CHICAGO -- Most casual observers, myself and Doc Rivers included, believed that no matter what happened during Thursday night's Celtics-Bulls game, it wouldn't change much at all. The Celtics didn't care where they were going to play in the playoffs and were confident that they could beat any team, anywhere, because they've done it before. If they won, great. And if they lost, who cares?
The Bulls would get a confidence boost with a win, but it would be fleeting since Tom Thibodeau knows that his young team is still unproven in the postseason and will most likely have to go through Boston or Miami in order to earn a spot in the NBA Finals. (Assuming they get past, Indiana in the first round, and either Atlanta or Orlando in the second, of course.)
But all of those preconceived notions flew out the window as the game unfolded. What became clearer for the Bulls, seeing it up close and personal for the first time, is that the Celtics simply aren't the same team without Kendrick Perkins in the middle.
"Perk, he was tough," Bulls point guard Derrick Rose said after the game. "Where he could defend someone that was big, that knows how to play defense. Real tough to go around. They're different a little bit."
How much different? The Bulls outscored the Celtics 44-22 in the paint and had their way with the veteran team in the post, on both ends of the floor. Granted, it was just one game, and there is no question the Bulls will likely see a lot more of Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce (all of whom played about 30 minutes each) if the teams meet again in the Eastern Conference Finals, but there is an edge missing from the Celtics right now and both teams know it.
"They were far more physical and better prepared than we were," Celtics head coach Doc Rivers said. "I take blame for some of that. Overall, they competed far better than we did. Everything they did offensively was harder than what we did. Everything they did defensively was harder than what we did offensively. They got every loose ball and we were the retaliator, not the instigator, all night."
Kevin Garnett put it another way.
"We got to be better than this," he said. "There's no way we come out with an effort like that in a game this big. We've got to play with more grit than what we've been playing with. We need to finish this season out strong. The Bulls were cohesive, they knew what they were doing. We got our ass kicked tonight. I haven't recalled that in a while."
Given the circumstances, the Bulls had one of their best defensive performances of the year. That can't be ignored. But the thing that gives the Bulls such an added jolt now is that they know the Celtics don't have that hard-nosed defender to give them problems down low. Even if he gets healthy before the playoffs, Shaquille O'Neal isn't that guy. The only concern the Bulls should have regarding The Ancient Aristotle is if he knocks Rose out. Other than that, Shaq, Jermaine O'Neal or Nenad Krstic do not strike fear in their hearts the way Perkins did.
"They're different," Bulls center Joakim Noah said.
When pressed in which way, Noah, fearing the wrath of Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, would only go this far.
"How are they different?" he repeated. "Perkins brought a lot to that team. He was their center ... I don't know. You should ask them. But losing a guy like that, it's tough for them."
The Bulls aren't going to cry over that loss any time soon, though.
In just a few short months, the Celtics have gone from feeling like they have an advantage in the post with Garnett, Perkins, Glen Davis and the O'Neals, to a possible disadvantage given that the Bulls have more big man depth than anyone in the league with Noah, Carlos Boozer, Omer Asik, Kurt Thomas and Taj Gibson.
The big, bad Celtics suddenly aren't as big or as bad anymore.
The absence of Perkins in the middle may not be the single biggest reason why the Bulls feel like they can knock off the Celtics, but it's a gigantic one. Kind of like hole that was created when he left Boston.