Bulls-Celtics Preview

The Associated Press

The Chicago Bulls have had no trouble thoroughly overpowering inferior opponents with Derrick Rose hampered by a sore back.

Considering the way things went in Boston a month ago, the Bulls will likely need their leading scorer and reigning league MVP on the court for Sunday's matchup with the Celtics to push their winning streak to six.

Rose is uncertain if he'll play in the finale of Chicago's nine-game, 15-day road trip after sitting out Friday's 95-64 win over Charlotte.

"I really don't know," Rose said before Saturday's practice. "When I wake up, I usually can tell. I'll probably know by the time I wake up."

Although Friday was the first time Rose was sidelined because of back pain, he had played limited minutes in the Bulls' previous two games, combining for 10 points and six assists in easy wins over New Jersey and New Orleans.

Despite getting nominal production from its leader, Chicago (23-6) hasn't missed a beat.

With Friday's easy victory, the Bulls became the first team ever to win four consecutive road games by at least 20 points. These games have been decided early, with Chicago outscoring its last four opponents by an average of 14.5 first-quarter points.

"Our depth is our greatest strength right now,'' said Joakim Noah, who had 17 points and 14 rebounds against the Bobcats. "Obviously we know that we need everybody healthy (come playoffs). This is definitely not a sprint, it's a marathon.''

Although the Bulls, owners of the league's best record, are mindful of their long-term goal, they would certainly like to have Rose in uniform against a Boston team smarting from a pair of disappointing losses.

Chicago won the first meeting 88-79 on Jan. 13 in Boston thanks to Rose's big fourth quarter. With the Bulls up one with 10 minutes remaining, Rose, playing with a sprained left big toe, scored Chicago's next seven points and the Celtics never got closer than five.

Although Rose carried Chicago down the stretch, he wasn't the only Bull to frustrate the Celtics, as Luol Deng finished with 21 points and 16 rebounds.

Deng has been one of several Bulls to step up while Rose has been hurting, averaging 15.3 points in the last four games after missing the previous seven with a torn ligament in his left wrist.

Defense has also been key in Chicago's last four games, with the team allowing an average of 77.0 points and 37.8 percent shooting.

While the Bulls are playing superbly despite their star being slowed, the Celtics (14-12) are suddenly in a little funk.

After losing to the Los Angeles Lakers by one point in overtime Thursday, Boston looked lifeless a night later against lowly Toronto, never leading in an 86-74 loss. The Celtics, who had won nine of ten before Thursday's defeat, dropped back-to-back games for the first time since a five-game skid Jan. 6-16.

"We just didn't show the mental toughness,'' Paul Pierce said. "We feel like we're getting so close to being the team we want to be and to take a couple of steps back is definitely frustrating. These are games we're supposed to win.''

Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo all struggled against the Raptors, combining for 23 points on 9-of-29 shooting.

The Celtics fell to 1-10 when scoring 88 points or fewer, which doesn't bode well against a Chicago team that allows an average of 86.9 points.

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