After getting a key victory against the only other team still fighting for the league’s last playoff spot, the Chicago Bulls need to beat the team that eliminated them from last year’s postseason to hold onto it.
Chicago will try to maintain its lead on eighth place in the Eastern Conference with a home victory over the Boston Celtics on Tuesday night.
Chicago moved past Toronto for the conference’s No. 8 spot with a 104-88 win Sunday at the Air Canada Centre. After falling in double overtime to lowly New Jersey two nights earlier, the Bulls (39-41) bounced back behind Derrick Rose’s 26 points and key contributions from Joakim Noah.
Despite being limited by the plantar fasciitis that has caused him to miss 17 games since the start of February, Noah had 18 points, 19 rebounds and a career high-tying seven assists in the win.
“I knew it was a really important game, I was really focused,” Noah said. “I just wanted to go out there and impose my will as much as I could, just be aggressive offensively and defensively.”
The Bulls have a one-half game lead over Toronto, which defeated Detroit on Monday, heading into their game against the Celtics (50-30). Chicago has to finish ahead of Toronto since the Raptors own the tiebreaker after winning two of three in the season series.
“We’ve still got a long way to go,” coach Vinny Del Negro said. “We’ve got to refocus and get our energy back for Tuesday. Every game is like a playoff game for us.”
It probably won’t be too difficult for Del Negro’s team to create a postseason atmosphere with Boston coming to town.
In last year’s opening round, the Bulls and Celtics battled through a grueling seven-game series that featured a combined seven overtimes. Chicago forced the deciding contest with a 128-127 triple-overtime win at the United Center, but Boston closed out the series with a 109-99 home victory.
Unlike the Bulls, the Celtics are already assured of returning to the postseason thanks to their third straight Atlantic Division title, but they’ve been relegated to the No. 4 seed after Atlanta defeated Milwaukee on Monday night.
The Celtics won for the third time in eight games with a 105-90 victory at Milwaukee on Saturday night. In a potential preview of an opening-round series, Boston led by one at halftime but pulled away as Paul Pierce scored 18 of his team-leading 24 points in the second half.
“It was a big win. I wish we could come out like this every night,” Pierce said. “We have to get some momentum going as we head into the playoffs.”
The Celtics played without Kevin Garnett, who was given the night off by coach Doc Rivers. Garnett, who graduated from Chicago’s Farragut High School, sat out last year’s playoff series with a right knee injury.
Problems with that same knee kept him out of a 96-83 loss in Chicago on Jan. 14, but he helped the team to a pair of victories over the Bulls earlier this season, including a 118-90 win at the United Center on Oct. 30.
In Garnett’s three seasons with Boston, the Celtics are 8-0 against the Bulls when the star forward plays.