- Peter May, Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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Friday the 13th against the Bulls? Great. That alone would be bad enough news for the struggling Celtics, but there's also Saturday the 14th at Indiana and Martin Luther King Day against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Could we be looking at -- gulp -- a five-game losing streak by the time the Toronto Raptors come to town Wednesday?
In a word, yep.
Last Friday, the Celtics got pushed around by Indiana. After four off days, they got pushed around by and lost to a Dallas team that had played the night before. Now we have the conference-leading Chicago Bulls in town followed by a back-to-backer at Indiana and then the Monday meeting with the best team in the Western Conference.
Where are the Wizards when you really need them? (Actually, the Celtics have seen Washington twice already -- and will see the Wizards again a week from Sunday.)
This was supposed to be a stretch in which the Celtics took advantage of a home-dominated schedule -- 19 of 25 at TD Garden -- and a long layoff between the Indiana and Dallas games to counter the 0-3 start and reassert themselves in the division and conference races. They did win four in a row, but the victims (Washington twice, New Jersey and Detroit) all have one thing in common -- they are in last place in their respective Eastern Conference divisions. Those teams' combined record as of Thursday morning was 5-26. The combined record of their next three opponents as of Thursday morning was, ahem, 27-7.
If the Celtics are simply playing to their opponent's level, that is cause for concern. Big time. As in "See You in Secaucus." If they're just not ready for prime time yet, that, too, is problematic, but fixable over time. Although time also is a problem.
"I'm just going to warn you, it's nine games,'' Doc Rivers said after Thursday's practice. "Don't jump off the bridge yet."
Still, wouldn't it be reassuring to see the Celtics beat somebody good? Just once? For a start?
Might the Bulls be that team? Or will a Chicago beatdown hasten the comparisons to Boston, circa 1991, when it all started to go downhill for the first Big Three? The Bulls might be vulnerable. They are in a stretch of playing nine games in 12 days. They are 6-1 so far in this stretch, including 3-0 in a three-games-in-three-nights period in which the average victory margin was a ho-hum 16.3 points a game. Their previous win, on Wednesday, came with MVP Derrick Rose out with a sore left toe. (He hopes to play against the Celtics.) His replacement, John Lucas III, had 25 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists.
"They've been terrific,'' Rivers said. "When you look at their record, they've won [games] that they had no business winning. They just win them. It's the same thing they did last year."
Indiana coach Frank Vogel saw the Bulls five times in the playoffs last spring. Then, when the lockout ended, Indiana and Chicago played each other twice in the exhibition season. He was equal parts Bulls-ophile and Bulls-ophobe. "I was like, isn't there some other team we can play,'' the Indiana coach said, laughing.
"[The Bulls] are tied together as good as it gets on defense, and they have the personnel to do it,'' Vogel said. "Rose is a good defensive point guard. [Luol] Deng is an avatar out there with his length. They have a good system where they share the ball at the level of the Celtics in their championship year."
Unlike the Celtics, Chicago has a slew of quality wins, having beaten the Lakers, Clippers, Grizzlies, Hawks and Magic. Just as impressive is that Friday night will be the Bulls' ninth road game of the season, tops in the league. (The Celtics' four road games are the fewest in the Eastern Conference.) Chicago is unbeaten at home.
The Bulls have picked up right where they left off last season. They are ranked second in points allowed, sixth in defensive field goal percentage and second in points differential. (Philadelphia is ranked No. 1 in all three categories through Wednesday.) They held Washington -- OK, it's Washington, but still -- to 64 points on 31 percent shooting Wednesday night.
Offensively, Rose leads the way, ranked among the top 10 in scoring and assists. The Bulls had hoped to have Rip Hamilton be a regular, but he has been idled by a sore left groin and has not played since Jan. 4. Ronnie Brewer has been starting in Hamilton's place alongside Rose, Deng, Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer.
This is a certifiable BIG GAME for the Celtics. A loss would mean a second three-game losing streak of the young season, except these three losses would have been at home and with the benefit of three days of practice. A loss also could drop the Celtics behind Cleveland in the Eastern Conference standings.
Now that might be a reason to jump.
Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.
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6dMatt Walks, ESPN.com