Boston (28-7) at Chicago (23-12)

By BRETT HUSTON, STATS Senior Writer Saturday, Jan 8, 2011 Tipoff: 8:00 pm EST Sat Jan 8, 2011

The Chicago Bulls think they’re ready to take the next step toward contention this season, but a pair of road losses to sub-.500 teams this week didn’t help that cause.

A win over the Boston Celtics certainly would.

The Bulls try to avoid a season-high third consecutive loss Saturday night when they continue their burgeoning rivalry with the visiting Celtics, who have won four straight and already knocked off Chicago twice at the TD Garden.

After losing an epic seven-game first-round series to Boston (28-7) in the 2009 playoffs and then falling in five games to Cleveland last spring, the Bulls (23-12) are hoping for a lengthier postseason stay in 2011.

They’ll likely be a quick out again if they play like they did at New Jersey and Philadelphia. Chicago allowed the Nets to shoot 49.4 percent in a 96-94 loss Wednesday, then watched the 76ers make 56.3 percent - the best shooting performance against the Bulls this season - in a 105-99 defeat Friday.

“You can’t panic, that’s what’s good about the NBA,” guard Derrick Rose(notes) said. “When you’re not playing defense, it’s going to haunt you.”

Those high percentages are bad news heading into a matchup against Boston, which is shooting 50.5 percent from the field - putting it on pace to be the league’s most efficient team since the 1994-95 Jazz shot 51.2 percent.

The Bulls have already had two looks at the Celtics’ proficiency. Boston hit 52.1 percent from the floor and averaged 107.0 points in a pair of home victories against Chicago earlier this season.

“It’s tough because we lost right now, but you know they’re a hell of a team,” now-injured Bulls center Joakim Noah(notes) said after a 104-92 loss Dec. 3. “That’s what we’re striving to be, one of the best teams in the game.”

The Celtics have been at their best the last two games as they adjust to Kevin Garnett’s(notes) absence. They shot 61.3 percent in a 105-103 victory over San Antonio on Wednesday, then knocked down 57.5 percent - including 11 of 21 from 3-point range - in a 122-102 rout of Toronto on Friday.

Rookie Luke Harangody(notes), who totaled 22 points in his first 16 NBA games, had 17 points and 11 boards.

“I just thought his energy was fantastic,” coach Doc Rivers said. “When he slows down, he can make shots. He’s an uncanny rebounder for his size.”

Injuries to Garnett (right leg) and Noah (right thumb) will take away some of the intrigue from Saturday’s matchup, especially after Noah called Garnett “ugly” and “mean” on a Chicago radio station in November.

The battle between two of the league’s premier point guards, however, should again be a good one.

Rajon Rondo(notes) has gotten the best of Rose in the first two meetings, averaging 11.0 points, 15.0 assists and 3.5 steals in Boston’s wins while Rose averaged 5.0 turnovers and 19.0 points - nearly five below his season average.

Most importantly, Rondo has helped the Celtics take advantage of Chicago’s mistakes. Boston’s averaged 24.0 points off turnovers against the Bulls.

A fully healthy Carlos Boozer(notes) might be able to give Chicago an edge. Boozer played just 21 minutes in the loss at Boston last month, his second game back after breaking his right hand.

He’s averaged 23.3 points in his last 13 games, though the Celtics have typically given him trouble. Boozer’s 15.4 points per game against the Celtics since 2005-06 are his fewest against any Eastern Conference opponent.

The Bulls have won 10 of 11 at home while limiting their visitors to 40.0 percent shooting, but Ray Allen(notes) figures to threaten that. Allen has averaged 25.0 points in his last 14 trips to the United Center - playoffs included - while shooting 47.4 percent from 3-point range.

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Saturday, Jan 8