Boston vs. Chicago: It’s a playoff preview. And it isn’t.

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Thursday night’s much anticipated Celtics at Bulls matchup is not a playoff preview.

Well, technically it can be. These two teams could meet in the Eastern Conference finals, but first they have to get there. Teams evolve during the playoffs, these teams will be different by then.

More importantly, no Shaquille O’Neal for Boston tonight. He remains Boston’s X factor but he may not be back until this weekend from a strained calf. Boston needs his size in the paint, his rebounding, his offense from the post to win a title this season. Jermaine O’Neal and Nenad Krstic are nice off the bench guys. They’re not Shaq. Not that Boston can’t win the game Thursday without Shaq — anything can happen in one game — but they need their big leprechaun to win a series against Chicago (or even Miami). They are not the same team with him in street clothes.

True preview or no, this should be fun.

It’s a test of what are seen as the two best “teams” in the Eastern Conference. (Miami would like to be in that conversation, but they will have to shed the “collection of individuals” tag in the playoffs.) Rose, right now, may be the biggest offensive force on either team. But the better “big four?” Boston is better, deeper, more experienced with their best players.

This game also features two of the very best point guards in the game. Rajon Rondo vs. Derrick Rose.

Brian Scalabrine has a unique perspective on this. He played for the Celtics with Rondo. He followed Tom Thibodeau to Chicago (the veteran who understood the defense and could help teach it in practices), he has now seen Rose up close.

He compared the two for CSN Chicago.

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Scalabrine called Rajon Rondo “the smartest basketball player I’ve ever played with.”

As for the other side, “Derrick has the ability to dominate the game with a variety of shots.”

There are other fascinating match ups. Kevin Garnett on Carlos Boozer will be fun to watch. Luol Deng’s long arms trying to disrupt Paul Pierce’s shot.

It will be interesting to see how Thibodeau defends Boston. But if he has a real trick, a real secret he thinks will work, you will not see it tonight. He will save it for a bigger stage.

This game still matters. Chicago’s magic number to clinch the top seed in the East is three. Win Thursday and it is one. Lose and they still probably win the top seed, but they’re going to have to work a little harder for it down the stretch.

Thibodeau knows the value of some rest (even with a younger team). He’d like to get the win tonight. His charges would like to make a statement about who is the best in the East. Boston needs the win to keep their hopes of catching Chicago alive, but just as importantly to move another game ahead of Miami for the two seed. And home court in the second round.

Both teams have reason to win. Both teams are going to play hard and bring it.

Just don’t think this game represents how a playoff series plays out.

D’Angelo Russell drops 40 on Magic including shot that put Nets up for good

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D'Angelo Russell is playing like a guy in a contract year. And that’s just fine with Brooklyn.

Russell tied his career best with 40 points Friday night against the Magic, including hitting the shot that put the Nets up for good on the night with 27 seconds remaining. Russell was 16-of-25 shooting, including 8-of-12 from three, and he was an analytics dream — Russell took all but one of his shots either in the paint or from three.

The Nets — now 24-23 on the season and the sixth seed in the East — came from 21 back to get the win and that included their guards hitting the big shots at the end.

First up was Spencer Dinwiddie.

Then came Russell’s shot that proved to be the game winner.

With the Nets extending Dinwiddie during the season, it’s unlikely Russell returns to Brooklyn next season, but a number of teams are interested in him as a free agent (restricted, the Nets can match if the offer is low).

Report: Isaiah Thomas could return to Nuggets right before All-Star break

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The Denver Nuggets have shown off their depth this season. Three starters — Will Barton, Gary Harris, and Paul Millsap — have missed a chunk of time and yet until a few days ago the Nuggets were the top seed in the West, and they are still a clear second.

And all of that without Isaiah Thomas, their biggest name reserve. He has been recovering from hip surgery last March.

The Nuggets are hoping Thomas will make his debut next month, right before the All-Star Break, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Thomas has been gathering momentum in his rehabilitation process from hip surgery in March, and there’s hope among Thomas and the Nuggets organization he could return as soon as a Feb. 11-13 homestand against Miami and Sacramento, sources said.

There’s strong confidence that he will return no later than the first game after the All Star break on Feb. 22 in Dallas, league sources said….

The final hurdle for Thomas remains playing full 5-on-5 scrimmages. He is expected to start that process soon.

Thomas was playing well and playing through pain in Boston, becoming a fan favorite and pulling that team into the postseason, before his hip injury caught up with him. He tried to recover without surgery playing for the Cavaliers and Lakers last season, but that never really worked like he hoped. He had the surgery and signed a one-year deal with the Nuggets.

Thomas could provide a playmaking guard off the bench, although Monte Morris has filled that role for the Nuggets so well he gets mentioned as a most improved player candidate. Coach Mike Malone will need to finesse the minutes to get both of them touches and involved. How much Thomas can help the Nuggets in the playoffs depends on how he recovers (he has always been a defensive liability because of his size, which factors in as well).

If Thomas can show he would have value as a bench player he will have teams calling next July about a much bigger contract. He has motivation, and he’s popular around the league — people want to see him succeed. But is he fully healthy and does he still have the lateral explosiveness that made him so hard to stop on drives to the rim? We should find out the final couple months of the season.

Report: Kings’ Buddy Hield in 3-point contest

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Players who’ve attempted more than seven 3-pointers per game while making more than 40% of them this season:

Sharing company with only the greatest shooter of all-time will earn Hield a spot in the 3-point contest.

Carmichael Dave of KHTK Sports 1140:

Sacramento getting three players into the Rising Stars Challenge for the second straight year speaks to the team’s nice collection of young talent. Bogdan Bogdanovic (who won MVP last year) and De'Aaron Fox return to the game. No. 2 pick Marvin Bagley III replaces Hield, who ages out.

Hield has a chance in the 3-point contest, though the league is better from beyond the arc than ever. He’ll certainly have plenty of competition.

PBT Extra: Five players to watch heading into the NBA’s trade deadline

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It’s going to be a slow NBA trade deadline this year.

The reason it will be relatively quiet on Feb. 7 (the deadline day) this year is reflected in the five players to watch talked about in this PBT Extra. The bottom line: There are far more buyers than sellers.

Take Trevor Ariza in Washington, for example. A number of playoff teams are looking for wings on expiring contracts to help them out — the Rockets and Lakers are at the front of that line — but Wizards owner Ted Leonsis has said the team the team will not tank, so is Ariza even available.

Or, what about Terrence Ross in Orlando? Another wing a lot of teams have interest in, but is Orlando selling?

And while the Dallas Mavericks have made public overtures about reconciliation with Dennis Smith Jr., sources tell me the plan on both sides is still to find a trade, it’s just right now the offers are lowball ones (because the Mavs have no leverage and there will be good young point guards such as Terry Rozier and D'Angelo Russell available in July as restricted free agents, and teams like them better).

Still, there will be trades. These are the guys to watch.