Kevin Garnett is the Celtics' heart on defense. He's still hurt -- meaning the Bulls match up pretty well.
Associated Press file
Asked to assess the Celtics after they split two home playoff games against the Bulls, Boston's Paul Pierce suggested his team is in great shape because it only has played its "C" game so far.
"I think our best is yet to come in this series," he said after Boston won a 118-115 squeaker in Game 2 to even the series at 1-1. "I think we feel very confident because we haven't even played good basketball yet."
Paul, are you sure the Celtics aren't just a C-level team without the Big Ticket, power forward Kevin Garnett?
Actually, that's not true. Boston is much better than that and went 18-7 during the regular season without Garnett.
But as recently as two seasons ago the Bulls used to beat the Celtics like a drum, winning eight straight in the series before Garnett arrived, back when Pierce was the team's best player.
There have been plenty of changes since then. Rajon Rondo, now in his third pro season, quickly is becoming one the league's best point guards.
Center Kendrick Perkins has made remarkable improvement. Two years ago, if Perkins' points plus rebounds were greater than his foul total, that was a good performance. Now he's averaging 15 points and 10 rebounds in this series.
Shooting guard Ray Allen, 33, is on the downside of his career but still can be a dangerous scorer. He totaled 6 points in the first six quarters against the Bulls, then exploded for 28 in the second half of Game 2.
But after these first two games it's more obvious than ever that Garnett meant everything to the Celtics, especially on defense.
Boston never sniffs an NBA title without Garnett on the roster, although the Celtics would have an interesting group if Al Jefferson came back from Minnesota.
Here are some numbers: In six games against Boston with Garnett the past two seasons, the Bulls averaged 89.3 points. They've now played three games against the Celtics sans Garnett, two on the road, and averaged 115.6 points.
Forget the championship rings and Celtics mystique. Without Garnett, these are two evenly matched teams. The Bulls have a great chance in this series and probably should win it.
In Game 2, Perkins and Glen Davis pushed and shoved under the basket to create 21 offensive rebounds and 32 second-chance points. Allen knocked down a flurry of clutch jumpers. And that's supposed to be their "C" game?
Derrick Rose will have his hands full trying to guard Rondo and vice versa. But even with Rondo out there, the Bulls have a speed advantage at every position, which is why Boston has had no success trying to slow things down in this series.
If there was a scheme that helped the Celtics keep up with the younger, faster Bulls, Boston's defensive guru Tom Thibodeau would have come up with it by now.
NBA games often boil down to which team can make shots. If the Bulls come out flat at the United Center on Thursday, they could easily fall behind in the series.
But if they can match the intensity they brought to Boston, the Bulls stand a good chance of taking a 3-1 series lead by the end of the weekend.