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Three things to look for as the Celtics face the Bulls in a potential playoff preview

Boston could be hosting the Bulls in Round 1 next weekend.

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Boston Celtics
DeMar DeRozan drives to the basket as Marcus Smart tries to slow him down.
Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

With three regular season games remaining, the Celtics still have no idea who they’ll face in the first round of the playoffs.

It could be the Bulls, Raptors, Cavaliers, Hawks, or Hornets, but the Raptors and Bulls appear to be the most likely possibilities. The Celtics get another look at one of those opponents, the Bulls, on Wednesday at 8 p.m., in their first meeting since mid-January.

At the moment, the teams are trending in opposite directions, as the Celtics currently sit in second in the Eastern Conference and the Bulls have dropped to sixth. The Bulls have struggled of late, losing 13 of their last 19, while the Celtics have won 24 of 29.

Here’s a look at what to watch for as they battle in what could be the first of many meetings in the coming weeks.

Chicago Bulls v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images

Can the Celtics slow DeMar DeRozan down?

The short answer to this question is probably not, because no one has been able to all season. The longer answer is a bit more layered.

DeRozan is averaging 28 points per game and has been one of the best players in the NBA in 2022. After an absurd February, in which he racked up 34.2 points per game on 55.3 percent shooting, he regressed to human levels of productivity in March (27.6 points, 46.7 percent). In Chicago’s 127-109 loss to the Bucks on Tuesday, DeRozan erupted for 40 points on 16-of-26 shooting.

He dropped 37 on 15-of-20 shooting in the Bulls’ 128-114 comeback win over the Celtics in November and added 23 points, 8 boards and 7 assists in a 114-112 Celtics win in mid-January.

In the first game, he did most of his damage in the paint and from near the free-throw line, as he often does. In the second, the Celtics held him to 7-of-20 shooting and forced him into tougher, contested shots. He had a decent look to end the game, but he missed a 12-footer and the Celtics prevailed.

The Celtics are a vastly improved defensive team since the first two meetings, and they should be able to switch just about everything and make life more difficult than most for DeRozan. If they can hold him to, say, 25, they should put themselves in an ideal position.

Which team controls the paint?

In the first meeting, the Bulls dominated inside, outscoring the Celtics 54-36 in the paint and out-rebounding them 50-38.

The second meeting was much more in the Celtics’ favor in that regard, as Boston outscored Chicago, 58-34, in the paint and posted a 50-32 edge on the glass.

The Celtics are fourth in the NBA at 46 rebounds per game and the Bulls are 29th at 42.4. Without Robert Williams, of course, the Celtics lose some of their fortitude in that regard, but Al Horford, Daniel Theis, and Jayson Tatum, among others, are fully capable of filling the void.

Boston has out-rebounded the Raptors 57-52, the Heat 44-42, the Pacers 40-30 and the Wizards 39-32 (it was only that close because the Celtics didn’t miss a shot) in its last four games. Dominating the boards should be doable, and it would go a long way against a very skilled and athletic Bulls team Wednesday night.

Can Derrick White keep the momentum rolling?

Derrick White has quietly scored in double figures in six of the last seven games, and he finished with 9 in the other. After a string of poor shooting nights, he hit 6 of 7 shots en route to 17 points against the Wizards.

Granted, everyone was unconscious that day, but sometimes a game like that can go a long way toward getting a shooter out of a slump. Now that White has seen the ball go through the hoop a bit more, it’s certainly possible he’ll get in a rhythm.

He’s a perfect fit and has been playing great defense, moving the ball well and making winning hustle plays ever since he arrived. White doesn't need to shoot the lights out, but he does need to be a threat. If he can head into the playoffs with some more momentum as a shooter, that should help the Celtics immensely.

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