Even two weeks ago, Thursday's matchup against Boston was dripping with anticipation. Not only were the Bulls neck-and-neck with the Celtics in the standings, but the defending Eastern Conference Champions represented everything Chicago was striving to become.
Cut to present day. With only five games to play, the Bulls sit in the catbird seat in the East with a three-game lead over a scuffling Boston squad that is just 11-8 since March 1st, after going 43-15 up to that point. After winning of 16 of their last 18 games, if the Bulls can find a way to beat the Celtics on Thursday the race for the No. 1 seed will be all but over.
That said, the Celtics, along with the Heat, still represent the Bulls' greatest challenge on the road to the NBA finals. Boston has experience on its side; Chicago, youth and momentum. Thus, the Bulls can use the game not only to seize the Eastern crown, but to gauge the state of the team as they enter the playoffs.
Coach Tom Thibodeau, who was the top assistant and the defensive architect for the Boston Celtics for the last three years, understands how hard it will be to dispatch the Celtics both tomorrow and in the playoffs.
"They're a very talented team, they're well-coached," Thibodeau said. "There's not anything that we're doing that they don't know, and there's not anything that they're doing that we don't know. It'll come down to how well we can execute and how well they can execute. They're the defending Eastern Conference champions. Until someone knocks them off, you've got to be ready to compete with them."
Thibodeau, who with the Bulls' 57th win broke Phil Jackson's club record for most wins by a first-year head coach, knows every Celtics player's tendencies down to the most minute detail. However that advantage won't mean a thing if the Bulls don't play the way they are capable, and his players know it.
"We're just focused on progress and learning from our mistakes," said Joakim Noah. "We've made a lot of mistakes (recently), we haven't been playing our best basketball and that's what we're trying to get to before the playoffs begin."
The Bulls still lead the league in rebounding differential, but have been out-rebounded in three of their last five games. Much of that has to do with leading rebounder Joakim Noah still recovering from an ankle injury, but after peaking last month Chicago has had to overcome its own mistakes time and again as they finish the grind of the regular season.
Celtics To Watch For
There are no secrets with the Celtics. Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce represent the big three while Rajon Rondo is the engine that makes everything go. Pierce has been especially hot of late, averaging 21.8 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.4 assists over his last five games. Rondo, who is a notoriously poor shooter, has increased his scoring average and is finally playing with the aggression that the Celtics need him to. Shaquille O'Neal is out once again after straining a calf muscle in his first game back after missing two months with a heel injury. Glen "Big Baby" Davis and Jeff Green will keep the Bulls' bench mob busy all night.
Bulls To Watch For
At the risk of sounding like a cliche and copout, the entire Bulls team needs to elevate its play for this game. Rose had an off-night against Phoenix and the hounding defense of the ageless Grant Hill, Luol Deng's offensive play and rebounding have tailed off over the last few weeks, Joakim Noah is still trying to get healthy and regain his offensive touch and Carlos Boozer, while much improved of late, still struggles at times within the Bulls' offense. Keith Bogans sat out Wednesday's practice with a sore knee, although all signs point to him playing against Boston. Ronnie Brewer has played especially well of late, averaging 8.3 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists in only 19 minutes per game after averaging 6.2, 3.3, and 1.7 on the year.
The United Center should be absolutely rocking, and the Bulls need to come out of the gates fast to use the crowd to their advantage. Standings aside, records aside, if the Bulls want to be champions, this is likely the team they will have to knock off the mountaintop. True, this isn't Chicago's final exam, but for confidence and to set the tone for the playoffs, it couldn't be more important.
Tip-off is at 7:00 CDT; the game will be nationally broadcast on TNT.