BULLS NEED WIN FOR PLAYOFF MOMENTUMBy Jon Greenberg
The Chicago Bulls have blessed their fans with unnatural consistency this season, losing consecutive games only four times, and never three in a row.
With a three-game lead for the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs and only five games to go, it seems like a fait accompli that the Bulls will get the No. 1 seed, a scenario that would've been deemed outlandish in the fall, unthinkable last summer.
So you'd think Thursday's final showdown with the Boston Celtics would be more important to the visitors, who are currently tied with the Miami Heat for the No. 2 seed. But after watching the Bulls pull out a few uninspiring victories, I think it is vital the Bulls win this game.
It sounds like coachspeak when Derrick Rose talks about a 97-94 win over Phoenix like a loss, but he isn't humble in the way some might think. Rose is cold-blooded when it comes to basketball and he's thinking about a championship and what it takes to get there. He can see the slippage on defense lately, the blips in intensity.
It's probably more important for Boston's veteran team to get some comfort food at Manny's (call Shaq the Big Corned Beef) than it is for them to pull out a road win at the United Center.
The difference between the 2- and the 3-seed is much less than the difference between No. 1 and No. 2, because the top seed avoids Miami in the second round. (The Celtics will play in South Beach on Sunday.) Boston has the experience to grind out a second-round win in the playoffs, even without Kendrick Perkins. Like a Tom Izzo team in March (well, except this year), I can't count out the Celtics in the postseason.
But Rose has never won a playoff series and this is Tom Thibodeau's first rodeo as a head coach. Not that these two need much help, but the Bulls need to lock down this No. 1 seed and get a little confidence going into their first-round series. A win over the Celtics is key.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
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CELTICS CAN'T LET 2-SEED SLIP AWAYBy Chris Forsberg
While the Celtics have virtually no chance to usurp the Chicago Bulls as the No. 1 overall seed in the Eastern Conference, Thursday's game still means more to Boston because the Celtics shouldn't let the No. 2 seed slip through their fingers, as well.
Entering February, the Celtics boasted a three-game cushion over both the Heat and the Bulls, but what should have been a breezy jog to the finish has turned into a desperate stumble to stay ahead of Miami. The Bulls have surged to the front of the pack and with five games to play both the Celtics and Heat find themselves three games back.
Boston boasts the head-to-head tiebreaker over Miami, but given the Heat's strong play lately, every win is important, which is just more reason for the Celtics to be dialed in on Thursday.
Boston coach Doc Rivers has already sworn off statement games, suggesting earlier this week that those are "crap," and contends that a loss to the Bulls shouldn't affect his team's psyche should the two sides meet again in the postseason.
Boston wants to win Thursday night because it's still trying to find its rhythm late in the season, this after going 8-8 in its past 16 games. Winning three of its past four, including quality wins over the West-leading San Antonio Spurs and the playoff-bound Philadelphia 76ers, a potential first-round opponent, has buoyed Boston's staggering spirits. As has the Celtics' health with 14 healthy bodies -- and nearly 15 before Shaquille O'Neal injured his calf Sunday in a win over the Pistons.
And don't discount Boston's desire to win the season series. The Celtics wouldn't mind atoning for a putrid effort on the second night of a back-to-back in Chicago in January. Seeing old friends like Tom Thibodeau and Brian Scalabrine always provides a little motivation -- just as seeing Joakim Noah ought to give Kevin Garnett a spark and Rajon Rondo will be a little extra amped to match up with Derrick Rose.
The Bulls certainly would like to top Boston again, but they don't have nearly as much motivation. A loss does little to derail their express train to the top seed in the East so long as they take care of business over their final four games of the season.
In the middle of a week that features three potential playoff foes in Philly, Chicago and Miami, Boston has far more motivation to remind its East brethren who wears the crown in the Eastern Conference.
Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.
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