This used to be a rivalry.
Now these two teams are going in vastly different directions.
The Bulls, who haven’t won a championship since 1998, are on their way back up.
The Celtics, who won the NBA title in 2008, are on their way down.
Mind you, not everybody agrees with me.
Some people, like ESPN’s Peter May, are blaming the lockout for Boston’s early season woes.
Okay. Fair enough.
But still…didn’t every other team get locked out too?
The Bulls did. And that lack of prep and conditioning has probably contributed to their injury woes. Derrick Rose, C.J. Watson and Rip Hamilton have combined to miss 17 games so far.
And, thanks to post-lockout scheduling, Chicago is eight games into a stretch of nine games in 12 days.
The Bulls’ record during that stretch: 7-1.
Their record overall: An NBA-best 11-2.
Some teams have it. Some teams don’t. The Bulls have it. The Celtics do not.
But, again, not everyone agrees.
Said Ray Allen: “We’re still young in the season and by no means is it discouraging. We know what’s in us and we know what this team is capable of.”
Added Celtics coach Doc Rivers: “It’s been frustrating. But listen, I’d rather have it now. You’re going to go through adversity or stuff; I’d rather have it right now. Like I told our guys, I said, ‘If you get through this, it’ll make you a hell of a basketball team.’ And I always use the word ‘if’ because you have to. You have to fight through it.”
Boston’s banged up captain, Paul Pierce, had a rough night: 36 minutes, 13 points, 3-for-12, 5 assists, 1 rebound and a plus-minus score of -18.
Remember: After he was named Finals MVP back in ’08, he said (when asked whether the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant was the best player in the world): “I don’t think Kobe is the best player. I’m the best player. There’s a line that separates having confidence and being conceited. I don’t cross that line but I have a lot of confidence in myself.”
Forget Kobe. Last night, Pierce couldn’t handle Luol Deng, who lit The Truth up for 21 points, 16 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, 1 blocked shot and a plus-minus score of +16.
Paul isn’t talking about being the world’s best player any more.
Said Pierce: “I have to play better for us to win ballgames, and I realize that. I’m not going to say I’m 100 percent. I didn’t come back 100 percent. I’m getting back in basketball shape. The heel isn’t all the way where I’d like it to be. At some point in the season, it will be. It’s nothing I’m worried about right now.”
Maybe that’s the veteran in him talking. Maybe it’s wishful thinking.
I guess time will tell.
Things are looking pretty good for your Chicago Bulls, though.
They have played nine of their 13 games so far on the road. Hasn’t mattered all that much. Last night, they charged into the TD Garden, went up 26-13 after 12 minutes, and led by as many as 20 in the second half.
Yes, the Celtics made their run, cutting Chicago’s lead to a single point in the fourth.
But that only highlighted another difference between these two teams.
The Bulls have a superstar. The Celtics do not.
Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen used to be.
Rajon Rondo is close. But close only counts in horse shoes and nukes.
(As an aside, remember early last season when everybody was debating whether Rondo was better than Rose. A lot of people were saying Rondo. A lot. I don’t hear any of that these days.)
After Mickael Pietrus’ three-pointer cut Chicago’s lead all the way down to 67-66 with 10 minutes to go, D-Rose did what D-Rose does.
With 9:00 left, Rose drove in for a layup (69-66).
With 8:20 left, Rose drew a foul and hit both freebies (71-66).
With 7:30 left, Rose drilled a triple (74-68).
With 4:58 left, Rose knocked down another three (80-71).
With 2:14 left and the Celts making their last gasp, Rose drove in for another layup (84-73). And it was a pretty amazing one at that:
Derrick didn’t do it alone. He got help from timely buckets by Deng, Joakim Noah and Ronnie Brewer. But when the Bulls needed a closer, Rose did the closing.
It’s not like the Celtics just stood and watched. They tried to stop Rose. They just couldn’t.
Not down the stretch anyway.
Rose, who has an injured toe and was in a walking boot before the game, had a tough shooting night (9-for-21, 2-for-6 on three-pointers). But he finished with 25 points to go with 7 assists, 4 rebounds and all those clutch plays.
Said Rose: “They were giving me the shot. I probably was out a little bit further than I normally am, but they didn’t come and contest and I was just shooting. My teammates have confidence in me. They see how hard I work on my shot and my game. And at the end of the game like that when situations happen, they’re going to give me the ball.”
I can’t say I blame them.