Eddie House took the ball and flung it to the Garden rafters and by the time it reached the floor everyone went about trying to put the whole thing into perspective. After seven games, four of which went into overtime, what exactly was this series between the Celtics and the Bulls?
Was it the greatest ever, or does a playoff series have to be much deeper than the first round to earn that distinction?
Was it the most competitive? Never before has an NBA series featured four games that went into overtime. Heck, before this one no series had ever had three games go into overtime – and on two occasions, it wasn’t one overtime either. The Celtics and Bulls managed to wring seven overtime periods into the equation.
Not surprisingly, neither Doc Rivers nor Paul Pierce had much of a reaction to those inquiries. They lived it, after all, and players and coaches just aren’t conditioned to think along those lines. History just gets in the way of the present.
“For me, advancing,” Doc Rivers said when asked what the most memorable thing of the series was to him. “Really. I mean, that’s it.”
“As a player,” Pierce said, “you really don’t reflect on that ‘til it’s over,” and he meant the season, not the series.
So it’s left to us to try and figure it all out. In the end, the seven games the Bulls and Celtics played can’t just be measured in grueling overtimes and heroic shots because mixed with every brilliant play was more than a fair share of sublime mistakes: missed layups and free throws, mistakes in defensive coverage, bad fouls at inopportune times, no fouls at others.
The series also has to be taken in the context of who wasn’t there: Kevin Garnett and Luol Deng for all of it and Leon Powe for most of it.
But it was great theater.
From Ray Allen’s 51-point game to Ben Gordon’s epic shot-making. From the emerging genius of Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose to the heart and guts of Paul Pierce and John Salmons. From Kendrick Perkins taking KG’s defensive mantle and holding down the middle of the Celtics defense almost single-handedly to Joakim Noah’s divisive style of play, this series had more twists and turns than an Elmore Leonard novel, and more subplots than a full season of Lost. All that and a pretty darn good Game 7 to cap off the whole wonderfully exhilarating and frustrating two weeks.
Was it the greatest series ever played? Probably not, if only because of the stakes. As one member of the Celtics organization noted, “I just hope it’s not the most exciting but ultimately meaningless series ever played.”
Was it the most competitive? Probably, although we have a natural tendency to overreach when something like this ends, and it would be wise to dwell on that question a little more deeply in the upcoming weeks.
But it was damn good. Let’s leave it to Big Baby Davis, to sum it up because he probably came the closest to articulating what many of us felt:
“Amazing, like wow, oh my gosh, one of the best series I’ve ever seen in my life,” Davis said. “You know, I’m only 23. I haven’t seen that many series. But if I’m sitting at home and I’m a basketball fan, I’m watching the Bulls and I’m watching the Celtics and I’m thinking it was an amazing series. So, I tip my hat to the Bulls, and I think the better team won.”
1. FINALLY, THE BENCH
Stephon Marbury called Doc Rivers Friday night and told him, “Coach, I’ll be there for you.” With all due respect to Marbury, there wasn’t a whole lot of evidence throughout the first six games to think that would be true Saturday night.
But with Rajon Rondo struggling and not feeling well, Marbury came into the game and proceeded to ice Derrick Rose. Brian Scalabrine came in for Davis, who was also struggling—trying to do too much, Rivers said—and promptly hit three huge shots.
Eddie House, who had been essentially a non-factor throughout the series, picked a wonderful time to have a breakout game, making all five of his shots, including four from 3-point range and scoring 16 points. And Mikki Moore, who had been exiled to the Bill Walker/Gabe Pruitt section of the bench, contributed four very big points and a charge.
“I really believed that we were going to need them,” Rivers said. “I just didn’t know if I could use them.”
All four played huge roles in the win, especially in the second quarter when the Celtics outscored Chicago, 29-11 and held them without a field goal for the final eight minutes of the half.
Each of them had something to prove. For House, it was his defense.
“The only talk I had with Eddie is, ‘It’s your defense, not your offense,’” Rivers said. “And tonight defensively—he proved something that we didn’t know: That he actually can be a damn good defender.”
House had three steals in the second quarter and that allowed Rivers to have the confidence to put him on the floor when the Bulls went to their super-small lineup in place of Tony Allen. House nailed a big 3-pointer against the lineup after the Bulls had cut the lead to five.
For Moore, his play was a breakthrough after his exile.
“I kept telling him, ‘Keep your head up in this series. You never know,’” Rivers said. “I thought he showed great professionalism.”
For Marbury it wasn’t the game-turning shot or breakout offensively that so many were waiting for, but it was his defensive effort that finally allowed him to advance past the first round of the playoffs for the first time in his career.
“Steph was phenomenal,” Rivers said. “Steph saved it.”
2. AND THE VETERANS SHALL LEAD THEM
This is what you want from your veterans in that mythological period of existence known as “crunch time.”
With just over two minutes to go and the Bulls down by six, Ray Allen drove to the basket and got fouled. True to form, he made both shots. On the Celtics’ next possession, Allen again drew contact and then calmly made two more free throws.
Paul Pierce, who appeared staggered, maybe even hurt, for so much of this series drove the ball aggressively all game and also made two pressure-packed free throws after warding off Noah and securing a defensive rebound.
Allen capped off his performance by extending the lead to eight after a Brad Miller dunk, racing ahead of the crowd and converting a layup on a particularly weak attempt by Miller to stop him. It was Miller’s sixth foul and signaled that this one was, indeed, finally over.
The Celtics didn’t need any last-minute heroics from Pierce and Allen precisely because they supplied them throughout the game. They combined to score 43 points (including 16-of-17 from the free throw line), grabbed 15 rebounds and handed out seven assists.
Call it veteran poise or skill combined with experience and intelligence, but in the penultimate game, Allen and Pierce made the plays their team needed them to make.
3. KENDRICK PERKINS GROWS UP
As much as Rondo was tagged as everyone’s little brother last season, Kendrick Perkins was merely the fifth starter along for the ride. He had his moments, of course, but very rarely did the Celtics rely on Perk the way they did in this series.
Without Garnett and without Powe, Perkins was the Celtics’ lone defensive rebounding and shot-blocking presence, and when he was on the floor the Celtics were very good. Keeping Perkins on the floor has always been the struggle, whether it has been foul trouble or simply trouble keeping his emotions in check.
“The thing is, he’s an emotional player,” Rivers said. “There were a couple of times when I thought he was going to lose it, and he gathered himself. That’s what we’re trying to get him to see: how important that is.”
Think back to Game 2. Perkins and Noah got tangled up under the basket. Words and angry glares were exchanged. Perkins even flexed for Noah’s benefit.
The thought was that Perkins would be Public Enemy No. 1 in Chicago, but instead he kept himself together and went on to play 48 minutes of Game 5 back in Boston without committing a single foul.
Then late in Game 7, Brad Miller came down hard on Perkins’ left shoulder, the one which has given him so much trouble. Both players were assessed technical fouls on the play, but Perkins kept his cool and, coming out of a timeout, made both free throws. He said his shoulder is fine, but tellingly, he refused to make a big deal about the play afterward.
“Brad Miller is just a physical player,” Perkins said. “That’s what he (does). That’s just the game. I give a lot of hard fouls myself.”
If you were picking an MVP of this series, it would have to be Rondo for his singular brilliance throughout the first five games of this series, and even for the way he played the last two when things didn’t go exactly his way.
But if you were picking a Most Important Player, then Perkins is the guy because without him, the entire structure of the Celtics defense would simply collapse.
4. A QUICK WORD ON THE BULLS
NBA history is rife with teams who make a statement in the first round of the playoffs, and then fail to make an improvement the following year. The Bulls are a strange team because as much as has been made about their youth with Rose, Tyrus Thomas and Noah, beyond that young core they are essentially a veteran team that will have some questions to answer.
First, do they re-sign Ben Gordon, who showed his incredible shot-making ability and his complete lack of an all-around game? Buyer beware, in other words, and their refusal to come to terms on a long-term deal speaks volumes.
Second, what do they do when Luol Deng comes back and they have him and John Salmons to play the small forward position? Is Deng part of their future or just another fragment of their not-so distant past when they were also an up-and-coming team a few years ago?
Young Mr. Rose will keep the Bulls at the forefront of the next wave of NBA teams, but unless they decide to build around him fully, they may tread water for the foreseeable future.
5. AND NOW… ORLANDO
After the players had arrived for Game 7, Rivers made sure that the Orlando scouting report book was placed in all of their cars. A little light reading for tonight.
The Magic present a different sort of challenge than the Bulls did, mainly because of Dwight Howard who, critics be darned, has emerged as a legitimate superstar center. They also present a strange matchup because, in the past, Rivers could sick Garnett on Rashard Lewis on the perimeter.
Now that job will fall to Big Baby Davis. How Davis is able to handle the job will go a long way in determining how that series unfolds.
“They’re a tough matchup at the four,” Rivers said. “That’s the toughest matchup for us. That Howard guy’s pretty good too, obviously.”
Of course Orlando presents nothing like the challenge the Bulls did in the backcourt and all eyes will be on Rondo to see if he can continue his torrid play.
Rivers is giving his team Sunday off, but Game 1 looms Monday and by next Sunday the Celtics will already have four games in the books against the Magic. It’s a mighty quick turnaround after such a grueling series, but that’s life in the NBA.
“Yep,” Ray Allen said. “And here we are again. You know, it’s a new team. This is a great time of the year for fans in Boston. You know, it would have sucked if we went home tonight, but there’s definitely more basketball, and it’s right here coming on Monday.”
Right you are, Ray. It would have sucked if this was all we got from the Celtics this season, because as great as this series was, they deserve at least another round to see how far they can go on guts and guile. Besides, who doesn’t want another few weeks of KG speculation?