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Youthful Bulls are on a charge

Chicago riding 7-game win streak

WALTHAM -- The first regular-season meeting between the Celtics and Bulls did not end well for Boston. And there was more to it than the final score, a 102-91 Chicago victory at United Center Jan. 8. The real issue was a lack of defense that led coach Doc Rivers to bench his starters during the fourth quarter. The message was sent, and not exactly well-received.

This time around, the Celtics again will have to worry about their defense -- and that of the Bulls. Riding a seven-game winning streak, Chicago has held 22 straight opponents to less than 100 points, an enviable accomplishment, particularly for Boston. The Celtics recently went 11 consecutive games allowing opponents to score 100 or more.

Asked if he needed better defense to pull out a win tonight at the FleetCenter, Rivers said, "Yeah, but we need better offense against them, too. This is a good team we're playing.

"John Paxson has done an amazing job of late with the draft. And he stole some of Jerry Krause's draft picks with those two big guys, [Eddy] Curry and [Tyson] Chandler. I think Chandler's defensive energy has really turned that team around. [Luol] Deng, Ben Gordon, and Kirk Hinrich are their offensive energy. They play hard. They play aggressive. I think [coach] Scott [Skiles] is doing a nice job using that young energy.

"The difference between them and us is they don't have any vets to go to. They're young and get younger and more athletic. But you look at the young guys they've drafted, most of them winners. They have won in college. They're all high-character guys. So I think it's really interesting watching them play. They're a team you have to enjoy watching play. And they're playing with a lot of confidence. Someone is going to have to knock that off of them."

It remains to be seen whether that someone will be the Celtics. When the teams met earlier this month, the Celtics had a hard time handling the Bulls' young talent, especially point guard Hinrich, who finished with 22 points and 14 assists. Chicago last lost Jan. 3 (to Detroit), though its winning streak has come largely at home; the Bulls have played eight of their last 10 at United Center.

West is very close
The Celtics' point guard corps should soon increase in number with the return of rookie Delonte West from a fractured right hand. Rivers said West looked "great" in practice yesterday, though he doubted that West would be activated today.

"I don't know if he's had the actual clearance," said Rivers. "He's real close. It could be as early as [today]. It could be the game after that. So it's soon. It'll be in the next three or four or five days that Delonte will be back in uniform, which is nice."

While Rivers noted that it's always easier to practice against your teammates, he was optimistic about West making contributions.

"He has to earn a spot, just like everyone else," said Rivers. "Right now, Marcus [Banks] and Gary [Payton] are the point and backup point. Gary is going to be the starter, obviously. It's a competition."

Family comes first
Payton returned to practice after tending to family matters on the West Coast. "He took his mom to San Diego, preparing her for chemotherapy," said Rivers. "That's not a great situation. I don't know if there's any situation that's worse." With Payton's mother battling cancer, Rivers said he wouldn't be surprised if Payton had to miss more practices or games. "In two or three weeks, she starts the chemo and it depends on how that goes," said Rivers. "I would allow him to do it. That's where family comes before team, in that situation, every time." . . . Raef LaFrentz was back at practice after experiencing soreness in his surgically repaired right knee. "We have to be careful with Raef now, a little bit," said Rivers. "I can't play him 11-minute-straight stretches. It's tough because I like that rotation. I might have to change the rotation a little bit because of that, just for a couple games."

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