CHICAGO -- The Boston Celtics are linked to Jimmy Butler in trade speculation and get an up-close look at the Chicago Bulls guard Thursday night at the United Center.
After defeating the Philadelphia 76ers 116-108 on Wednesday night at TD Garden, the Celtics go head-to-head with Butler in their quest to sweep the back-to-back set prior to the All-Star break -- something they've done four previous times already.
Whether they acquire Butler, the Celtics sights are set squarely on the top spot in the Eastern Conference, which is held by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Boston (37-19) is 2 1/2 games back of Cleveland after winning four straight games and 11 of its past 12.
"It's real good for us, especially going into the All-Star break," Celtics guard Marcus Smart told the Boston Herald. "This is around the time when players start making excuses to kind of let up and let games fall, and those games come back and hurt you in the end."
The Bulls are coming off a 105-94 victory Tuesday night at home against the Toronto Raptors, whom they've defeated 11 straight times. Butler, who's battling a sore heel, led the way with 19 points and 12 assists -- including 15-of-19 from the free-throw line on a night he shot 2-of-10 from the floor.
The victory ended a three-game losing streak for Chicago, which went 2-4 on a six-game road trip and fell to seventh place in the East standings. The Bulls cling to one of the last two playoff spots and find themselves surrounded by trade rumors involving Butler, power forward Taj Gibson and center Robin Lopez among others.
Until anybody is dealt, the Bulls continue to keep their focus on the court. It's been a turbulent season, rife with injuries and locker room drama, but they're in decent shape to make the playoffs as currently constructed.
"We've had some ups and downs, but I think with the exception of some games we dropped, I think we're trending in the right direction," Lopez told CSN Chicago after practice Wednesday. "We've been doing a great job in the first quarter, which is something we struggled with for a long time."
Coach Fred Hoiberg was also pleased with the Bulls' defensive intensity against the Raptors, which is something that's been intermittent all season.
In short, when the Bulls play defense with energy, they can be a tough matchup for any team. When the effort slips, it usually costs them games. Hoiberg wants his team to play up-tempo, but it requires the kind of defensive effort the Bulls gave against the Raptors.
"I think the reason we were able to play with pace is because we were getting stops," Hoiberg said. "I thought our defensive energy was the best it's been in a while. We held that team to 18 in the first quarter and had a great first half, which allowed us to get out and play with pace, and play the way we want to."
The Bulls played the past three games without rookie Paul Zipser (ankle sprain) and the past two games without starting guard Dwyane Wade (wrist) and reserve forward Nikola Mirotic (back spasms). Wade was able to get through half of practice Wednesday, while Mirotic participated in full. Both are questionable.
The Celtics are without guard Avery Brown (right Achilles), who's missed 15 games, and forward Jaylen Brown (right hip strain), who missed his second straight game Wednesday.
Chicago must defend Boston guard Isaiah Thomas, who averages 29.9 points. Thomas poured in 33 points against Philadelphia to tie Hall of Famer John Havlicek for the most consecutive games scoring at least 20 points in franchise history (40).
"He's incredible, the way he can get shots up," Hoiberg said. "He's a great finisher in the paint. They do a great job of running a lot of actions for him, coming off to his left hand, where he can stop on a dime and pull up from anywhere. It's a full-team problem. You have to make sure you're aware of where he is at all times."