As regular season games go, this one will be one of the biggest. With the playoffs just over a week away, the stakes will be that much higher.
Such is the case for the Celtics, who will meet their chief competition for the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed Thursday night when they take on the Bulls at the United Center in Chicago at 8 p.m. EDT (TV/Radio: TNT/WEEI).
The C's, winners of their last two games, are in sole possession of second place in the East, three games behind the first place Bulls, with five games left to play. Boston, which is 6-4 over its last 10 games, looks like it may be coming out of the late season doldrums that have been hovering for the better part of the last month.
The Celtics (54-23) beat both Detroit and Philly, their likely first round playoff opponent, by double digits on Sunday and Tuesday, respectively, and have gotten a couple of premier shooting performances from Ray Allen in the process.
Allen was 10-of-13 combined from the floor in the wins over the Pistons and the 76ers and has averaged 19.3 points on 56.8 percent shooting in three games against the Bulls this season, including 50 percent from 3-point land.
Boston was fortified in the win over Philly on Tuesday by the return of Nenad Krstic from a two game absence due to a knee bruise. Krstic scored eight points and grabbed six rebounds in 18 minutes off the bench and his play, along with that of Jermaine O'Neal (nine points, three boards and a block in 13 minutes against the Sixers), went a long way towards making up for the loss of Shaquille O'Neal, who suffered yet another injury on Sunday against Detroit.
The Bulls (57-20), as they have been for most of the year, come into Thursday night's contest red hot. They've won four in a row and are far beyond the back-to-back 41-win marks of the past two seasons. First-year coach Tom Thibodeau, the former Celtics' assistant, has the Bulls playing his trademark stingy defense, as they allow just 91.5 points per game, second in the NBA only to the Celts' 90.8.
Additionally, the Bulls are second in the league in rebounding with 44.2 boards per night, giving them a clear advantage over the board-challenged C's in that department. Point guard Derrick Rose appears to be the runaway favorite to win the league MVP award thanks to his 25.1 points and 7.9 assists per game, and big man Joakim Noah, always a thorn in the side of the C's, has returned from a series of injuries and posted 12 points, four rebounds, four assists and four steals in a win over Phoenix on Tuesday.
A loss for the C's on Thursday would leave them four games behind the Bulls with four games left, just about eliminating them from any chance at the East's No. 1 spot. Boston has won two of this season's previous three meetings against Chicago with Rajon Rondo putting up 11.7 points and 12.7 assists in those games. Rondo has seemed much more like himself of late, averaging 10.8 assists over his last five games, including three with 13 or more.