DEERFIELD, Ill. (AP) – Considering Kevin Garnett is wearing a suit instead of a uniform, it seemed only natural that all eyes would be on Paul Pierce as the Boston Celtics launched their title defense.

Anyone looking toward the spotlight needs to check again.

Pierce was content to stand toward the side as the Celtics split the first two playoff games against the Bulls, and with Game 3 in Chicago on Thursday, he had no plans to move unless called upon.

“If that’s what’s going to help us win, that’s what I’ll be,” he said. “If I have to go out there and get somebody else open and set more screens and it’s going to be effective and help our ballclub win, that’s what I’m going to do.”

They might need a little more now.

Already short-handed, the Celtics lost Leon Powe to a season-ending knee injury in Game 2 and saw speedy point guard Rajon Rondo sprain his right ankle.

Pierce? He’s healthy.

He just hasn’t asserted himself in this series. Although he’s averaging 20.5 points, his shooting percentage is down from 45.7 percent in the regular season to 40 percent, and he’s deferring to teammates.

“Other guys are stepping up for us,” he said. “That’s what’s big for us right now.”

Rondo and Glen Davis in particular have stepped up and Ray Allen came through in a big way in Game 2. Now, after two tight, dramatic games in Boston, the Bulls are bracing for a more assertive Pierce.

“I’m always preparing for him to come out and try to be aggressive, try to get his team going,” said Chicago’s John Salmons, who’s been guarding Pierce. “This is an All-Star player. You’ve got to concentrate and do the best you can on him.”

So far the Bulls are sticking with the Celtics. The result? Two thrillers.

Chicago got 36 points from Derrick Rose in the opener and prevailed in overtime, 105-103, after Pierce hit the tying free throw but missed the winner at the end of regulation.

In Game 2, Ray Allen won a shootout with Ben Gordon and the Celtics beat the Bulls 118-115. True, Gordon outscored Allen 42-30, but Allen hit the tiebreaking 3-pointer with two seconds left as Boston salvaged a split at home.

“I think what’s making these games so exciting is they’re won or lost on one or two possessions,” Chicago’s Joakim Noah said. “The shots that are being made are off rebounds.”

And the Celtics had plenty in Game 2.

A 50-36 rebounding edge and 32-12 disparity in second-chance points for Boston rattled the Bulls, left them bemoaning a missed chance to seize control of the series. Then again, a two-game split certainly beats an 0-2 deficit as the series turns to Chicago.

Even so, the beating on the glass grated on the Bulls.

They were particularly peeved about the 21-8 edge in offensive rebounds, which explains the disparity in second-chance points, and they’ll need a better effort all around. Chicago got beat underneath and on the perimeter, with Kendrick Perkins and Rondo each grabbing 12, and no Bulls player reached double digits.

Noah attributed that to “dribble penetration, their physicality, lucky bounces – a lot of things.”

“It’s just on us to try to control the things we can control,” he said.

Like Rose, Noah made a big splash in his first playoff game by grabbing 17 rebounds. Perkins said he had trouble sleeping after that, but he could rest a little easier after Game 2. Noah wound up with just eight in that game and was the one struggling to get some rest.

“There’s so much emotion going on in the game that I have a hard time falling asleep,” he said. “The adrenalin rush on that court is a feeling that not everybody gets to experience. It’s overwhelming. It’s just hard to come down after that.”

And the emotions figure to be running high again on Thursday.

The Bulls got spectacular performances from Rose and Gordon in Boston and are showing some swagger, a belief that they cannot only stick with the defending champions but beat them.

The Celtics are aching.

They were already missing the biggest of their Big Three stars in Garnett when they took a few more hits in Game 2. Powe tore the anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his left knee and is done for the season. Rondo hurt his ankle during the game, although he still finished with 19 points and 16 assists to go with those 12 rebounds.

“His ankle can’t be that bad, the way he’s moving,” Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro said.

Well, it was bad enough to keep him out of practice on Tuesday. He was back, however, on Wednesday.

So was forward Brian Scalabrine, who is expected to be available after being sidelined since Feb. 23 because of a concussion.

“He looked good. Actually, he played great,” coach Doc Rivers said.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.