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updated: 3/17/2011 12:16 AM

Bulls lead race for Eastern conference title

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  • Derrick Rose of the Bulls, Rajon Rondo of the Celtics, and Dwyane Wade of the Heat lead their teams in a three-team race for first in the East.

      Derrick Rose of the Bulls, Rajon Rondo of the Celtics, and Dwyane Wade of the Heat lead their teams in a three-team race for first in the East.
    Photo Illustration by Patrick Kunzer/pkunzer@daily

 
 

The Bulls aren't stopping to enjoy the view from atop the Eastern Conference. They could lose the spot quickly by dropping two upcoming road games at New Jersey and Indiana.

Tonight's contest actually features the NBA's two hottest teams, since the Bulls have won seven in a row and the Nets have posted 5 straight victories behind recently added point guard Deron Williams.

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New Jersey helped send the Bulls into first place by beating Boston on Monday.

Here's a theory that could bode well for the Bulls: Just by pushing the Celtics for the Eastern Conference lead, the Bulls might have an edge in the playoffs, whether they finish first or not.

The Bulls have a young, deep roster that can win games even when missing some key pieces. Boston has an older team and probably could use some rest heading into the playoffs.

By keeping pressure on the Celtics, the Bulls could force them into either conceding the top spot or wearing out their aging stars in the stretch run.

Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau was a Celtics assistant the past three years, so he has dealt with the question of how to best prepare Ray Allen (35), Kevin Garnett (34) and Paul Pierce (33) for the playoff push. Boston added Shaquille O'Neal (39) this year, but he hasn't played since Feb. 1.

"That's a big part of pacing your team and knowing where you are," Thibodeau said. "The year we won the championship (2008), we really didn't pace them. We just pushed through and that was obviously our best year. So each team's different."

Boston appears to have a tougher remaining schedule than the Bulls. The Celtics visit Houston, New Orleans and New York this weekend and still have remaining road dates at San Antonio, Atlanta, Chicago and Miami.

Overall, the Celtics have 11 games left against teams currently in playoff position, while the Bulls have seven and the Heat six. If Dwyane Wade takes control and starts closing out games for the Heat, Miami would have to overtake the Bulls since Chicago owns the regular-season series.

The Bulls' other Boston connection, Brian Scalabrine, shared his thoughts on whether the Bulls have any advantage by making the race for the East's No. 1 seed so competitive.

"I can only give you an opinion," Scalabrine said. "I will say from personal experience, (coach) Doc (Rivers) is definitely going to say, 'We're playing to win. That means if I play you guys 40 minutes or 20 minutes, we have enough that's capable of winning down the stretch.'

"I think he'll err on the side of rest. But I know that team and especially No. 9 (Rajon Rondo) will not concede a victory. He's kind of like a brash, cocky kid in a good way. He'll take that as a challenge. 'I don't care who I have with me, I'm going to try to win this game.'

"And he's good enough to do it. I think (Rivers) will rest the guys he needs to rest, but I think he'll push No. 9 all the way to the end."

Boston also has made considerable changes. After sending center Kendrick Perkins to Oklahoma City, the Celtics added center Nenad Krstic, forward Jeff Green, shooting guard Sasha Pavlovic and long-range shooting big man Troy Murphy to their rotation.

"It's different, but their bread-and-butter lineup is going to be relatively the same, minus Perkins," Scalabrine said. "I think Doc is really trying to get Shaq healthy. You need size in the playoffs because it's such a physical game and those good players are getting to the rim.

"That team has enough in the locker room for us to have to worry about if we were to match up in the playoffs. They lost Perkins, and I think that's big. But Doc's an unbelievable coach and those guys are the best executing team in the league right now, offensively. It's going to be a challenge."

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