After a stunning loss to the New Orleans Hornets on January 16, the Boston Celtics have little time to get over the shock. The tough and gritty Chicago Bulls come to town on January 18, and they will be ready to put in a fine effort to take a 2-1 lead in the season series.
Both teams have been hot as of late. The Celtics have won six of seven, and finally looked to be getting back into the defensive groove that has defined them for years and has been absent all season. The Bulls, meanwhile, have continued to play excellent basketball in spite of their star point guard Derrick Rose being out with a knee injury all season.
Adding to the drama of this game is the coaching matchup. Though they have played twice already this season and many times over the past two years, it's always fun to see Doc Rivers and Tom Thibodeau face off. Thibodeau was an assistant under Rivers in Boston for three years and has become an excellent head coach in his own right. This clash of similar styles will definitely make for a close score.
It will also be an excellent matchup of the Celtics' collective experience against the youth of the Chicago Bulls. Fans will be wise to tune in and watch the clash of generations.
Time: Friday, January 18, 7:00 p.m. EST
TV: ESPN, CSN HD, WCIU
Records: Chicago Bulls (22-15) vs. Boston Celtics (20-18)
Betting Line: Not available as of Thursday, January 17, 4:22 p.m. EST
Injuries: Avery Bradley (ribs, day-to-day), Derrick Rose (knee, out), Luol Deng (ankle, day-to-day)
Key Storyline: Can Celtics Ride Hot Streak to Upset Win Over Bulls?
The Celtics and Bulls are two very similar teams, but Chicago is young enough to have an advantage in this game. Boston's age shone bright when the team visited the Bulls at the United Center on December 18.
In spite of 26 points and eight assists from Rajon Rondo, the Celtics lost 100-89. Chicago was led to victory on the back of 21 points and 12 rebounds from Carlos Boozer, plus another 21 points from Luol Deng and a double-double from Joakim Noah.
However, the Celtics are no longer carrying that old defeatist attitude that dogged them earlier in the season. Their best man-to-man defender in Avery Bradley is back in the rotation, and he has proven to be a key contributor during Boston's recent hot streak. Assuming he is good to go for this game, Doc Rivers will need him to be in top form against a pesky Chicago defense that ranks third in points allowed.
Similarly, the Bulls will need a good effort from their under-the-radar guys. Though old, the Celtics are not to be counted out. This is the same team that came within one win of the NBA Finals last season. They are definitely capable of pulling out some surprises.
With Chicago playing to win now and go on a tear once Rose returns, Boston will need plenty of miracles when the Bulls come to TD Garden.
Key Matchup: Joakim Noah vs. Kevin Garnett
This game is all about defense, and a battle of old school versus new school could very well decide the game. The Bulls have had the privilege of enjoying an excellent season from center Joakim Noah, who has done an amazing job of stepping up his effort in Rose's absence.
The former Florida Gator has posted 12.4 points, 10.7 rebounds and two blocks per game this season. Noah never backs down from a battle in the paint and is making a strong case for Defensive Player of the Year. He has done a good job of staying healthy this season, after fighting injuries for two of the last three seasons.
His toughness will need to be at full capacity tonight, as he will be facing one of the game's best defensive players in Kevin Garnett. Even at 36 years old, the man continues to be a solid presence in the paint for the Celtics.
This season Garnett has averaged 14.6 points and seven rebounds per game, and he has shot 51 percent from the floor. Apart from being a force on the inside, he has also managed to maintain consistency with his mid-range jumper and stretch the floor for the Celtics.
He will need to use his superior experience against 27-year-old Noah tonight, as Boston ranks dead last in rebounding despite being seventh in points allowed. Though he can play like a stretch 4, Garnett's work at the 5 has been great throughout his career. He plays a great low-post game, is an intimidating presence at 6'11" and 253 pounds and is not afraid to bang under the basket.
The veteran will have his hands full with guarding Noah, but he really just has to keep pace with him. By doing that alone, he gives Boston a shot at winning.
X-Factor: Carlos Boozer
Carlos Boozer has been a general disappointment for the Bulls since signing a max-level contract with them in 2010. His numbers this season are, once again, nowhere near reflective of the double-double machine Chicago thought it was getting from the Utah Jazz. In 2012-13, the former Blue Devil is averaging 16.1 points and 9.7 rebounds per game. Those numbers aren't bad, but Boozer averaged 19.9 points and 11 rebounds over his last four years in Utah.
However, Boozer has been almost a different player over his last five games. During that stretch, he has posted 22 points and 10.4 rebounds while shooting 53 percent from the floor.
Against Boston, he is almost definitely going to be matched up with the slow-footed Brandon Bass. He is only an inch taller than Bass at 6'9", but outweighs him by 16 pounds at 266 lbs.
Granted, Bass does a good job of forcing his opponent into the low post, but Boozer has been fighting past that type of defense during his recent hot streak. He is driving the lane and drawing fouls, utilizing his jumper and being more aggressive in general.
He needs to continue his strong efforts against the Celtics in this game. This means going after every rebound, not hesitating on offense and just having plenty of confidence.
He should have plenty of that, given how well he has played lately. So, the stage is set for Boozer to have another solid game against the Celtics.
The Celtics have a few advantages in this game. They have plenty of momentum despite their winning streak being snapped. They have home court advantage and more collective experience than the Bulls.
Unfortunately, that won't be able to help them notch a win. The Bulls are young, feisty, and determined. Their defensive approach has helped them go 11-5 on the road, and the rowdy Beantown crowd will not affect them in the least.
Who will win?
Still, don't expect the Celtics to get blown out. Paul Pierce will lead the way with another great scoring night, and Rajon Rondo will be dazzling once again. Even Kevin Garnett and Joakim Noah will battle to a stalemate, with each man coming away with a double-double and playing excellent defense from start to finish.
What will kill the Celtics is another great game from Carlos Boozer, who is finally starting to play like a star. Even at age 31, he is proving that he has plenty of bounce left in his step and can be a dominant force on both sides of the floor.
That all being said, despite a solid effort from the Celtics, the Bulls will pull away in the fourth quarter. They will sink clutch shots and play their signature tough defense. Coach Tom Thibodeau may have been Doc Rivers' student once, but he will assume the role of teacher in this game.
Boston will thus lose its second game in a row, despite putting up a phenomenal effort against Chicago.
Chicago Bulls 98, Boston Celtics 92
All statistics in this article are accurate as of Wednesday, January 16, 2013