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Friday, December 3, 2010
Mailbag: Can Bulls challenge in East?

By Chris Forsberg
ESPNBoston.com

For the fourth consecutive season, the Celtics are off to a fast start at 14-4 overall. But if you believe what Shaquille O'Neal and Glen Davis have said recently, Boston should be undefeated. Many in the Celtics locker room truly feel like no team has beaten them. Boston simply beat itself in those four defeats.

And while it's way too early to start dreaming about the playoffs, consider this nugget from ESPN researchers: Heading into Thursday's action, the Celtics boasted the second-easiest remaining schedule in the NBA with their opponents' combined winning percentage currently at 47 percent.

The one team in front of them? The Chicago Bulls (46.9 percent), who visit the TD Garden Friday night (ESPN, 8 ET) for another early season showdown of two teams that could find themselves near the top of the Eastern Conference by season's end.

The Bulls rallied to force overtime in their first visit to Boston last month, but Kevin Garnett forced Joakim Noah to commit a turnover late in the extra session, allowing the Celtics to escape with a 110-105 triumph.

With the hoopla surrounding the return of Tom Thibodeau and Brian Scalabrine having played out last visit, the focus Friday will be on two conference powers slugging it out. Let's start this week's Celtics Mailbag there (or use the navigation below to hop to another section):

Bulls eyed | Baby talk | Bring on Bradley | Best of the Rest

Bulls eyed

Q: I know the Bulls are only 9-7, but I still see them as one of the biggest threats in the East to the Celtics. What do you think? -- JT (Boston)

A: I couldn't agree more. Some of my friends mocked me a bit when I suggested that the Bulls could finish as a top seed in the East this season. My reasoning: I felt like the Heat were going to take some time to click, and since Chicago plays in a weaker Central Division, it might be able to stockpile some additional wins. Well, I didn't expect Chicago to struggle as much as it has out of the gates (and, honestly, I didn't expect Miami to do the same), but I do think the Bulls are going to take off soon (Heat, too) and that, combined with their current easiest remaining schedule in the league, will aid them in earning a lofty seed. Given the playoff history, I think the Celtics would be just fine with not seeing the Bulls, especially when they're in full health and clicking on all cylinders (which you expect the Bulls to be doing by April).

Q: If you could have either Derrick Rose or Rajon Rondo to start a team, which would it be? -- Bill (Hartford, Conn.)

A: If I watched Rose as often as I see Rondo, I might convince myself otherwise, but to me it comes down to how important Rondo is to the overall success of this team, and I think I'd have to go with him. I would love if we could flip-flop them for a 20-game stretch and gauge how much better (or worse) each team got based on having the different style of player. Clearly, Rondo has the ability to be a 25-plus point scorer like Rose, but they certainly don't go about it the same way, and Rose's jumper alone would cause many to go the opposite direction I would. What's great is that both guys are super young, and we've got another decade to potentially watch their rivalry blossom. Needless to say, the debate will probably open every time the Bulls and Celtics meet.

Baby talk

Q: Do you think Glen "Big Baby" Davis can win the Sixth Man of the Year Award this year? -- Michael (Buena Park, Calif.)

A: There's really two questions here: Should he win the award and can he win the award? Nearing the end of the first quarter of the NBA season, Davis is averaging career bests at 11.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 0.9 steals per game. What's more, he's shooting 50 percent from the floor, phenomenal for a player who spends much of his time picking-and-popping. If you combine that with his inspired defensive play, particularly the 21 charges drawn, you can certainly make the case that Davis, who is the league's most-used bench player at 29.4 minutes per game, essentially making him a glorified starter, deserves consideration. My worry is that voters will get caught up in the point total, much like last season when Jamal Crawford earned the award after averaging 18 points in 31.1 minutes per game off the bench. Crawford certainly deserved the honor, but I think such a premium is put on point total (surely, the easiest metric to gauge a bench player's production) that I wonder if Davis will be overlooked despite his all-around contributions.

Q: Why haven't the Celtics signed Big Baby? What are they waiting for? -- Jeff (Oklahoma City, Okla.)

A: The Celtics don't have much financial wiggle room right now, and honestly, I do think they wanted to see what Davis could do this season. He puts it in the best analogy: He's a senior in high school now. It's his fourth year. He's taken Algebra 1 and 2. It's time to put it all together and show what he's learned over the past three seasons. Boston has to like the returns, and if this continues Davis is certainly going to drive up his current $3 million price tag (he signed a two-year, $6 million extension in August 2009). Depending on how this season plays out, the Celtics could need Davis in a starting role moving forward, and it will be interesting to see what type of interest he draws on an open market.

Bring on Bradley

Q: I am really excited to read Avery Bradley is putting in some extra practice time. Do you see him playing the same role that Tony Allen did for the second unit? A lock-down defender, with his offense being a bonus? I have heard that his mid-range jump shot is pretty good and he just needs more confidence to take it. -- Jason (Tuscaloosa, Ala.)

A: Let's hope the bar is set a little bit higher than what TA did for Boston, but I understand your point. Bradley is certainly going to be a defense-first player, and it's encouraging to hear someone like Rondo -- a member of the NBA All-Defense team, mind you -- saying that Bradley's defense at 20 years old is well ahead of where Rondo was as a rookie. I think the Celtics envision Bradley as similar to Delonte West, as a combination guard that can log time at the point but primarily be a shooting guard. Of course, that means Bradley needs to shape his jumper to get it to the level of West, in which his mid-range and 3-point shots are key weapons. If Bradley is the 2-guard of the future in Boston, we shouldn't expect Ray Allen-like shooting, but the potential Rondo-Bradley backcourt has to leave opposing guards frightened in terms of defensive pressure.

Q: What have you seen from Bradley in practice? With Nate [Robinson] and Rondo having minor injuries, do you think there is a chance that Bradley will get some playing time? -- Kareem (Brooklyn, N.Y.)

A: Honestly, we haven't seen much of Bradley beyond 2-on-2 work post-practice. He's working his way into the rotation with the second unit, but we haven't seen too many reps in 5-on-5 action in the portion viewed by media at the end of each session. The biggest problem the Celtics have right now with wanting to get Bradley on the floor is that he doesn't know the offense (or, at least, he hasn't had the chance to run it much on the court). And when your second unit is struggling as it is, offensively, you can't trot out a point guard who's still learning the sets. So I actually don't see Bradley getting too much time, unless Rondo or Robinson simply can't suit up. I think the Celtics are content to let Bradley learn on the practice court, maybe dragging him in for more offday sessions and eventually turning him loose when he shows the ability to be a second-unit floor general.

Best of the rest

Q: What do you make of the block party so far? Are stats being skewed as of late, or can we expect this to continue as an added focus on the defensive end? -- Zain (Davis, Calif.)

A: Doc Rivers suggested before the Portland game that blocks are a "fool's gold" stat because sometimes it suggests that good help defense is simply bailing out poor on-ball defense (with guards allowing penetration). I'd like to see Boston's number climb a bit, as I think some blocks should just come through the flow of the game, especially for a team that prides itself on defense. But if blocks are down because teams are settling for perimeter jumpers and not getting second-chance efforts because of solid defensive rebounding by Boston, I don't think Rivers will have any problem with finishing dead last in blocks per game.

Q: I only see the Celtics playing the Cavaliers three times this season. What's going on? -- Betsy (Dallas)

A: We actually get this question fairly regularly, so here's how it works:

• The Celtics play each of the 15 Western Conference opponents twice per season (one home, one away) for a total of 30 games.

• The Celtics play each of their four Atlantic Division rivals four times per season (two home, two away) for a total of 16 games.

• The Celtics play six Eastern Conference teams four times apiece (two home, two away) for a total of 24 games.

• The Celtics play four Eastern Conference teams three times apiece for a total of 12 games. Each year the NBA rotates the four teams that each squad only plays three times because of expansion that made the old system of playing all Eastern Conference teams four times obsolete.

So, you might recall last year the Celtics only played Miami three times. For the next three seasons, they'll see them four times. The year before that, Boston only played the Bulls and the Bucks three times apiece. This year, Cleveland and Orlando are part of that three-game rotation.

Q: As someone who spends a lot of time around Celtics players, what are they like as people? What is it you see that we don't see on film or in print? Give us the inside scoop on player personalities. -- Alex (Norfolk, Va.)

A: It really varies from player to player. With some guys, what you see is what you get. Other times a player's reputation doesn't match with what you observe on a daily basis. I think it's tough for players to be themselves at times when they have 15 cameras and 20 microphones in their faces, but they're pretty used to living their lives -- at least when it comes to basketball -- in the public eye.

Shamelessly, I'll plug the debut of ESPN's five-part documentary series The Association: Boston Celtics, which debuts tonight (7 ET, before Celtics vs. Bulls tip-off at 8 ET) Even as someone who follows the team on a daily basis, I'm curious to see what the NBA all-access cameras capture. It will be interesting to me to see if that syncs up with what we hear and see in the times the players are available to us. Maybe then I'll be able to better answer your question.

Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.