Words fail. After six games and seven overtimes what more could possibly be said about this series? That it’s the greatest first round series in the history of the NBA? Well, yeah.
That it’s the most competitive series in the history of basketball? Probably so.
If you throw out the Celtics 21-point win in Game 3, the Celtics and Bulls have played five games, four of which have gone into overtime, and the score is Chicago 573, Boston 572. The only thing keeping it from being considered as one of the greatest series of all time are the stakes.
You can’t throw out Game 3, of course, which is why after all that this series had to come back to Boston for a Game 7 Saturday night. There will not be a more hyped or anticipated Game 7 in a first round NBA playoff series before, or after.
Along the way we had Rajon Rondo getting a flagrant foul for throwing Kirk Hinrich into the scorer’s table, and probably fortunate that he didn’t get ejected. We had Paul Pierce talking a shot in the face from Tyrus Thomas that had him spitting up blood. We had Ray Allen putting on a performance for the ages with one ridiculous trick shot after another. We had Ben Gordon fouling out on one of the all-time bonehead fouls. We had Kirk Hinrich blowing a layup and Derrick Rose blocking Rondo’s shot.
What’s left to say? Everything and nothing at all. Because once this game gets sliced, diced and dissected (which we will do because we’re all about five things) there really is only this: The Celtics and Bulls will play a Game 7 for the heavyweight championship of each other. Forget Cleveland. Forget the Lakers. Forget the Magic in the next round.
On Saturday night one of these teams will be left standing, and that’s more than enough.
1. THE SMALL LINEUP IS BECOMING A PROBLEM
When Ben Gordon fouled Paul Pierce on a jump shot with about two minutes left in the first overtime it was more than just a bad foul on a jump shooter.
The Bulls were up 107-103 at the time and had things as in control as they could have hoped for. Their small lineup—Rose, Gordon, Hinrich, John Salmons and either Brad Miller or Joakim Noah—is a matchup nightmare for the Celtics. With those four on the floor, Doc Rivers had called on Tony Allen to replace Big Baby Davis and the results were not good.
The Bulls could essentially ignore Allen and as long as Rondo was kept outside the paint they could ignore him too. That meant they were free to double team Pierce on the wing. Twice Tony Allen had to shoot and twice he came up empty.
But when Gordon fouled Pierce it not only gave the Celtics two desperately needed free throws, it also fouled Mr. Periscope Eye out of the game and forced Chicago to play straight-up with two bigs.
The Celtics are going to have to come up with an effective counter against this lineup. Given Stephon Marbury’s struggles, the options are Eddie House (who has matchup problems defensively), a reluctant Marbury, Tony Allen or staying big with Glen Davis and Kendrick Perkins.
That last option may be the best. It would allow the Celtics to control the glass and give them Baby a huge size advantage on the post. It would also force him to chase a smaller man on defense, but that’s the tradeoff.
2. RAJON RONDO ADJUSTS
We have all seen the maturation of Rondo, but what he was able to do last night was another huge step in him moving up in the point guard pantheon.
The Chicago crowd was on Rondo from the beginning for his hard foul on Miller in Game 5. Not that it bothered him. Very little bothers Rondo.
But then late in the first quarter, he got mixed up with Hinrich on a play away from the ball. Rondo appeared to shove Hinrich into the scorer’s table. Hinrich retaliated. Rondo sort of retaliated. Players were flying all over the floor (although thankfully apparently no one left the bench).
When the mini dust-up settled, Rondo was assessed a Flagrant 1 foul which means he has some flagrant points in the bank and he is likely to get a fine. It’s almost a given that the NBA will review the play and it will be a mini controversy, no matter how that turns out.
But beyond all that, the Bulls were intent on not letting Rondo drive to the basket. He wound up taking 17 shots and making only four of them with most of those attempts coming in the overtimes, but he also had 19 assists and (are you ready for this?) ZERO turnovers.
Last year Rondo didn’t have those type of games when teams took away his ability to drive and in halfcourt sets he was basically just the guy who brought the ball up the court. Last night he still found a way to be effective and that’s a major step.
3. BRAD MILLER CAME TO PLAY
The veteran center is one of those proverbial guys you’d love to have on your side, and hate when he’s on the other. He is a terrifically skilled big man with a nice stroke from the outside, good vision and great passing instincts.
He also knows every trick in the book. He’s great at setting screens (without getting called for moving, Kendrick Perkins take note). He’s been known to throw an elbow or two away from the play and he’s definitely not afraid to mix it up with just about everyone.
After sacrificing a tooth, and some blood, in Game 5-- and missing crucial free throws--Miller had a lot to prove Thursday night. He was his usual cantankerous self—even after getting called for a pair of moving screens—and made two of the biggest plays of the night in regulation.
First, when he trailed the play and knocked down a 3-pointer that made it 101-99 and then when he somehow drove the lane and hit a layup that tied it at 101.
Miller was 8-for-9 from the floor, 2-for-2 from 3-point range and yes, 5-for-5 from the free throw line to finish with 23 points and 10 rebounds. But his most impressive number was in the +/- category where he was a +26. In other words, the Bulls were 26 points better when he was on the floor.
Johnny Salmons scored 35 points in 60 minutes and was a +4. Derrick Rose was sensational, scoring 28 points to go with rebounds, seven assists and one huge block and he was -2.
Brad Miller was a difference-maker.
4. THE REFS WILL BE IMPORTANT
Joey Crawford, Eddie Malloy and Derrick Stafford were intent on calling a tight game in the first half. They whistled both teams for 27 fouls in the first 24 minutes and just about everybody on the Bulls had two or three fouls. Meanwhile, Kendrick Perkins and Big Baby Davis each had three fouls by halftime.
They called moving screens, stuff off the ball and hand-checks; calls that have been mostly ignored or overlooked in the previous five games. Whether the players got the message or not, the trio called 32 fouls over the next 37 minutes of the second half and the three overtimes with a few of them coming in the final seconds.
In the end, we got another reasonably clean, hard-fought game, which is as it should be. There were no cheap shots along the lines of the Miami-Atlanta debacle the other night.
How this game will be called on Saturday will be very important because the Bulls are essentially playing just seven players and the Celtics, as we know, are not deep, particularly in big bodies.
5. DID THE CELTICS LET IT GET AWAY? SORT OF
With just over 10 minutes left in regulation, the Celtics were down 12 points. With 3:38 remaining, they were up eight.
In the first overtime they were down four with two minutes left and wound up having a chance to take the final shot in a tie game, which Pierce missed while being double teamed.
In the second overtime, they were down three points with seven seconds to go and Ray Allen hit a contested 3-pointer. Then they didn’t allow Chicago to get off a final shot.
They had yet another chance to win at the end of the third OT after Hinrich somehow missed a layup, but Rose was able to block Rondo’s fallaway jump shot.
The game was there to be won on several occasions and also should have been lost just as many times. Of all the above scenarios, the one they will probably be kicking themselves about came in the last 3:38 of regulation when they let the Bulls back off the mat.
The easy way out it to say it’s destiny, but the reality is these teams are so evenly matched that no lead is safe and no scenario is assured.
There will be a Game 7 because there has to be a Game 7. The only thing we know for sure is that someone will win, but we don’t how and we don’t even know when, but it will probably take all night.