Heat visit looms, but Bulls seem to match up better with Boston

Updated 1/10/2011 11:34 AM

There is no mistaking a big-game atmosphere at the United Center.

The parking lots fill quicker, lines form early at the box-office windows and people crowd the sidewalks, waiting for the doors to open at 5:30 p.m.

That was certainly the case for the Boston game Saturday, and who knows what's in store for next Saturday, when the star-hoarding Miami Heat -- obnoxiously nicknamed "The Heatles" by LeBron James -- makes its first Chicago visit.

With the NBA season approaching the halfway mark, the team to beat is still unclear. After the Bulls handled the Celtics 90-79, it's easy to think Boston would be a better playoff matchup than Miami.

Not only does coach Tom Thibodeau know the Celtics' personnel inside and out, there's a good chance age will be a factor late in the season. Kevin Garnett will be back, but he turns 35 in May and has been playing closer to the ground for the past couple of years.

Ray Allen is already 35 and playing well for now. Shaquille O'Neal turns 39 in March and usually takes an extended vacation at some point to save himself for the playoffs. Boston should get a boost, though, from center Kendrick Perkins, who injured his knee in last year's Finals and is scheduled to return in a few weeks.

Miami figures to be vulnerable on the inside, where the Bulls are much stronger with the addition of Carlos Boozer. But the Bulls won't be at full strength this weekend and center Joakim Noah may just be coming back from a thumb injury when the Bulls and Heat finish the season series Feb. 24 and March 6.

Orlando imported a new supporting case for Dwight Howard and has won nine in a row. Atlanta didn't take a step back when Joe Johnson was injured, and the Knicks have already proved they could be a problem for the Bulls.

It seems as though the Bulls' playoff position is almost locked in already. By winning the Central Division -- and they lead Indiana by 9 games -- the Bulls automatically get one of the top four seeds.

For now, that would mean a first-round matchup against Atlanta or New York, and if the Bulls manage to survive, they'd get Boston or Miami in the second round.

There is still plenty to learn about where the Bulls fit in, with three games left with Miami, Orlando and Atlanta.

There are 14 NBA teams above .500 but just four have a winning record against winning teams. Three stand out: Boston (12-5), San Antonio (13-5) and Dallas (14-6). Oklahoma City is 10-8 against quality opponents.

In the East, Miami is 7-7 against winning teams but 6-1 since Dec. 1 after starting 1-6. Orlando is 7-9, New York 6-8, the Bulls 6-9 and Atlanta 4-9.

The numbers say Boston is the team to beat in the East. But with Garnett hurt and Miami gaining fast, that title could change hands after the Heat's arrival at the United Center in a few days.

Lineup change far-fetched:

Whenever the Bulls struggle, questions about Keith Bogans' stay in the starting lineup follow. Bogans' lack of offense is obvious, since he's averaging 3.5 points and has scored more than 3 just once in the last 12 games.

But don't expect anything to change this season unless there's an injury or trade. Coach Tom Thibodeau has made his loyalty to Bogans very clear. The team is 24-12 and Ronnie Brewer is doing well with longer minutes off the bench, so a switch is probably not coming.

Thibodeau clearly sees seven minutes at the start of each half as the right spot for Bogans.