Tuesday April 28th, 2009

The first-round playoff matchup between the Celtics and Bulls has become a possession-by-possession dogfight. How have the two teams reached this point and what's ahead? Here's a breakdown leading into Tuesday's Game 5.

1. What is the latest on Kevin Garnett's health? What effect has his presence on the bench made for the Celtics?

It's status quo right now. Doc Rivers has made it clear that the circumstances in the series won't dictate when Garnett returns. I don't believe that he's going to be back for this series. This is not an injury they're evaluating on a day-to-day basis; it's something they evaluate on a weekly or bimonthly basis.

As for his influence on the bench, it's been considerable. He's had an impact on second-year big man Glen Davis. Garnett is in his ear constantly, talking to him about pick-and-roll defense and his rotations and where to be at specific times. And Paul Pierce told me that Garnett is constantly talking in the locker room. He's been an inspirational leader with this team. Now how far that gets you is anyone's guess.

2. From the beginning of this series, the Bulls have not seemed intimidated by playing the defending champions. Is this merely because of Garnett's absence or did Chicago believe it could beat the Celtics no matter who was on the floor?

I hate straddling the fence, but it's been a little bit of both. No question, the loss of Garnett has taken away much of the Celtics' intimidation factor. An Eastern Conference coach told me, "This league is full of [wimps], and Garnett intimidates every one of them." But this Bulls team is brash, it's young, it's energetic and its big men don't back down. Between Games 3 and 4, I asked Joakim Noah about the intimidation factor and he almost seemed insulted by the question, by the notion that this team would be intimidated by anybody.

3. Rajon Rondo has averaged almost a triple-double in the series. How has the matchup with Derrick Rose affected his game, and vice versa?

They both downplay it significantly, but obviously, this matchup is fueling both.

I've never seen Rondo attack the basket as relentlessly as he has. And in the absence of Garnett, Rondo has filled that leadership void on the team. He's constantly communicating and even taking some of his teammates to task on the floor for defensive lapses and bad turnovers.

As for Rose, in the limited amount of times I've seen him play live, I haven't seen him hit jump shots with such consistency and act as such a team leader. After Game 4, veteran Bulls guard Lindsey Hunter told me he has seen Rose take his game to another level in this playoff series. That's telling coming from a guy who has been around him all season.

4. Kendrick Perkins recently said the referees are biased against the Celtics. How would you assess the officiating in the series so far?

Perkins needs to relax. I was at the first four games and I didn't notice any glaring missed calls. The one questionable call was Davis' theatrics with Brad Miller in Game 4, and they went back to the replay and they got that call right. The officiating, in my opinion, deserves an A.

As for Perkins, he made his own bed in Game 4. There was a key play late in the fourth quarter when he grabbed an offensive rebound with the Celtics up three. He had a chance to throw the ball back out and take some time off the clock and get a better shot. Instead, he got the rebound, waited about three or four seconds, started backing his man into the paint, swung an elbow and got called for the hook and the offensive foul. That was a major factor in why the Celtics did not win the game. Even Pierce turned around, lifted his hands in the air and motioned to Perkins, wondering why the center did not throw the ball out to a perimeter player.

To attack the refs is just an excuse and reflects a bad mentality going into Game 5. The officials are not the problem. Staying out of foul trouble and the lack of depth are the problems for Boston.

5. Like any series that gets into its late stages, this one is filled with nagging injuries. Outside of KG, which are the ones most likely to affect the outcome?

Rondo is obviously hurt. He has both of his ankles in an ice bucket after every game. But I think he's going to be OK. He's been battling little nicks and bumps all season long. Barring an unforeseen setback at practice, I don't see Rondo being slowed.

Ben Gordon is kind of the wild card because we don't know the effect of a 48-hour layoff on his strained hamstring. But after the injury occurred in the first half of Game 4, he played a second half and two overtime periods, so I have a hard time believing it's something that's going to cost him significant mobility.

The one guy who sticks out as a potential problem is Bulls swingman John Salmons, who has a groin injury. This is a guy who limps into the locker room before the games and needs 30 minutes of various treatments just to get himself out on the court. And you can see he hasn't really been the same player in the playoffs as he was in the regular season. His lack of mobility defensively and his lack of an explosive first step offensively could hinder the Bulls. He's played every game, but you can tell it's bothering him.

6. Gordon has had some huge games this series just as he heads into free agency this summer. What sort of market will there be for Gordon?

It's difficult to predict because it's going to be based on what the market offers anybody. But Gordon certainly has raised his value in the eyes of the Chicago front office. He really is the Bulls' only go-to scorer. He is their fourth-quarter man in the clutch; they don't have a replacement for that.

7. Is this series destined for seven games?

Not if Chicago wins Game 5 in Boston. I'm not sure Boston can win a Game 6 in Chicago. The Celtics did blow them out there in Game 3, but the Bulls have generally played so well at home, so that's going to be a tall task. That makes Game 5 a must-win for the Celtics; you do not want to go back to Chicago down 3-2 with a depleted frontcourt and against a Bulls team that is clearly confident.

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