deng put up 21 points and 16 boards against Pierce and the C’s in the Jan. 13 game.

Pierce should be fired up about that heading into Sunday’s game. He should also be fired up that he came out and laid an egg in Toronto on Friday night. His stat line against the Raptors was almost an exact replica of the one he put together against Chicago nearly a month ago: 12 points, one rebound, five assists.

The Captain is one of the most prideful people in this league. He will remember that game against the Bulls, and he’ll remember that performance Friday night. Those games will definitely have him fired up for tipoff on Sunday.