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Celtics must beware of fast-rising Bulls

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  March 23, 2011 07:51 AM

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thibodeau.jpgFormer Celtics assistant coach Tom Thibodeau has led the Bulls to a 51-19 record. (Associated Press)
What we keep saying, of course, is that the Celtics are just bored again and that, as Paul Pierce has reminded us, they have “another gear.” We assume the Celtics will play when it is time to play, as the No. 1 seed or as the No. 2, and that they remain the most fearsome team in the NBA Eastern Conference.

All of this may be true.

We have every right to believe it.

And yet, we again have every right to doubt, too.

To be sure, the Celtics closed with a flourish on Monday, outclassing the New York Knicks in the final minutes of a 96-86 win that restored a good deal of faith in this team at this time. The Celtics have won and the Celtics can close, and so there is no real point in comparing them to, say, the Bruins. But we all know who the Celtics are and what they are about, even in the wake of a Kendrick Perkins deal that chemically altered their nucleus.

This all goes back to the window, really, to the three-year period we all identified when Danny Ainge brought Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen here during the summer of 2007. The Celtics are now on bonus time. There is as much reason to question them now as there was a year ago – maybe more – particularly as the Celtics meander through a mid- to late-season stretch of games during which they have produced a relatively pedestrian 17-10 record.

“I haven’t used the word ‘soft’ with us in maybe four years,” coach Doc Rivers told reporters following Monday’s win. “But at halftime, I used that word a lot.”

So there you go. Even the coach of the Celtics, it seems, needed to see some sort of sign from his team, some sort of heartbeat, some sort of evidence that the Celtics can still turn it on when they need to.

Show me.

Under the circumstances, can you blame him?

Let’s remember something here, folks: the Celtics didn’t win the championship last year. As valiantly as they played, the Celtics failed in the end, averaging 73 points in Games 6 and 7 of the Finals, forced to play on the road in the wake of catatonic 54-game stretch to end the season. Their level of disinterest cost them in the end. We can all point to any number of factors that contributed to all of that, from the fourth-quarter officiating in Game 7 to the Perkins injury to the complete ineptitude of the Boston bench, but all of those things might have been survivable had the Celtics been playing in Boston.

With last night’s dismantling of the Atlanta Hawks, the Chicago Bulls (51-19) are now a whisker ahead of the Celtics (50-19) in the race for best record in the East. The teams still have one meeting remaining this year, albeit in Chicago. The Celtics also have a meeting with the Spurs in San Antonio, and a smart man at the moment would place his betting money on the Bulls to finish ahead of Boston.

So much for those theories that Bulls coach and former Celtics assistant Tom Thibodeau was a lieutenant and not a general, eh? Since starting the season 9-8, the Bulls are 42-11, a pace that would produce 65 wins over an 82-game schedule. Under Thibodeau, the Bulls’ defense has improved by eight points per game over a year ago, jumping from the middle of the pack in the league to No. 2 behind only the Celtics. The last time Rivers took the Celtics into Chicago, the Bulls held Boston to 79 points.

Fact: while transitioning to Thibodeau, the Bulls allowed opponents to score 100 or more points in eight of their first 18 games. They have allowed just eight other occasions since. The Bulls have figured it out on the defensive end, something that should strike fear in you if you’re a Celtics fan.

From the start, we have all understood the implications of the Perkins deal: the Celtics got a little softer on defense, a little more skilled on offense. Or so we believed. And yet, in their last nine games, the Celtics have cracked 90 points just three times, those coming in games against the Clippers (a loss), the Pacers (who stink) and Knicks. All three of those clubs rank in the bottom half of the league in defense.

Maybe swapping out Perkins for Jeff Green wasn’t as big a move as we thought. Maybe we needed to put more emphasis on the shooting troubles of Rajon Rondo, who has played much of the last two weeks as if on an emotional strike. (Yes, he was better on Monday.) The Celtics lost the Finals last year as much for the ineptitude of their halfcourt offense as anything else, and we all know where the offense on this team starts.

In the interim, here’s the problem: the Celtics have just 13 games left. In the next three weeks, the Celtics need to get Shaquille O’Neal back into the mix, sort out their rotation and stabilize their bench. Along the way, they need to beat the Bulls, who outmatch them at the point. And they need to do it all for more than the simple fact that their window continues to close.

They need to do it, too, because Chicago’s window is now just opening.

And if the Celtics don’t beat the Bulls this year, the challenge next year and beyond will only be more difficult.

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About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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