While the Bulls are simply thrilled to be in the playoffs again, the Celtics are on a quest to repeat as NBA champions. The Bulls' story this season has been the growth of their rookie point guard, their rookie coach, their core group of young players and the midseason additions that ignited them into a playoff team. For the champs, this is now a grizzled, veteran team, and they are facing only two questions: Will Kevin Garnett be healthy enough to play at all, and can they repeat without home-court advantage throughout the playoffs?
Boston's offense versus Chicago's defense
The Celtics are one of the best offensive teams in the NBA, as they rank sixth in offensive efficiency, second in team field goal percentage and first in 3-point shooting. They play at the 12th-slowest pace in the league, but they get their points from all over the floor and can score in waves that can quickly turn close games into blowouts. Everything starts with the speed and creation of Rajon Rondo, and Chicago must get to him early and limit his penetration. Boston will run multiple screening action to get Ray Allen's jumper going, and they will run flex action for Paul Pierce or isolate him in the post extended or at the top of the floor. With KG in the lineup -- which looks unlikely now, according to Doc Rivers -- post-ups and pick-and-pop action give the Celtics one of the most versatile attacks in the NBA. And at the end of the shot clock, Pierce proved to be the best clutch performer in last year's championship run. Chicago is a bottom-half-of-the-league defensive team, ranking 18th in defensive efficiency and 20th in rebounding, so the Bulls will have to be creative with their schemes and matchups.
Chicago's offense versus Boston's defense
The Bulls will look to run at every opportunity, using their 127-121 victory over the Celtics on March 17 as the blueprint, making their best defense a blistering pace on the offensive end. The Bulls played the regular season at the ninth-fastest pace in the NBA and are 18th in offensive efficiency, although they have been faster and more efficient since the February trade, winning 12 of 15 before laying an egg against Toronto on Wednesday. Although they are fourth in the league in 3-point shooting, the Bulls take lots of quick, bad shots, and a poor shooting percentage on those will play right into the hands of Boston's defense, which is No. 1 in the league in field goal percentage defense, No. 2 in rebounding and No. 3 in defensive efficiency. Chicago, like Boston, relies on the creation of its point guard, Derrick Rose, who is more the scorer than the set-up guy. He will attack the basket with aggressive drives, and the Bulls will look to ball-screen for him at every opportunity. The Bulls' offensive sets will focus on pin-down action for Ben Gordon and John Salmons, both of whom are capable of big offensive explosions and can score in isolation or off screen/roll action. The Bulls get their points from their guards and have virtually no low-post game. But they do run high-post and pinch-post action through Brad Miller, who is one of the finest passing big men in the league.
Rose The Bulls could not have dreamed of a better rookie season for Rose, as he immediately took the reigns and has steered his ever-changing team into the playoffs. Everything revolves around Rose's creation and decision-making, and he is finding the blend between assertive scoring and setting up his teammates. Already one of the most ferocious drivers in the league, Rose has been on a tear in April, averaging 19.3 points and 6.8 assists on 54 percent shooting -- his best numbers of the season. He will come off ball screens on nearly every possession, and his reaction to playoff pressure and his matchup with Rondo will be a key to the Bulls' success.
Rondo: Rondo's value to this team is every bit as important as the Big Three, and his All-Star caliber season has kept the Celtics humming through their injury issues. He creates opportunities on offense and absolute havoc on defense, and he will put pressure on Derrick Rose on both ends of the floor. He leads all NBA point guards in field goal percentage, is sixth in the league in assists and fifth in steals. He also rebounds as well as any point guard in the NBA. In three games vs. Chicago this year, Rondo averaged 14.7 points and 10.3 assists on 55 percent shooting, and did not attempt a single 3-point shot. He had 26 and 10 in the 127-121 loss in February, and dished out 15 assists in the December win. The Bulls will need to help Rose to keep Rondo from running wild.
Gordon: The Bulls' leading scorer is capable of huge offensive explosions and is shooting the highest field goal percentage of his career. He will catch and shoot from deep or attack with quick drives, and he will not hesitate to pull the trigger in any situation. He averaged 24.4 points per game down the stretch in April, while shooting over 50 percent from 3-point range. He was held to 12.7 points and only 38 percent shooting against the Celtics this season, but had 17 in the Bulls' only win.
Allen: Allen has quietly played at an All-Star level, scoring more and shooting a higher percentage from the field, from 3-point range and the foul line than he did last season. He shot 44 percent on 3-pointers in the month of April, which should calm any fears of a repeat of last year's temporary playoff shooting drought. Allen gets his points on quick catch-and-shoot action from staggers and baseline screens, and will go to his pull-up game when the shots aren't falling. His 95 percent free-throw shooting causes defenders to give him space, and the Celtics are virtually unbeatable when Allen is making shots. He averaged 19 points on 45 percent 3-point shooting vs. Chicago this season.
Salmons: The addition of Salmons at small forward changed the look of the Bulls; he took the place of Luol Deng and gave them another explosive offensive option to go with Gordon. He averaged 21.3 points per game in March on 50 percent shooting, and his potential impact on this series was illustrated with his 38-point, 70 percent shooting performance in the Bulls' only win over Boston. Salmons and Pierce have had some good battles from Salmons' days in Sacramento, and this should be the key matchup of the series.
Pierce: In last year's championship run, Pierce became one of the best clutch and big-game performers in recent playoff history, with his offensive dominance in key games and his lockdown defense on critical possessions. Statistically, Pierce put together an almost identical regular season compared to '07-08, though he scored and rebounded even better. He will score from anywhere on the floor with drives, post-ups, 3-point shooting and shot creation late in the clock. He averaged 22.3 points on 56 percent shooting against the Bulls this season, going for 37 in the loss in March, as the Celtics played without KG and Glen Davis. Pierce will see multiple defenders in this series.
Thomas: Thomas has put together an MIP-caliber season and stepped up his play in the absence of Deng. Thomas posted the best numbers of his career in almost every category, and his defense and shot-blocking are among the best at his position in the league. He averaged 14.2 points and 2.3 blocks in the April drive to the playoffs. He had 18 points and five rebounds in the March win over Boston. He will guard Pierce if the Bulls go to their bigger lineup.
Davis: Has filled in admirably for Garnett at power forward and will start. He averaged 14.6 points and 5.1 rebounds in April, and proved he could produce and handle major minutes -- 19 points and 12 rebounds in 43 minutes in a Celtics win over the Hawks on March 27, and 22 and 8 in 37 minutes in a win over the Heat on April 10. Coach Doc Rivers may have been preparing Davis for this role all along. Although he is nothing close to the defensive presence Garnett is, Davis has proven to be a better offensive rebounder than KG.
Noah: Noah provides hustle, passion and dirty work, as he fights an undersized battle in the post and around the basket every night. He will ball-screen, run in transition and go to the offensive glass. He averaged nearly a double-double in April and had seven points and eight rebounds in three games against the Celtics this season.
Boston's leading rebounder and shot-blocker has had to shoulder more of the burden with KG's absence, but he has been a steadying force inside all season, as he was in last year's playoffs. He averaged 15.7 points, 9.3 rebounds and two blocks in three games vs. Chicago this season, and look for him to continue to take advantage of Chicago's light front line at both ends.
Kirk Hinrich: He has submerged his ego to play a key role as the scorer/playmaker off the bench. He averaged 7.5 points and 4.5 assists in two games against Boston, and could play an increased role if the playoff lights get too bright for Rose.
Brad Miller: The key midseason addition gives Chicago size and veteran experience. He will rebound, pass and score, and expect his minutes to increase with the importance of the game. His 21 points and 14 rebounds against Boston in March might be a preview of things to come.
Tim Thomas: He has become a valuable member of the Bulls' eight-man rotation, as he made big contributions to some key wins in March. He scored seven points in 10 minutes in the regular-season win over Boston.
Eddie House: The energy and scoring leader off the bench, House ignites the team and the crowd with his passion, hustle and 3-point shooting. He shot 53 percent from 3-point range against Chicago this season.
Leon Powe: He is an offensive rebounding machine. He has battled injury problems but should be ready for duty. He averaged seven points and four rebounds in three games vs. the Bulls.
Tony Allen: He is back after missing most of February and March. He will spell Allen and Pierce. He scored 10 points in 21 minutes in the Celtics' win over Chicago in December.
Stephon Marbury: So far, so good, as Marbury has provided crisp ballhandling and steady play for the second unit. His minutes have increased as he has gotten more assimilated, and he could see a bigger role in the playoffs.
Even without Garnett, Boston is the better team. But Chicago has become a dangerous matchup and can make this series more competitive than it should be. For the Celtics, it won't be this year's version of the Atlanta series (remember, Boston's first-round matchup last year went seven games). But the Celtics will need all of their veteran grit and championship experience to advance. The Bulls will win a game and could throw a mild scare into the champs, but Boston will advance -- even without KG.
Prediction: Celtics in 5
Mike Moreau is the director of basketball for the Pro Training Center and The Basketball Academy at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla. He also serves as an NBA analyst for Hoopsworld.
Synergy Sports Technology systems were used in the preparation of this report.