Breaking down the final stretch

CHICAGO -- It's been a while since we've dipped into the Celtics Mailbag (probably for the best, given this team's up-and-down play over the last couple weeks, and it was rather amusing, in hindsight, to read the letters of incredulous fans as the Celtics rode that roller coaster). But as we prepare for Thursday's showdown between the Celtics and Bulls (Eastern Conference finals preview, anyone?), let's clean out the 'bag:

Q: How much emphasis should we put on Thursday's game vs. the Bulls? Can the Celtics send a message with a win? -- Jason (Stamford, Conn.)

A: Celtics coach Doc Rivers said his team doesn't believe in statement games and he's not worried about seedings, figuring that will play itself out if Boston focuses on simply improving its level of play as the postseason nears. Then Rajon Rondo came out and admitted that Boston might have sent a tiny message to potential first-round foe Philadelphia with Tuesday's win, while Kevin Garnett said Wednesday night that seedings do indeed matter. Coaches have to take the long view, but there's no doubt Boston players will be hyped for this matchup (even if they've tried to downplay it on their own). In fact, I'll defer to captain Paul Pierce to explain the importance of this game:

"When you play a game in Chicago that's coming up with a lot on the line as far as seeds... it puts you in those moments to where you can say, 'This is the type of atmosphere that we're going to be in every night once the playoffs start.' You don't have a lot of games like that on the schedule, Chicago is one of them this week."

Added Garnett: "We want all these games. The playoffs are like the main course, [but] this will definitely be an appetizer."

So enjoy the hors d'oeuvres and we'll see if these two teams get to the repast in late May.

Q: In your opinion, who is a better first-round matchup for the Celtics, Philly or N.Y.? -- Aaron (Orlando, Fla.)

A: Given how close the first three Philadelphia meetings were this season, my initial inclination was that Boston might actually want to face the Knicks. And maybe I'm just being lulled by the Celtics' solid effort Tuesday night, but I'm thinking now it's gotta be the 76ers. To me it boils down to this: Rivers constantly talks about how, in any playoff series, you want to be the team with the best player on the floor. Rivers surely likes his own Big Four, but has admitted that Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire are two of the league's elite players and their potential to take over games could be daunting. Add in the fact that the Celtics-Knicks meeting last month in New York was a bloodbath, and it just seems like Philadelphia is the team Boston would prefer to see. Let's face it, the 76ers are still young and, while dangerous, I think the Celtics showed Tuesday they can handle this team when healthy and engaged. Plus, any Boston-New York series is going to have out-of-control hype, and the Celtics will encounter plenty of media circuses if they're lucky enough to encounter the likes of Chicago and Miami in the latter rounds.

Q: Do you think Shaquille O'Neal will be right to give us around 20 minutes per game in the playoffs? -- Tim (Melbourne, Australia)

A: At this point, Shaq's a bit of a wild card. For much of the season I figured Shaq would give the Celtics 20 minutes per game by the postseason and anything you got from Jermaine O'Neal and his bum left knee was a bonus. Now roles have reversed. J.O. is exceeding all expectations and might be the guy who can give you 18-20 minutes per night as the starting center, then you take whatever Shaq and his bum right leg can give you based on his health. All that said, I'm not ruling out his ability to get himself healthy enough to be a postseason factor. The uncertainty about his ability to stay on the court has to be frustrating for Rivers, but O'Neal showed in those six short minutes before re-injuring himself Sunday that he can still be a real factor on the floor.

Q: What is wrong with Von Wafer? He wasn't active last game vs. Philadelphia. -- Ran (Israel)

A: I believe the Celtics simply want to use these final games to get a longer look at the new players that are sitting on the playoff bubble. Think of it this way: The Celtics know what they're going to get from Wafer (even if he's still working his way back from that right calf sprain). But Boston needs to figure out if it can lean on Troy Murphy, Sasha Pavlovic and Carlos Arroyo to fill out the end of that 12-man playoff roster. The trouble right now is that Boston is playing a daunting schedule and those guys might only get time to prove themselves against the Wizards (two of Boston's final four games -- and the only ones against non-playoff teams -- are against Washington).

Q: What did you make of the Ray Allen "slump"? I personally believe he just took on the team motto of "we are bored with the regular season" and will flip the switch when the games really matter. Everyone talks about how you can't just flip the switch, but didn't we prove last year and this year that we can? -- Jason (Tuscaloosa, Ala.)

A: The way I look at it, Boston pretty much had three key players slumping recently: Rondo, Pierce and Allen (all while Garnett battled early foul trouble recently, limiting his shots, and Nenad Krstic was in a funk as well). There are not enough basketballs on the floor to bring each of Boston's starters out of their funks at the same time. Rondo took a mental-health day in Minnesota and has been fantastic ever since. Pierce smoothed out his 3-point shot and is thriving again. One of these final nights -- maybe Thursday in Chicago -- I expect Allen to get a ton of shots with a game plan designed to get him going. The Celtics do need to do a better job of freeing him up, as I've felt picks have been a bit sloppy in recent games and if you can't slow down Allen's defender, he's not going to generate open looks. The positive side: Allen has found a way to consistently produce double-digit point output despite a lower quantity of shots in recent games (and the last two contests he's been shooting a high percentage from the floor).

Q: What will the Celtics' 12-man rotation be in the playoffs and will Shaq be healthy enough to contribute? -- Faizan (Albany, N.Y.)

A: The 12-man roster can be changed game to game, so it's not as imperative to pick your active roster as it was in the past (when inactive players were out for entire series). But the rotation to me is set with Shaq simply a wild card. The Big Four and Jermaine O'Neal are starters; Glen Davis, Nenad Krstic, Jeff Green and Delonte West (and Shaq?) are your top bench options. After that, you pick two guys who can provide emergency depth. The following questions need to be answered over the final five games: Has Sasha Pavlovic shown enough defensively to edge Von Wafer at wing depth? Are the Celtics confident enough with Rondo and West to make both Avery Bradley and Carlos Arroyo inactive? Has Troy Murphy shown enough to justify an active role for depth up front (especially considering the injury woes of Boston's big men)? If the season ended today, I'd probably go with Wafer and Arroyo, but health might dictate finding room for Murphy, even if he never shows he can be the player he was in the past.

Q: I just want to thank the Milwaukee Bucks for making it a little easier to sleep Wednesday night. Also, here's how I envision the Celtics' reaction to the Bucks' win over the Heat: "Sweet, now we can lose one of the two back-to-backs we have left, as long as we win everything else." -- Zain (Merced, Calif.)

A: It's hard to imagine Boston not stumbling somewhere over these last five games, whether it's Thursday in Chicago or on the tail-end of the two remaining back-to-backs (both of which close against Washington). Ultimately, that No. 2 seed likely comes down to Sunday's game in Miami. Even though Boston has the head-to-head tie-breaker based on winning the season series (regardless of Sunday's outcome), I simply think Boston needs that game to ensure it finishes with at least matching records with the Heat.

Q: I keep sending questions for your mailbag, but you keep doing chats. I'm not in your time zone (heck, I'm not in your hemisphere!). How can I participate? -- KC (Whyalla, Australia)

A: The chat rooms usually open up a few days before our weekly Monday chats, so keep an eye out for a link, then you can always hop in there early and submit a few questions (then come back when able and check out the transcript). And hopefully the less-hectic playoff schedule will allow us to tackle more mailbags in the playoffs. But let's grab one of your questions while we're here...

Q: Avery Bradley has been with the Celtics now for almost a full season. He doesn't get a lot of game time, so, from what you've seen of him on the practice floor, how would you describe his improvement since Boston drafted him? Is he living up to his potential? Is he a keeper? -- KC (Whyalla, Australia)

A: We probably shouldn't be too surprised that a rookie hasn't been able to crack Rivers' rotation; That's par for the course in the Big Three era. Let's remember that Bradley turned 20 this season. He had only one year of college ball and this is still a learning process. I think the team likes his potential, particularly since he's a defense-first guy. Injuries have probably increased his practice time (even if he's deep on the guard depth chart now with a healthy West and the arrival of Arroyo). Bradley simply needs to sharpen the skills that will make him a valuable West-like backup combo guard. That means learning how to run an NBA offense and developing a consistent jumper. Those things take time (just ask Rajon Rondo).

Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.