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Celtics whetting appetite

Matchup with Bulls a test before playoffs

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By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / April 7, 2011

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Nothing felt the same a week ago at the AT&T Center in San Antonio. The Celtics and Spurs knew what a playoff atmosphere felt like when they walked into one.

Paul Pierce was at his locker room stall, running on the last few drops of adrenaline that fueled a 21-point, 11-rebound, 7-assist performance in a 107-97 victory when he told Rajon Rondo, “We needed this one.’’

For the Celtics, it was the first heavyweight bout since they traded Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson to Oklahoma City for Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic at the deadline, a deal that could define their season.

It was the first high-level litmus test for a team that spent a month trying to fit new players in new roles. If this was the team they would take into the playoffs, how playoff-ready were they?

They traded punches and ultimately knocked out the team with the best record in the league, making a statement not so much to the Spurs but to themselves.

Now, in their next three games, they’ll play two teams that will be checkpoints on the way to a possible title. Tonight in Chicago, they’ll face the Bulls, who rushed into first place in the Eastern Conference while the Celtics struggled. Then, after a matchup tomorrow at home against the Wizards, they’ll face the Heat Sunday in Miami.

The Celtics downplay the games if only to dim the lights on two high-wattage matchups.

“It’s another regular-season game,’’ Green said.

“All these games are important,’’ Kevin Garnett said.

“We don’t play them in the first round,’’ Rondo said.

Everything they say is correct. But they’ll take the same thing from those games that they did in San Antonio.

“Just getting used to being in playoff-atmosphere settings,’’ Pierce said. “We’re playing in Chicago, that’s coming up with a lot on the line as far as seeds. Some guys haven’t been in a lot of big games. A lot of these guys have.

“So it puts you in those moments to where you can say this is the type of atmosphere that we will be in every night once the playoffs start. You don’t have a lot of games like that on the schedule. Chicago is one of them this week.’’

The Chicago and Miami games will be front ends of back-to-backs.

“It’s a different game against Chicago and Miami,’’ Rondo said. “Obviously, the intensity will be a lot greater. But in the playoffs it’ll definitely be a lot of intensity.’’

The core unit has seen every playoff scenario, from double overtime in the opening round to Game 7 of the Finals.

In 2008, they were taken to the brink by eighth-seeded Atlanta in a frightening seven-game, first-round series. It happened again in 2009 against the seventh-seeded Bulls, only with seven overtime periods in seven games. That Garnett-less playoff run came to an end on their own floor in the conference semifinals, and Pierce could barely stand watching Orlando’s Dwight Howard celebrate on the parquet. Last season, they ripped home-court advantage from the Cavaliers, again denying LeBron James the throne.

The majority of the new additions are playoff-tested, as well. A year ago, Green, Krstic, and the Thunder took the Lakers six games in the first round. Carlos Arroyo is tested from playoff series with the Pistons. Sasha Pavlovic earned some of his postseason stripes in the Cavaliers’ epic conference semifinal series against the Celtics in 2008.

The Celtics are 5-1 against the Bulls and Heat this season. Coach Doc Rivers, however, doesn’t put much stock into regular-season meetings with potential playoff opponents. Between back-to-backs, injuries, streaks, and slumps, he believes the circumstances make it difficult to judge.

The perceived magnitude of the Bulls and Heat games overshadows a pair of trap games against the Wizards.

Last year, the Celtics played the Cavaliers late in the season at TD Garden, and the only things that could be taken from that game were (a) the teams hated each other and (b) they couldn’t wait to see each other in the playoffs.

The Celtics won, 117-113. Two nights later, they lost to the woeful Knicks in New York.

“All these games are important to us right now,’’ Garnett said. “Not just against the Chicagos and Miamis. We’ve got the Washingtons, the Phillys, these are huge games for us.’’

Then, he gave a small sign that the games do indeed have a larger meaning.

“The playoffs is like the main course,’’ Garnett said. “This will definitely be an appetizer.’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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