Game Preview: Celtics at Bulls

BOSTON – Experts around the nation seem to believe that the Chicago Bulls (57-20) have wrapped up the top seed in the Eastern Conference, but the Boston Celtics (54-23) might have something to say about that. With a win over the Bulls at 8 p.m. tonight in Chicago, the Celtics would crawl to within two games of the East’s top seed – and own the tiebreaker.

The C’s enter tonight’s game with a 2-1 record against Chicago this season, and a third win would thus give them the head-to-head tiebreaker that would come into play if they finish the regular season with identical records. However, snagging that tiebreaker tonight will certainly be a difficult task.

Chicago has been one of the hottest teams in the league over the past two months, having lost only six games since the beginning of February. The Bulls enter tonight’s game having won eight of their last nine games, with the only loss during that span coming at the hands of the 76ers, whom the Celtics just defeated Tuesday night.

That win for Boston is part of a turnaround that the C’s have been experiencing over the past week. The Celtics struggled mightily for a good three weeks in March, going 5-7 from March 9-28, but bounced back and handled the Spurs in San Antonio one week ago to begin the turnaround. The Celts will now enter tonight’s game having won three out of their last four games, and all three of those wins came by at least 10 points.

Two of the opponents Boston knocked off during the past week are playoff teams, and they’ll have to accomplish that feat again tonight. Chicago, led by MVP candidate Derrick Rose and Coach of the Year candidate Tom Thibodeau, will be fighting tooth and nail for that coveted top seed for the playoffs.

During the three games that these two teams have played against each other this season, the home team has won every contest. The most recent meeting was on Jan. 8 in Chicago, where the C’s fell 90-79 in the second night of a back-to-back.

Despite dominating Toronto the night before by shooting 57.5 percent and scoring 122 points, Boston struggled offensively in Chicago and shot just 37.8 percent from the field. That’s nearly a 20 percent drop in field goal percentage and a 43-point drop in scoring output that the C’s experienced in just a day’s time.

Boston has struggled with fatigue in the second night of back-to-backs this season, and that certainly played a factor in the ugly loss in Chicago. The Bulls’ defense, however, must also get its credit.

With Thibodeau on board as its head coach, Chicago has skyrocketed up the defensive charts this season. The Bulls currently rank second in the league in opponent scoring at 91.5 PPG, behind only the Celtics’ 90.8 PPG, and first in opponent field goal percentage at 43.0 percent.

The Celtics have, however, scored more than 100 points and shot better than 50 percent from the field in their two wins over the Bulls this season. Boston won 110-105 over Chicago on Nov. 5 in the TD Garden, a win that was highlighted by 25 points from Ray Allen. Seven Celtics scored in double-figures in that contest. On Dec. 3 in Boston, the C’s again broke the century mark in a 104-92 victory that saw Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce score 20 and 18 points, respectively. Both of those wins came off of one day’s rest.

Both teams will enter tonight’s game coming off of a win and one day’s rest. The Celtics have proven that they can play at a high level against the Bulls in that situation, but they must still prove that they can do that in Chicago. Tonight is their final opportunity to do so in the regular season, and grabbing that win would make the race for the conference’s top seed much more interesting.

Protect the Paint

There are three players on Chicago’s roster whom the Celtics must contain in terms of scoring in the paint: Rose, Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer.

Rose, who has dramatically improved his jump shot this season, still uses his dribble-drive ability as his main threat. He can get to the basket almost whenever he likes, and he is one of the greatest finishers at the basket that the league currently has. Rajon Rondo must keep a body between Rose and the basket tonight, and the rest of the C’s must be ready to help should Rose get a clean drive to the hoop.

Noah and Boozer affect the game in much different ways, but they can both rack up a ton of points in the paint. The majority of Noah’s points will come as a result of hustle put-backs and layups, while Boozer’s will mostly come off of post ups. Though Noah and Boozer rack up their points in different ways, Boston must keep a body on both of them all night long and prevent them from getting easy points around the basket.

Make Open Shots

Points were hard to come by during Boston’s stretch of offensive struggles in the month of March. The C’s went nearly three weeks without scoring more than 96 points before breaking out with 100 against the Pacers, in a loss, on March 28.

Since then, the Celtics have returned to their league-best shooting and have scored at least 99 points in four of their last five games, including that contest in Indiana. In all four of those games, Boston shot at least 52.6 percent from the field. There are two reasons for the sudden return of Boston’s offensive efficiency.

First, Rondo is back to his old self and is racking up double-digit assists nearly every night. He is averaging 12.5 APG during those four games and is putting a tremendous amount of pressure on the opposing defense with his aggressiveness.

Secondly, Boston is simply making shots. The C’s were missing open looks that they would normally make during that stretch of poor play in March, but that is no longer an issue. The core players in Boston’s rotation are making their open shots count.

Both of those factors must come into play tonight. Rondo has to penetrate and put pressure on the defense in order to find his teammates for open looks. If he does his part, then the rest of the C’s simply need to put those shots through the hoop, something they haven’t had trouble doing lately.

Get Physical

A staple of the Boston Celtics during the Big Three Era is toughness. These Celtics have never backed down to an opponent’s physicality and, for the most part, have been the group that instigates such play and uses it to their advantage. Boston must do that tonight.

The Bulls are one of the feistiest teams in the league when it comes to rebounding, and they rank second in the league in that category with 44.2 boards a night. Boston ranks ahead of only the Pistons with 38.9 RPG, but much of that difference is because the C’s play at a much slower pace than most NBA teams.

With Jermaine O’Neal and Nenad Krstic healthy, and the slight possibility that Shaquille O’Neal could play tonight, there is no doubt that the Celtics have the size to compete with Chicago on the boards.

The C’s were crushed by the Bulls in the rebounding department in two of the three games they have played against each other this season, and that simply cannot happen tonight. Boston’s big men must get physical from start to finish and send a message to Chicago that rebounds and points around the basket will not come easy.