at United Center, Chicago, 8 p.m. | TNT, WEEI (850 AM)
PAYNE'S THREE THINGS TO WATCH
Rondo vs. Rose: The All-Star point guard matchup highlights Thursday's tilt in Chicago, as Rajon Rondo and MVP candidate Derrick Rose each try to pace their teams to a crucial victory. In the three previous meetings between these two clubs this season, Rose has held a major edge in points over Rondo (24.7 points per game to Rondo's 11.7), but has shot a lower field goal percentage (45.5 percent for Rose to 48.6 percent for Rondo) and hasn't been up to par in the assist department (6.3 assists per game compared to 12.7 per game for Rondo). How these two play will go a long way in determining who will emerge victorious in tonight's bout.
Out of the Box: After shooting a combined 10-of-13 from the field in his last two games, Ray Allen might finally be breaking out of the mini-slump he's been stuck in these last few weeks. If the Celtics involve him in their offense the way they should, he could serve as a crucial factor in tonight's outcome. In three games against the Bulls this season, Allen has averaged 19.3 points on 56.8 percent shooting from the field and 50 percent shooting from 3-point nation.
KG vs. Noah: With Carlos Boozer back in the fold for the Bulls, Kevin Garnett and Joakim Noah might spend less time guarding each other than usual, but even those limited minutes should keep us riveted. Their off-the-court jawing only helps to intensify their on-the-court battles, which often boil down to two of the most passionate players in the NBA going at one another. The two have been pretty evenly matched so far this season. The pair have played in two of the teams' three head-to-head meetings this season and have been pretty evenly matched, with Garnett averaging 18 points and 13.5 rebounds and Noah registering 20 points and 11 rebounds.
GAME PREVIEW (via AP)
Joakim Noah has a pretty good idea what to expect on Thursday night.
The Chicago Bulls host the Boston Celtics in a game that could have a big impact on the race for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, and he anticipates a charged atmosphere at the United Center.
"I think it's going to be a zoo in here on Thursday," he said. "It's very exciting."
These, indeed, are exciting times in Chicago.
With 16 wins in 18 games and the No. 1 seed in reach, the Bulls haven't had it this good since the Michael Jordan championship era.
They were three games ahead of Miami and Boston at 57-20 after hanging on to beat Phoenix on Tuesday. A win over the Celtics would all but eliminate them from the race for the top seed. The Bulls would salvage a four-game split and be four games ahead of Boston four to go in the regular season.
The next tiebreaker if they finished with identical records would be conference play, and at the moment, the Celtics are 35-12 with the Bulls 34-13 against the East.
"It means a lot," veteran forward Luol Deng said. "(The top seed) gives you the homecourt, but also, just having the best record tells a lot about the kind of season you had."
Read the full preview HERE.