Bulls Ready For Celtics and all their Tricks


Apr 16

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If this were anyone else but the Boston Celtics, you’d be certain Kevin Garnett really was hurt and wasn’t going to play when the Bulls open NBA the playoffs against the Celtics in Boston Saturday.

Celtics coach Doc Rivers, appearing on a radio show, of all things, just blurted out Thursday morning that Garnett’s knee problems have worsened and Rivers cannot imagine Garnett even playing in the entire playoffs, though nothing is official.

I know Rivers, and he is a good guy who is a straight shooter.

But he’s been hanging out with Bill Belichick lately and Rivers is the coach of the Celtics, where everything goes back to Red.

For the Bulls in these playoffs, the theme is, “See Red.”

In Boston, it’s always about Red Auerbach and now his memory.

It was Red who built and ran the greatest dynasty American team sports has known, and Red who was known for trying to gain that extra psychological edge on opponents, just enough to keep them off balance.

Celtics players knew the dead spots on the old Boston Garden floor and would guide opponents toward them for steals when the ball would not bounce up on the old parquet. On hot days, Auerbach’s equipment manager cranked temperatures in the visitors’ dressing area to ridiculous extremes in May and June. On cold winter days, he left windows propped open, turned the heat down and distributed already-wet towels to the visitors. At shootaround, the Garden crew would conveniently forget to cover up the ice for the Boston Bruins, which perhaps is one reason the Bulls this weekend are not having their game day shootarounds at the arena but at Emerson College. Toilets in the visitors’ locker room became mysteriously plugged.

“You been to the Garden during shootaround?” asked Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro of reporters after Bulls practice at the Berto Center Thursday. “It’s a little different. They have workers there and things going on. It’s not the best place to have a shootaround.”

Celtics players for years have been instructed on the little intricacies of the game, like always running to pick up a ball when it seemed to be referee indecision, having his players always talk to the opponent on the floor and note how selfish their teammates are, hesitate on giving the ball back to a referee so the defense can set better and practicing the art of pulling on a jersey away from the referee’s vision.

And so now the Bulls are told that the Celtics best player isn’t playing.

“He might play. He might not play,” said Del Negro. “We’ll prepare for him playing and not playing. We’ll see. He’s been out awhile. Maybe he plays a little. Maybe he doesn’t. Kevin could say all of a sudden he feels a lot better and wants to play 20 minutes. We’ll prepare that he’s going to play and prepare he’s not going to play, both ways just to cover our bases.”

Asked about playing the Celtics without Garnett, John Salmons said: “I don’t really believe that. I’ll believe that when I see that. Ask me that after we play. I’m not buying that.”

Added Tim Thomas of the Celtics perhaps not being honest: “The football team up there does it. So why not?”

Uh oh. Does that mean the tactic already has worked?

Nah, but doesn’t it begin to remind you of the old Bulls days and Phil Jackson and Pat Riley.

Hey, this could be fun.

“(Kendrick) Perkins has hurt us. Leon Powe. Glen Davis. Mikki Moore. They have a very strong team,” said Del Negro. “Kevin missed 20-some games and they still won 60-plus. They’re the defending world champs. They’re battle tested. They have home court. We haven’t played well there at all. We have our hands full. We have to control the paint and be physical. We have to box out and rebound and control tempo of the game. We have to get to the free throw line and not just settle for jumpers. Attack the rim whe we can. We have to play our style. We have to get tighter defensively. If we can rebound and limit their second shots and get out and play the way we’re capable of, our opportunities go up. I want to play our style and not let them dictate what we’re doing.”

Like most playoff series, this one will also be determined about who can impose their will. The Celtics want to play half court, run sets and play physical. The Bulls want to spread the court, push the ball, make the slower Celtics’ interior players run and attack off the dribble to create fouls. The Celtics want to win 90-82. The Bulls want to win 123-115.

It’s really no contest with a healthy Garnett.

His frenzied emotion and intense play has intimidated the Bulls. His defense has been inspirational and the Celtics have been able to run offense through him for an inside/outside game. The Celtics blew out the Bulls twice earlier in the season with Garnett. Without him in March in Chicago, the Bulls ran the Celtics into a high scoring loss.

With Garnett, the Celtics probably sweep the series.

That’s why it seemed so important to win Wednesday against Toronto and draw a slumping Orlando Magic team. But the Bulls cracked and were dominated by the Raptors. It seemed the recipe for a quick trip to the golf course and beach until Rivers’ surprise announcement Thursday morning.

Because it’s not just what Garnett does himself but what he means to everyone else.

Rajon Rondo can get that quick first step because defenses are always leaning toward Garnett. It’s easier for Paul Pierce and Ray Allen to get open. Garnett is a great help defender, so the big men can cheat. Everyone plays off a great player, and there’s little doubt Garnett led the Celtics to the championship last season.

“You’re taking a Hall of Famer out of the lineup,” said Del Negro, who really didn’t want to talk about Garnett not playing. “You’re taking out a seven-foot defensive guy who controls the paint. You’re taking out a guy you have to double team if he gets it down low and even if you double team him he fades away and can shoot over the top. He brings great intensity to their team and length. He causes a lot of problems. Whenever you take a player like that out, you’re just not going to be as good. Talent is talent. Kevin has been as good a player in the league since he’s been in. He’s found his niche in Boston with Ray and Paul. They won a championship last year. They’re a different team no question.

“They’re still very potent,” Del Negro noted. “They won over 60 games and probably would’ve won close to 70 if he was healthy. He’s missed 20 something games. He’s a big factor. But their young guys are strong up front. They’re physical. Rondo controls the game with Paul and Ray scoring the basketball. Eddie House and Tony Allen come in and score it. They have plenty of weapons. But whenever you take a player like that out of your lineup, it’s going to alter things.”

I have no doubt Garnett is seriously hurt as I’ve been hearing for weeks from people close to the team the pain in Garnett’s knee won’t go away and he’ll need surgery. Though the Celtics regularly denied it. But what happens if the Celtics fall behind? Does Garnett make a dramatic return for Game 5? Does he do the Willis Reed bit for Game 7, making a cameo (Reed played just a few possessions to inspire that 1970 Knicks championship team in Game 7)? Or are the Celtics fairly sure they can get by this round that they figure they can give Garnett two weeks of rest and then make a run at the title again?

The Bulls have injury issues of their own.

Luol Deng is out for the series and likely beyond if the Bulls advance. More significantly, Salmons is slowed by a groin injury that clearly has bothered him more. He’s failed to score in double figures the last two games and was absolutely blitzed by Shawn Marion against the Raptors Wednesday.

That’s the crucial position for the Bulls because Salmons defends Pierce, the Celtics best scorer.

Salmons, though, took the NFL approach of pretty much denying he was having many problems, almost to the point that he eventually turned existential and seemed to deny the existence of anything.

“It’s all right,” Salmons said after a long shooting session well after all his teammates had left the facility. “It’s not going to heal until the season is over, until I get some rest. It’s not a problem.”

Asked how it feels and how it affects him, Salmons looked surprised: “Nothing. It’s fine.”

If Salmons were at full strength, I think the odds would favor the Bulls in this series. Now, it’s a tough one to call because even without Garnett the Celtics won eight of their last nine. The Bulls, meanwhile, won 12 of their last 16. Margin of victory is a key NBA indicator and the Celtics’ was barely better than the Bulls when Garnett was out and since the Bulls acquired Salmons, Brad Miller and Tim Thomas. Plus, the Celtics have been giving up almost 100 points per game without Garnett, negating their greatest strength.

But even without Garnett, the Celtics are a physical team. Expect them to come out and give the Bulls a few well times shots to the delight of the home crowd. And not shots at the basket.

Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah never have been in a playoff game, Tyrus Thomas played 122 minutes in 10 games as a rookie and Salmons played a total of 20 minutes in six playoff games with the 76ers.

“It’s going to be aggressive,” said Rose. “You can’t really turn the ball over. Everything is going to pick up. People will play harder. Everybody will know your sets. So you have to be ready. The biggest thing is everyone is going to get aggressive.”

“Yeah, everybody won except me,” laughed Rose. “I lost mine. We were supposed to have one but we lost. Oh, yeah, Kirk (lost) too. It helps knowing you stay more focused during those games. That’s the biggest thing. You concentrate more. I wouldn’t say I’m ready for the NBA playoffs though. This is the top of the line deal that we’re going into. But I’ve been in tough games. That’s all I’ll say.”

So it’s time, and the Bulls do, at least, seem to have a chance. This shouldn’t be a short series.

“Everybody knows it’s a great team,” said Salmons. They’re the champions. We’ve definitely got a tough series ahead. We’re confident. We reay feel we can go out and compete with the best teams in the league. We’ve shown that. We’ve think we’ve got a great shot. Nobody’s going to into this game thinking we’re going to lose this series. We think if we play our style of basketball, we’ve got a great chance.”

So, right, bring it on. KG or no KG.

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