Now that the Sixers have officially put me out of my misery with their humiliating game six home loss to an Orlando team playing without two of their starting five (three if you count Jameer Nelson, who’s been out all series), I can focus all of my NBA playoffs attention on the greatest post-season series of all-time, the Chicago Bulls and the Boston Celtics. I feel relatively safe calling it the greatest post-season series of all-time, despite my limited experience, because I don’t really see how a post-season series could be any better–and if it was possible, that mystery classic series would be so famous and beloved that I wouldn’t be able to watch two hours of NBA TV or ESPN Classic without being reminded of what a famous, beloved classic of a series it was. If you want to make a case that some other series was better because more was at stake or because the historical significance proved to be greater, fine, I can buy that–but if you’re trying to tell me that a more compelling, more evenly matched, more suspenseful series of seven games have been played by two teams, I need video proof. And a bigscreen high-definition TV to watch it on.
Think of it this way: Game one of this series went to overtime, featured crucial missed free throws from the super-clutch Paul Pierce that could’ve clinched the game, an unexpected hero in the form of the suddenly jump-shooting Tyrus Thomas, a triple-double performance from Rajon Rondo, and a playoff debut from Derrick Rose that was the best of its kind since Magic Johnson. Pretty good game, right? Probably a surefire top five game in your average post-season, no? OK, that might only be the fifth best game in this series–certainly no higher than fourth best, and we still have a game seven to come. Every game leaves me with my jaw open at a half-dozen different moments. The cast of characters–from stars, to supporting players, to twelvth men on the bench, to coaching staff–could not be stronger. The last game–Game Six–might very well be the best NBA game I’ve ever watched. In the two weeks this series has been going on, I feel like I’ve lived through a whole decade of Patriots-Colts, Yankees-Red Sox, or yes, Celtics-Lakers. And I’m not alone, either–Game Six pulled in over five million viewers, easily setting a record for cable ratings in a first-round series. And that was just Game Six.
So amazing is this series–so deep in content, history and action–that despite the endless coverage the Series has been getting from all corners (including from one Bill Simmons, who has written about as exhaustively about this series as is possible without breaking the internet), there are still elements that I feel are going underreported, underemphasized, and just generally underrated. Here they are, and I’m sure there are ten more that I’m not even thinking of:
10. The Return of “Sirius”. When I wrote this article a week ago, I didn’t even think about the possible resurgence the song might have as a result of this series. But sure enough, just as playoff basketball is back in Chicago, so is the Alan Parsons Project. In any of the games in Chicago thusfar, you get the feeling that the music guy and team owner Jerry Reinsdorf need to simultaneously turn keys to unlock the button that unleashes “Sirius,” because intros aside, it seems like it gets saved for the very tensest, most pivotal moment of the game. And as in the 90s, as soon as you hear that grumbling keyboard tone to start the song, and then the spectral guitar line comes in, you instantly go from “man, I hate having to sit through these 20-second time outs” to “YES!!! IT IS ON!! IT IS SO FUCKING ON!!! LET’S GO!! LEEEET’S GO!!!!!” If they had any sense in Boston, they’d play it there too, but they’re probably too busy fumbling around with their Dropkick Murphys CDs.
9. The Hinrich Miss. If Kirk Hinrich does not name his first born after Derrick Rose, he damn well better be sending him and his family the nicest fruitcakes in all of Chicago for every Christmas to come until they’re both well into their 100s. With less than a half-minute to go in the third OT of Game Six, and the Bulls up by one, in-bounder Lindsey Hunter somehow got an inbounds pass to Captain Kirk WIDE OPEN under the basket, for an easy layup to put the team up three and ensure that, worst-case scenario, the Celtics could only tie it up and set it into a fourth OT with their last possession of the game. Except that Hinrich whiffed on it–got nervous with Rondo swooping in for the block off the glass, perhaps, and put it up a little too quickly (I’m not entirely convinced that Rondo didn’t goaltend on it a little, to be honest, but it was close enough for an understandable no-call). If he misses that shot, and on the other end, Rondo converts for the go-ahead bucket, the Bulls lose the game and series, and Hinrich has to become Bill Buckner–or at the very least, Jackie Smith–in Chicago, right? It’s the kind of miss that could wreck an entire career.
Luckily for Hinrich (very, very luckily), Derrick Rose made the defensive play of the game at the other end with a block on Rondo’s fadeaway jumper, secured the rebound, and the game was essentially over, saving Hinrich from the pantheon of sports infamy. But man oh man, for those last few minutes, Hinrich probably sweated a bucket’s worth, worrying about the split-second’s worth of athletic clumsiness that might’ve ended up defining his entire career.
8. Poor Rockets Fans. Last night, the Houston Rockets beat the Portland Trailblazers 92-76, to win the series 4-2 and advance to the second round. This was, by all accounts, a very big deal–not just in that the franchise hadn’t gotten out of the first round since 1997, but also in that it represented a step forward for previous playoff flop Yao Ming, redemption for one-time league cancer Ron Artest, vindication for GM Daryl Morey and his innovative, Moneyball-esque style of team structuring, and a bitter, bitter pill for injured/star-crossed superstar Tracy McGrady. And yet, not only was this triumph completely and totally overshadowed by Bs/Cs Game Six, over half the game got skipped on national TV as the early game went for three overtimes and didn’t finish until about an hour and a half after it was supposed to. Now, imagine you’re a Rockets fan living out of state–you’ve waited OVER A DECADE for your team to get to that ever-elusive second round, and you don’t even get to watch it until you’re dropped in well into the third quarter, where the Rockets already had a firm hold on the game that was never threatened. “Oh, I guess we’re going to win. Great. What else is on?”
Not that I necessarily would’ve rather watched the Baby Blazers get shelled for four quarters than to see the unbelievably exciting conclusion of a classic game of a classic-er series, but if I was a Rockets fan—or hell, even if I was a Blazers fan–I’d be fucking livid. And what’s more, I can’t understand for the life of me why TNT continues to schedule the start times of its two playoff games two-and-a-half hours apart, when playoff basketball games NEVER finish that early–in fact, just two days earlier, Mavs fans were probably almost as angry to miss a healthy chunk of their series-clinching drubbing of the Spurs, although Game Five was only a single-OT, so at leas they got to the late game before halftime. Pull the first one up a half-hour, or push the second one back a half-hour, but do SOMETHING to at least allow the possibility that fans of the teams in game two will be able to watch the deciding games in their entirety.
7. Shot Celebrations. The Sports Guy’s done a fair deal of covering this, but I just don’t think it can be stressed enough on what a clinic these two teams are putting on in the various ways one can celebrate making a big play. The peacock-strutting and “threeball”-sign flashing of Brad Miller. The “Oh my lawdy, wah that shot purty” backstepping of Ray Allen. The chest-beating and gutteral wailing of Joakim Noah and Tyrus Thomas. The crotch-grabbing of Ben Gordon. The (laughably unintimidating) mean mugging of Glenn “Big Bay” Davis. The “act like you’ve been there/shot it before” swagger of Paul Pierce (which was even supplanted by a HOLY SHIT AM I REALLY THIS GOOD banshee yawp towards the end of Game Six). Even the “Thank God this game is over because another five minutes and I will have a heart attack” relief of Doc Rivers. The only two not getting in on the fun? Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose–arguably the two centerpiece players of the entire bout. C’mon guys, you might be facing each other in series like this a half-dozen times over the next decade. Loosen up a little bit.
6. The Bulls Comeback in Game Six. None of the recaps of the game seem to address what I feel to be the incredulity of this, but the Bulls were down eight with three minutes to go in the fourth quarter of Game Six, and came back to tie the game and force OT. It might not sound that impressive now, but at the time, I was practically positive the game was over–fun series, sure, but bound to end a little prematurely. To make up an eight-point deficit in three minutes is fucking HARD to do. I’d wager that of the last twenty playoff games in which a team was up eight with three minutes to go, in maybe one of them does the team in the hole come back to tie or win the game–two, tops–and most of those games would be against teams that were a lot less fundamentally sound than the defending champs. For the Bulls to come back at that point, facing elimination…it’s practically historic. Yet, in this series, it barely even registers as a footnote.
In fact, I didn’t even remember this until rewatching that section of the game just now, but Rajon Rondo actually stepped to the line with under three to go and the chance to drain a couple and make the lead as big as ten–and he badly bricked both. I think if he hits even one of those, the game is absolutely out of reach, and the Bulls drop the game (which, lest we forget, they led by double-digits just a couple minutes earlier, before giving up AN 18-0 RUN to the Celtics to put them squarely in the driver’s seat) as well as the series, in front of their home crowd. It wasn’t right–this series simply had to have a Game Seven–and the basektball powers that be seemed to realize this, leading the Bulls on an incredible run to get them back in the game, and so subtly that no one even seemed to notice what an amazing thing they just witnessed.
5. The Ray Allen Double-Take. Sticking with Game Six, if you didn’t believe this series was getting orchestrated by a higher power–whether that be a God or a refereeing committee–observe the Ray Allen Double-Take. The Celtics were down three with a half-minute to go in the second overtime, when Ray-Ray got the ball on the wing, took one slow dribble as he drifted to the corner, and then hoisted the ball up so quickly that it seemed like he wanted the ball to go in the basket before defender Joakim Noah even realized he had shot it–and it went in. It was by far the most impressive of the 18 field goals (EIGHTEEN!!!) that Ray Allen would make that night, and I don’t think a single other player in the NBA right now could have made that shot. One problem, though–while performing his miracle, Jesus Shuttlesworth couldn’t quite get his left foot behind that three-point line, and despite the You Have Got to Be Kidding Me protestations of Rivers, M.D., the shot only counted for two.
No matter. A couple of drained free throws (by Brad Miller, who got unlimited opportunities to redeem himself for the crucial bricked FTs in Game Five, maybe the 17th-best subplot of the series thusfar) would make it a three-point game again, and Allen would get the ball back on the next possession, this time already behind the arc on the other wing. He got a screen from Pierce to get John Salmons off his back but still had Kirk Hinrich’s outstretched arm to deal with as he raised up. Caucasian, please–swish. Tie game, botched Bulls possession, we’re going to the third overtime. It was like the series was being directed by some Hollywood hotshot, and after Allen made his first impossible shot, the director yelled “CUT! Cut. Ray, babe, that was a great take, but I’m afraid your foot was on the line, so we’re going to have to make some free throws on the other end and thy try it again. Let’s do it from a different angle this time, yeah? OK, take two, action!” It was so perfect, so incredible that it had to have been fixed, except you’d have to be crazy to bank on Ray making either of those shots, let alone both. Except he’s Ray Allen, so maybe not. What. A. Series.
4. Thanks, Sacramento. On the morning of February 18th, 2009, the Sacramento Kings were a whopping 11-43, having lost an astounding 13 of their last 14 games. Two of the lone bright spots on this lottery-bound team were Brad Miller, who was having a typically solid year, and John Salmons, who was actually having by far the best year of his career in increased minutes and responsibility. Neither, however, was garnering the attention of anyone outside of the California capital, until that very morning, when the two players were traded to the Windy City for Drew Gooden, Andres Nocioni, and a couple of scrubs. The trade only got marginal attention for being the most exciting deal in what was a titanically underwhelming trade deadline (Remember Vince Carter to the Blazers? Shaquille O’Neal to the Cavs? Chris Bosh to just about anywhere? Probably not, since none of them, y’know, actually happened), especially because the deal that Bulls fans actually wanted, and which had the possibility to turn the franchise–something netting them the up-for-sale Amar’e Stoudemire from Phoenix–ended up falling through.
But against all (well, most) odds, the deal for these two third, maybe even fourth-tier players ended up having nearly the effect that everyone thought the STAT deal would. After a 24-30 start, the Bulls went 17-11 for the rest of the season on their way to the seventh seed in the playoffs, and now Miller and Salmons are two of the most important players in a post-season series that might–and likely, should–end up being better-remembered than whoever ends up playing in the finals. Without the two of them, this series probably doesn’t happen. And meanwhile, what about Drew Gooden? When he heard in February that he was getting traded out of Chicago, likely to get cut and end up signing with the perennially contending Spurs, do you think he would have guessed that he’d already be golfing just a week and a half into the post-season, while his West Side buds with the sub-.500 record got to be a part of history? It’s just crazy, the confluence of circumstances that led to this perfect storm of a series.
3. The Doppleganger Down South. With all the hubbub about this series, deserved though it may be, a similarly near-historic series in the Eastern Conference is getting unfortunately overshadowed–the Heat / Hawks series, which is also on its way to an epic game seven. Why haven’t you been hearing about this series? Well, because it’s been almost completely unwatchable. You remember Game Three of Bs/Cs–the only the Celtics won by more than 20, and which was never even close–in other words, the one non-classic in this series thusfar? That’s been EVERY game of the Hawks-Heat thusfar. Check out these final scores:
- Game One: Atlanta 90 – Miami 64 (Hawks by 36)
- Game Two: Miami 108 – Atlanta 93 (Heat by 15)
- Game Three: Miami 107 – Atlanta 78 (Heat by 29)
- Game Four: Atlanta 81 – Miami 71 (Hawks by 10)
- Game Five: Atlanta 106 – Miami 91 (Hawks by 15)
- Game Six: Miami 98 – Atlanta 72 (Heat by 26)
Not counting the game three aberration, no game in Bs/Cs has been decided by more than three points. In this series, no game has been decided by less than ten points. There have been no peaks, no valleys, no unceasing drama or unbearable tension. There have been no clutch threes, no critical missed free throws, no personal vendettas, no burgeoning rivalries, no one-on-one shootouts and no stunning comebacks. That team that’s up double digits at the end of the first quarter? That’s the team that’s going to win the game, and it’s not going to be close. So time to start flipping around for some House reruns or something.
In other words, in every way the Bs/Cs series has been good, this one has been bad. Except that, remarkably enough, it might be just as closely matched a series. These are two extraordinarily even teams. If they played each other 100 times, neither team would probably win more than 55 of those games. They’re both good–it’s just that they’re never both good at the same time, at least not when playing each other. I can’t even begin to explain how this happens, except that it appears to be a regular trait of the Hawks. If you’ll remember, the Celtics-Hawks series last year was somewhat similar–the Hawks would get absolutely bombed in Boston, looking like the Last Team In that they were, but then they’d come back home and be a completely different team, moving the ball, locking down on D, and generating highlights from all corners and everywhere in between. This series is the same way, but without even the home-field advantage to explain it–the Hawks have gotten crushed in Atlanta, and Miami has gotten shelled in A-Town. I do suspect that something about it must have to do with Josh Smith, the streakiest player in all of pro sports–when he’s on, he’s swatting shots all over the gym, he’s muscling into the paint for three-point plays, and he’s skywalking for alley-oops, and when he’s off, he’s chucking ghastly 20-footers, getting scorched by layup drivers and coughing the ball up in traffic.
Whatever the reason, it’s an utterly fascinating exercise in contrast, and if you haven’t been watching enough to embrace the stunning grotesque of this series, I don’t know if you’ll be able to truly understand just how gorgeously balletic–and mind-bogglingly unlikely--Bs/Cs has been.
2. Luol Deng. Yeah, Luol Deng. Remember him? Does anyone–even Chicago fans–remember him? Well, if not, let me refresh your memory. Luol Deng was the guy who was supposed to take the Bulls to where they are right now–to take them to the next level, to make them factors, contenders. He was the guy that was supposed to evolve into the team’s perennial all-star, the focal point of a youthful, athletic, exciting team. Lest we forget, at the beginning of the ’07-’08 season, the Bulls were projected to be one of the best teams in the East, coming hot off their first-round victory over the Heat (who, coincidentally enough, were also the returning champs at that point), and a whole lot of that was due to Deng, who had averaged career bests in points and rebounds that season (18/7), and stepped it up even further in the playoffs, going for 22 and 9. Everyone assumed he was a star in the making, the first real star that the Bulls had had since their glory days in the 90s.
Deng, however, did not follow the script. He took a step back in 2008, his stats limping slightly across the board. Expectations were still high coming into this season, but once again, the growth was just not there, and his stats sagged even further. Around the middle of the season, just a little while after Chicago made the trade for Miller and Salmons, he went down entirely with something called an anterior right tibial stress fracture. This probably should have been bad news, and the Bulls, then still squarely outside the playoff bubble, should probably have been freaking out about the injury, but hold up–turns out, them Bulls play kinda good now with Salmons and Miller in the rotation. So Deng’s nagging injury turns out to eventually be kind of a big deal, and he might be out the rest of the season, and maybe even the playoffs–if they actually make it there. But no one’s really panicking in the Windy City, and no one’s really banging down Vinny Del Negro’s door wondering when their starting forward is coming back to the lineup, as the team’s new seven-man rotation starts to look more and more like the core of something…something special, maybe.
Now it’s playoff time, the Bulls have the seventh seed, they’re firing on all cylinders and they’re giving the champs the fight of their life–they are, essentially, where everyone thought they should have been a year and a half ago. Except the guy that was supposed to be the reason why they were there, the guy who was pegged as the franchise player (and, of course, paid as one, signing for six years and up to $80 mil over the off-season)–not only is he not playing, not only is he not on the sidelines (not where anyone can see, anyway), but nobody seems to even remember that he was supposed to be there in the first place. As Kevin Garnett has his health speculated on, his absence decried, and his profanity-laced reactions to everything happening on the court shown every two minutes over the course of the series, I think I’ve heard Luol Deng’s name get mentioned maybe…twice? How does someone go from being the future of a franchise to barely even being an afterthought in a year and a half?
What will really be fascinating is to see what the Bulls do with him when he (presumably) comes back next season. What position does he play? Do they still try to build around him, or do they use him more as a role player? Does he even start? I have no idea where the Bulls go from here with Luol Deng, but five years and 60-some million says that they still better try to figure out something.
1. Kevin Garnett is Coming Back in Game 7. OK, this one has already gotten a fair bit of attention, but most people still seem doubtful of it actually happening–especially after Celtics GM Danny Ainge basically came out and said, “Kevin Garnett. Is Not. Playing. In This. Motherfucking. Game.” Well, let me tell you here and now–there’s no way KG sits this one out. He just can’t. And you know why? It’s not because the Celtics have been over-exaggerating his injury or healing period to keep him in their back pocket as a secret weapon–though that probably wouldn’t surprise me at this point. It’s not because he wants to be a part of motivational history, having grown up on stories of Willis Reed inspiring the Knicks to a brilliant Game 7 performance with his last-second return to the lineup from similar injury, though I’m sure the comparison is not lost on him. And it’s not because he’s such a warrior, such a firey, blood-spitting, flesh-chomping competitor that it would hurt his soul far too much to stand on the sidelines as his brothers-in-arms had to fight this last battle for him, and that Ainge, Rivers, and whoever else wanted a piece would have to physically tackle and restrain him to keep him from swapping his suit for his gym shorts during halftime–though all that might very well be the case.
No, the reason why Kevin Garnett will be in the lineup at some point in Game 7 is for one simple reason: It’s all there is left. Everything else in this series has already happened. On-court skirmishes? Check. Controversial ref calls? Check. Breakout performances? Check. Career redemptions? Check. Uncharacteristically brilliant plays? Check. Uncharacteristically stupid plays? Check. Heart-stopping, last-second, How The Hell Did He Make That buzzer-beaters? Check. Heart-stopping, last-second, How the Hell Did He Make That response buzzer-beaters? Check. Overtime games? Double Overtime games? Triple Overtime games? Check, check, check. OK, sure, the game could cobble together a mixture of all this stuff that’s already happened, change the cast and circumstances a little, and it’d all still be pretty cool. But there’s only one thing left to really set this game aside from the rest, to make it still shocking and amazing after all that’s already happened, to make it a true Game Seven–and that’s for Kevin Garnett to get his boney ass off the sidelines and into the low post.
And why am I so sure that this will happen? Well, has this series let us down yet? At every turn, when there could have been anti-climax–when the Bulls could’ve pulled away in the final minutes, when the Celtics could’ve gotten tired and packed it in, when Ben Gordon could’ve spent the whole fourth quarter clanging dumb jumpers, when Rajon Rondo could’ve gotten a little too agressive or Derrick Rose a little too creative, when Paul Pierce could’ve just taken over and left the Bulls in the dust–Bs/Cs has instead given us something more beautiful, more incredible then we ever could have hoped. So maybe we’re due for a letdown, maybe the series just doesn’t have that last miracle left in it–and if so, fair enough, and it’d probably be greedy to ask for more. But until I’m proven otherwise, I’m going to choose to believe that this series will get the capper that it deserves. And so, let me tell you–Kevin Garnett is going to walk through that door. You heard it here first.
See you guys at the TD Banknorth Garden.