Game Preview: Bulls at Celtics

BOSTON – If this reunion is as great as the first one, NBA fans are in for a dandy tonight.

The Boston Celtics (14-4) will host the Chicago Bulls (9-7) for the second time this season at 8 p.m. tonight in the TD Garden. It will be a rematch between the two teams that went to overtime exactly a month ago on the exact same national stage – Friday night on ESPN – on an emotional night.

That primetime matchup on the court also served as the return of Tom Thibodeau and Brian Scalabrine, two key ingredients to Boston’s championship run in the 2007-08 season. It was a love fest before the game with the media for those two Bulls, and the emotions got even stronger when a video tribute to Thibs and Scal ran on the jumbotron in the first quarter and the crowd gave enormous cheers. It was a great moment in the Garden, but that was only a taste of what happened that night.

First and foremost, the Celtics notched their fifth win of the season, but it came in dramatic overtime fashion. Boston dominated the second quarter of that game, outscoring the Bulls 30-15, but Chicago won the other three quarters of the game and eventually forced the extra session against the defending Eastern Conference champions. When the C’s needed some extra juice in overtime, they turned to Old Reliable, Paul Pierce.

Pierce scored or assisted on nine of Boston’s 14 points in overtime to lead Boston to its fifth win of the season despite a monster performance from Joakim Noah, who had game highs of 26 points and 12 rebounds. In addition to Pierce’s overtime performance, Ray Allen scored 25 points for Boston and the C’s finished with seven players in double-figures overall.

The big matchup of that night, Rajon Rondo vs. Derrick Rose, didn’t quite live up to expectations, as each point guard registered decent numbers but nothing of superstar status. Rondo finished with 10 points and 11 assists, while Rose notched 18 points and nine dimes.

Tonight’s game is likely to be another barnburner, as these two teams match up with each other very well. Boston vs. Chicago has become a rivalry for a reason, because when these two teams meet it’s typically going to be a fantastic game.

Boston will enter tonight’s game riding a season-high five-game winning streak, while Chicago is coming off of its worst loss of the season, a 107-78 defeat to the Orlando Magic on Wednesday. That sentence would give you an indication that the Celtics have a drastic advantage tonight, but that may not be the case.

Chicago welcomed Carlos Boozer into its lineup Wednesday night for the first time ever, and that’s probably the biggest reason it struggled against the Magic. It’s difficult to incorporate any player into the starting lineup, let alone a star who hasn’t played in a basketball game since last season.

Boozer now has one game under his belt with the Bulls and that should pay dividends heading into tonight’s game. Chicago won’t be clicking on all cylinders just yet, but it will be more comfortable than it was Wednesday night. The Celtics, on the other hand, have been clicking all season and will look to continue their winning ways tonight.

This game won’t have the video tributes and the high emotions of a first-time reunion, that’s for sure. Installment No. 2 of Bulls vs. Celtics will instead be strictly geared toward the game at hand, one that Boston hopes will lead to a season-best six-game win streak.

Lean on Shaq

Shaquille O’Neal has consistently proven this season that he’s got plenty left in the tank, and the Celtics will need more of that proof tonight.

Facing off against Joakim Noah will be a very difficult task for Shaq, who weighs about 100 more pounds than Noah. Boston struggled to keep Chicago’s energetic center under wraps in the first meeting, but the Big Shamrock didn’t play in that game. Instead, Jermaine O’Neal was left with the task of slowing Noah down, but he didn’t come close to doing so.

While allowing Noah to register game highs of 26 points and 12 rebounds, Jermaine O’Neal didn’t grab a single rebound while scoring 12 points. Those 12 boards from Noah were the difference in the two teams’ overall rebounding, as Chicago grabbed 43 boards to Boston’s 31.

Shaq should be able to equal Jermaine O’Neal’s point total tonight against Noah, if for no reason other than his size advantage, but the Celtics will need to lean on their big man to take care of the glass as well. Allowing Noah to grab easy rebounds in the same fashion Anderson Varejao did against the C’s Tuesday night will make this win much more difficult to grab.

Run Your Stuff

If anyone watched the Celtics at all last season, they saw that a big lead was never safe down the stretch. Boston developed a tendency to build a lead playing one way, then let it slip away by trying to run out the clock. That exact scenario took place Wednesday night against Portland when the C’s let a 16-point lead in the fourth quarter slip to a one-point advantage in the final minutes.

The players and coaches talked about it last year, and they touched on it again after Wednesday’s game: They can’t play to run the clock out; they must play to close a game out. To do so, all Boston needs to do is run its stuff.

That’s exactly what happened during the Celtics’ first matchup with Chicago last month. Despite their leading scorer, Pierce, having a poor game at the offensive end, they were able to dominate the Bulls’ defense and shoot 51.2 percent from the field in an overtime game. If the C’s trust each other tonight and run the offense for 48 minutes, they could easily match or surpass that number again, which will likely lead to another win.

Force Turnovers

For a team that has an elite point guard in Rose, Chicago isn’t very good at taking care of the ball. In fact, the Bulls turn the ball over 15.5 times a game, which is the sixth-worst average in the NBA.

In the Nov. 5 matchup between these two teams, Boston forced the Bulls into 20 turnovers, six of which were committed by Rose. Those 20 turnovers led to 31 points for the Celtics.

Boston is one of the best teams in the league at forcing turnovers, and Chicago has obviously proven susceptible to such play. If the Celts can capitalize on a high amount of sloppy possessions by the Bulls tonight, they should head into the weekend on a high note.