Round 1 Riot: Celtics (2) vs Bulls (7)
Believe it or not, Boston's 62-win season this year might be even more impressive than their 66-win campaign a year ago, especially when you consider the world champs had a target on their back the entire season and Kevin Garnett played a mere 57 games. The Bulls, meanwhile, made the jump from winning the lottery to getting back into the playoffs despite losing Luol Deng for the last two months of the season. The Celtics are favored, and for good reason, but Chicago's athletic young core will make the champs work for every inch.
Reason to Watch
This series lost a chunk of star appeal when Doc Rivers revealed that Kevin Garnett, originally expected back for the start of the playoffs, was almost certainly done for the year. Does that mean Boston's chance to repeat is shot? Their performance against the Bulls will tell us a lot about whether they're a legitimate threat to get past the Magic and the Cavs in the East.
Of course, dismissing the Bulls as a mere scrimmage partner is selling them short. Derrick Rose is one of the most exciting young players in the game, and although he's a rookie, he's more battle-tested than most players his age after proving himself under pressure in last year's NCAA tourney. What's even more encouraging is the fact that he seems to be picking up steam: he averaged 19.2 points and 7.5 assists in April, his highest marks in either category of any month this year.
How Boston Can Win
There's no denying the importance of Kevin Garnett, but understand that this Celtics team still won over 70-percent of their games (18-7) without him. Not many teams can lose a superstar and maintain that type of pace, but it helps having guys like Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo around to pick up the slack. Leon Powe could start for a lot of teams in this league -- and if he has a big series, he just might get that chance as a restricted free agent this summer.
There's no denying the Celtics need to step up their defense to compensate for Garnett's absence, but it helps that the Bulls lack a bona fide scoring threat in the post to exploit his absence. So long as Boston continues to do what they've done all year long, they'll be fine.
How Chicago Can Win
If the Bulls are smart, they'll turn this series into a track meet -- just like they did the last time these teams met in the regular season. The Bulls won that game 127-121; it was their only win in three tries against the Celtics, but it was also the only game played after the Bulls picked up John Salmons and Brad Miller from the Kings and in which Garnett was sidelined.
I noted above that the Bulls lack a dominant scoring presence in the post, but what I didn't mention was that Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah can run circles around Boston's big men in transition. When the Bulls are forced into a half-court set, they're extremely dangerous from outside: Ben Gordon, Salmons, Kirk Hinrich and Tim Thomas all shot better than 40% from beyond the arc. That kind of accuracy is means no margin is too big to overcome.
Video Clip to Get You Pumped
Apropos of nothing, but isn't modern technology wonderful?
Stud of the Series
Rose is going to be a huge star, this much should already be apparent. Just for fun, look at his rookie numbers compared to Dwyane Wade's rookie numbers. Those are eerily similar, no? Considering Chicago's best chances involve pushing the ball at every opportunity, Rose has a chance to cap his rookie season the same way Wade did: by making a statement in the playoffs. Wade got his team into the second round, but he wasn't exactly facing the reigning world champs. If Rose can figure out a way to extend this series to six games, it'll be a moral victory worth celebrating, and a nice building block for 2009-10.
Salmons is an extremely underrated player, and he's certainly had his moments since coming over from Sacramento -- the only reason the Bulls were able to beat the Celtics in the aforementioned 127-121 track meet was because Salmons poured in 38 points. In a perfect world, this could have been his coming-out party on a national stage, but unfortunately, he enters the postseason nursing a strained groin. Players at full strength struggle to contain Paul Pierce; gimpy ones don't have a chance.
Chicago: No one.
I'm guessing Boston takes care of business in five hard-fought games, but if Chicago's shooters get hot, I can easily see this going six. Either way, by the time this series is done, expect the talking points to shift from Garnett's injury to Rose's emergence as a big-game player.