WALTHAM, Mass. -- There's a good chance Celtics coach Doc Rivers and Bulls counterpart Tom Thibodeau met up for dinner Thursday before their teams battle Friday night at TD Garden (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET).
Rivers will joke that even after Thibodeau inked a four-year, $17.5 million extension in October, he got stuck with the bill (although Rivers has noted after recent visits that his former top assistant at least pays for the wine now).
The two likely cackled over Brian Scalabrine's Twitter debut, shared notes on keeping Nate Robinson in line and toasted to the cloak of vincibility. Both the Bulls and Celtics have somewhat improbably blended into the scenery in an Eastern Conference in which the defending champion Heat, 3-point chucking Knicks and lockdown-minded Pacers seem to be the centers of attention. Sure, Rivers and Thibodeau will lament their woes -- Rivers lost to his son, Austin, and the New Orleans Hornets on Wednesday night, snapping Boston's season-best six-game win streak, while the Derrick Rose-less Bulls can win anywhere but at home.
And yet the two teams' early stumbles have allowed them to quietly navigate the first half of the season without overwhelming fanfare. Look past either team at your own peril.
"[The Bulls] are really good," Rivers said. "It's amazing, even without Rose, you look at them on paper, they are as good as anybody. And when they have Rose, it just takes them to another level."
The Celtics know all too well the difference a single player can make (and they weren't waiting on an MVP). Boston has played some of its most inspired ball of the season since the return of defensive stopper Avery Bradley. In the eight games since Bradley's return, Boston is 6-2 and has shaved more than 11 points from its opponents' scoring average (down to 86.8 per game), nearly eight points from its defensive rating (opponents are averaging 94.2 points per 100 possessions) and 4.5 percent off opponents' field goal percentage (down to 41 percent over the past eight games).
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has noted his team is playing with more intensity and passion (even if it let its guard down against New Orleans). Boston has gotten back to its defensive roots, gotten increased contributions from its previously inconsistent bench and is playing the sort of ball most expected when the Eastern Conference finalists were reassembled -- sans Ray Allen -- this offseason.
Boston is still six games back of the East-leading Heat and five games behind the Atlantic Division-topping Knicks. The Celtics would be the seventh seed in the conference if the playoffs started today, one spot ahead of a Milwaukee team that has beaten them three times this season.
And yet there's a newfound swagger about this squad, sparked by its recent turnaround. Even Rivers admits the Celtics and Bulls are two teams opponents probably won't want to see down the road.
"Them and us, when we play right, are probably teams you don't ever want to play," Rivers said.
The Celtics probably wish they caught the Bulls on another day of the week -- maybe even in Chicago. Not only are the Bulls an East-best 11-5 away from home, but they are 5-0 on Fridays, the NBA's only undefeated team on the league's busiest night, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Plus, Carlos Boozer is playing the most inspired ball of his Chicago tenure, averaging 22.6 points and 11.2 rebounds per game over his past 10 contests (registering nine of his East-best 21 double-doubles during that span). Asked what's different since the previous meeting with the Bulls, even Rajon Rondo noted: "Boozer's starting to come around. He's playing really well as of late."
The Bulls have won six of the past eight meetings between the two teams, including a 100-89 triumph in mid-December in Chicago. The Celtics, dipping to 12-12 after that loss amidst a three-game losing streak, lamented the lack of an identity. Things went from bad to worse during a stretch in which Boston won just two of 10 games while falling to 14-17 overall.
The Celtics finally turned the corner with the return of Bradley, who will be a game-time decision after taking a shot to the ribs against the Hornets on Wednesday. Friday's game is a chance to close out a five-game homestand strong, and -- even after recent quality wins against the likes of the Knicks, Pacers and Hawks -- the Bulls serve as the true measuring stick because both sides know the other will still be there when the smoke clears at season's end.
Heck, Rivers and Thibodeau likely pondered a potential playoff series between the two sides while breaking bread. After all, both teams have pretty lofty goals. Friday's meeting? That's just an appetizer.