Friday April 17th, 2009

OVERVIEW: Celtics star Kevin Garnett is expected to miss the series and possibly the entire postseason because of a knee injury. Boston already had made the adjustment to playing without the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, who has appeared in only four games since Feb. 20. With Garnett sidelined, the Celtics won eight of nine down the stretch to fend off Orlando for the No. 2 seed. The Bulls were hot, too, late in the season, closing with a 12-4 run that included a 127-121 victory against Boston on March 17, the only meeting between the teams since Chicago's key midseason acquisition of John Salmons (18.3 points as a Bull) and Brad Miller (11.8 points, 7.4 rebounds).

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THREE THINGS TO WATCH

1. Peak condition. Paul Pierce has shouldered more of the offensive load in Garnett's absence, averaging at least 21 points a game in each of the last three months. Pierce enters the playoffs having scored 26 points or more in five of his last nine games, including a 31-point performance in his season finale in which he shot 12-of-16 from the field and 7-of-9 from three-point range against the 76ers.

2. Point, counterpoint. Derrick Rose, the presumptive Rookie of the Year, will go head-to-head with Rajon Rondo, who passed his first playoff test last season in helping the Celtics win a championship. The matchup between two of the quickest players in the league should be an intriguing game within the game.

3. The replacements. The Celtics give up nearly nine more points a game when Garnett is sidelined. The task of cranking up their defense to a championship level falls to the likes of big men Leon Powe, Glen Davis and Mikki Moore. "Everyone's going to go crazy because Kevin's out, but all we've got to do is play Celtics basketball, and that's moving the ball, setting picks, rolling, take your shot when you've got it and, the most important thing, come to play on the defensive end," Powe told Boston reporters. "We've got to pick it up on defense."

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UNDER THE RADAR: The Bulls' young big men are a big reason why this team reached the playoffs. Third-year forward Tyrus Thomas and second-year center Joakim Noah seemed to finally "get it" during the second half of the season. After the All-Star break, when their playing time increased, the two teamed up for 21.5 points, 16.3 boards and 3.4 blocks a game while shooting 50 percent from the field. That should get the attention of Boston's Garnett-less front line.

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PREDICTION: Celtics in 6. Sparked by their trade-deadline deal, the Bulls are playing with confidence and have established a strong home-court advantage. But it's hard to see a team that finished 13-28 on the road winning in Boston, where the Celtics are formidable with or without Garnett.

MORE SERIES BREAKDOWNS

Cavaliers vs. Pistons Hawks vs. Heat Magic vs. 76ers Lakers vs. Jazz Blazers vs. Rockets Nuggets vs. Hornets Spurs vs. Mavericks

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