Chicago, not Miami, poses the biggest threat to Boston in the Eastern Conference.
The Bulls have the third-best record in the East at 38-16, and they have played 30 games without Joakim Noah. The 25-year-old center is expected back in the lineup this week after recovering from surgery to repair torn ligaments in his right thumb. Noah was averaging 14 points and almost 12 rebounds before he got hurt, and his return could be the biggest addition a contender makes at the trade deadline.
Noah gives up about 50 pounds to Kendrick Perkins and over 100 to Shaquille O’Neal, but the 2007 first-round pick out of Florida makes up for his lack of size with speed, hustle and grit.
The rest of the Bulls’ lineup matches up very well with the Celtics.
At point guard, flip a coin with Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo. While Rondo struggled on All-Star Sunday, Rose looked like the best floor general in the league. Of course, Rondo got the better of Rose in 2009 — when the Celtics beat the Bulls in seven in their first-round series — but the Bulls’ point guard isn’t a rookie anymore. He can match Rondo’s athleticism and handles, and can shoot the rock from outside and the charity stripe. Rose also is ring-less, which can be a powerful motivating force.
Carlos Boozer (19.3 points per game and 9.9 rebounds per game) and Luol Deng (17.6 ppg and 6.1 rpg) are far from slouches at the 4 and 3 spots for Chicago. Boozer can hang and bang with Kevin Garnett. The Duke product also is five years younger than the Celtics’ 34-year-old power forward. While Paul Pierce is a probable future Hall of Famer, Deng might be the most underrated player in the NBA.
The only clear advantage the Celtics have is at shooting guard. Ray Allen is in a different stratosphere compared to Keith Bogans. But in a seven-game series, Bogans could get hot, knock down a few key shots and turn Boston’s clear edge into a push.
On the bench, the Bulls have Kyle Korver, Taj Gibson, Ronnie Brewer, Kurt Thomas and C.J. Watson — a fully functional five-man second team. The Celtics have Glen Davis and Nate Robinson. Beyond that, they have questions marks in Shaq, Jermaine O’Neal, Delonte West and Marquis Daniels. If all of those players are healthy, the Celtics could find some productive minutes off the bench. If they’re not, the C’s could be in trouble.
The Bulls are young and hungry. Only three players on their roster are 30 or older — Bogans (30), Brian Scalabrine (32) and Thomas (38) — and their average age is 27. The clock is ticking for the Celtics, whose Big Three are all 33 or older.
Last but not least, Tom Thibodeau is Chicago’s coach. And the former Celtics assistant hasn’t forgotten how to teach defense. The Bulls rank second in the NBA in points allowed (92.4) behind only the Celtics (91.1). Chicago also is second in rebounding (44.0). Boston (38.5) is next-to-last.
Thibodeau is making a strong case for coach of the year honors. He knows all the Celtics’ offensive sets. Could he devise a game plan to neutralize their attack and outcoach Doc Rivers?
The Bulls are 25-4 at home. They’re 1-2 against the Celtics this season, with both losses coming at the TD Garden, where the C’s are 25-5. If both teams meet in the playoffs, the series could come down to who has home-court advantage.
That’s why every one of Boston’s 28 remaining regular-season games matter.
The Celtics cannot afford to coast in the second half. Otherwise, they might be watching the NBA Finals on TV in June.
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