Saturday May 2nd, 2009

BOSTON -- How have the Chicago Bulls succeeded in pushing the champion Celtics to a Game 7? For help on this question as well as a preview of the winner-take-all game here Saturday night, I sought the advice of an NBA advance scout who is expert on both teams.

Even in the absence of Kevin Garnett, I've assumed that the Celtics' starters should win most of the matchups. But the scout disagreed: Based on the first six games, he gives the edge solely to Ray Allen at shooting guard and Paul Pierce at small forward. And those advantages recede when the opposing benches are brought into play.

"If you look at Ray Allen-Eddie House-Tony Allen, as opposed to (Ben) Gordon-(Kirk) Hinrich, then the matchup at `2' guard becomes a lot closer,'' the scout said.

The production the Bulls are receiving off the bench from Hinrich on the perimeter and from Brad Miller in the frontcourt are giving Chicago a big advantage over Boston's weakened second unit. With Glen (Big Baby) Davis starting in place of Garnett and Leon Powe out for the season, the Celtics have been getting a meager 12.4 ppg from their remaining bench players. The Bulls, on the other hand, are receiving a combined 22.5 ppg from Hinrich and Miller alone.

Another surprising development has been the play of small forward John Salmons (19.2 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.2 blocks and 1.2 steals) as the replacement for injured Luol Deng. "Pierce is obviously the better player at that position,'' said the scout, "but that guy Salmons is much, much, much better than I thought. He's a better basketball player -- a total basketball player -- than Luol Deng. He does more to help a team in playoff situations than Deng, to the point that they're not missing Deng at all.

"Salmons just has a better feel for the game. Deng is a slasher who makes phenomenal plays, so you have to keep him on the floor for extended minutes while you're waiting for him to do that. But anytime Salmons is on the floor, he has to be defended in all circumstances or else he'll bury you with jump shots or drives to the basket. And even when he is defended, he'll still make the tough shots. Salmons has been the `X' factor in this series.

"When I think about the trade Chicago made in midseason to get Salmons and Miller from Sacramento and the impact it has had on their team, it was an unbelievable move. Miller is playing with a passion I haven't seen in a long time, like the way he was playing five years ago. He can hurt you in so many ways because he's such a good passer as well as a decent finisher.''

Rajon Rondo is averaging a triple-double (21.5 points, 10.0 rebounds and 11.7 assists with a terrific assist/turnover ratio of 6.4/1) and appears to be winning his matchup at point guard Chicago's Derrick Rose, but the scout viewed it as a dead heat.

"As good as Rondo has been -- and I absolutely love him -- there are some things that Rose brings that negate a lot of what Rondo does,'' the scout said. "I thought Rondo would win that matchup, but it's turned out to be a wash.

"What Rondo does is he creates scoring opportunities for players who can catch-and-shoot immediately. But Rose doesn't have it as easy. In order to create scoring opportunities for his teammates, Rose has to almost get to the rim in order to make sure they have easy shots.''

Because he isn't surrounded by All-Stars like Pierce or Allen, Rose has to work harder to create likely scoring opportunities for the Bulls. "Some of the shots he presented in Game 4 for (Joakim) Noah were incredible -- just short open shots that he could finish,'' said the scout. "Rose on a more consistent basis creates better scoring opportunities for marginal players.''

Game 7 could be decided by the matchup at point guard. "In Game 6 you saw that Rondo didn't play well,'' the scout said. "Rondo has been in these big-game situations before, but now you see he's playing against a team and an opposing point guard that doesn't fear him.''

Another issue will be the health of Ben Gordon, who was clearly struggling to overcome a strained hamstring in Game 6 while going 4-for-14 for 12 points before fouling out in 31 minutes. "He's a tough kid and he takes a lot of pride in his body,'' said the scout. `No one outworks him: He goes in the gym all offseason and he works his butt off. As a result I don't think he's used to sucking it up and playing at less than 100% because he takes such good care of himself. But he's showing some guts in this series because he clearly wants to play.''

So who will win Game 7? "It's going to be another close game because the teams are very used to each other, so no one is going to run away with it. The Celtics need to have all of their key guys on their games, because they have no bench, no answers. Those four starters -- Pierce, Allen, Rondo, Perkins -- have to have a good stat line because they don't have answers beyond that.''

Yet the apparent fatigue of Pierce in Game 6 may force Celtics coach Doc Rivers to demand early minutes from his bench. "They've lost total confidence in (Mikki) Moore, and they obviously don't like to play (Stephon) Marbury. But they're going to have to go to those guys early and find a way to keep the game close.

"The goal has to be to go into the fourth period with a rested Pierce and Allen so that they haven't played a ton of minutes over the first three quarters. I think he needs to get Marbury and Moore and those other guys in the game early and keep the game even, not lose ground, and shorten the game for the key players.''

The young Bulls may find that the pressures of a Game 7 on the road are too big for them to handle. But the Celtics no longer can afford to wait for a Chicago collapse. "For Chicago to win, someone's going to have to go off the way Gordon or Salmons have done. If they win, I think the story line will be that their rookie point guard found a way to lead his young team past the depleted Celtics.''

The scout believed Boston will prevail. "Being at home is going to be the determining factor,'' he said. "But I'm not going to be shocked if it goes the other way.''

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