Pierce shows champion's grit
An exhausted Paul Pierce helped the Celts avoid a stunning embarrassment
The scrappy Bulls pushed the champions to the brink in a classic series
Boston's second unit, led by Eddie House, helped to turn Game 7's tide
BOSTON -- His feet wore flip-flops, his knees were wrapped in ice and his nostril was stitched like Jack Nicholson's in Chinatown as Paul Pierce exhaled. It was a long breath noticeable for the absence of cigar smoke. For there was nothing to celebrate.
For 6 hours and 11 minutes of first-round basketball his Celtics had been pushed, surprised and above all threatened with the humiliation of losing to a No. 7 seed. By ridding themselves of the Chicago Bulls 109-99 (BOX | RECAP) in Game 7 on Saturday, the defending champions had avoided embarrassment. They had done right by themselves, as hard as it was.
"That's what the motivation is,'' Pierce said of his team's escape. "We said every day, 'Don't forget who we are. We're the champs.' So regardless of what goes on out on that court, win or lose, that's got to be our attitude in the locker room coming out to play every night.''
This was a series between one team ambitious to prove it was far better than its .500 regular-season record versus another team that was obstinate about overcoming the absence of Kevin Garnett as well as his power-forward understudy Leon Powe. The spectacular result was a playoff-record four games that went to overtime (seven extra periods in all) and more big-shot highlights than anyone will be able to remember. For the large national audience drawn in by this series, it was much more fun to watch the Celtics try to defend their honor than it was for them to actually defend it.
"I had more calls from other coaches in the league,'' Boston coach Doc Rivers said of the feedback he received from his peers about the saga this series became. "They all thought it was great.'' He smiled with a shrug. "I didn't.''
Like a devilish Jason on any number of Friday The 13ths, the ever-resurrected Bulls -- who had survived three OTs of Game 6 -- launched an all-out attack to open Game 7. This was another entertaining development that Rivers did not appreciate. His Celtics were trailing 18-11 (or 19-11, in truth, as a point would be added belatedly in the fourth quarter upon review of a Ben Gordon three-pointer that had been miscredited) and Rivers knew he was going to have to rest his starters in case the Bulls pushed them in the fourth quarter and beyond.
"I really believed I was going to need them,'' Rivers said of his heretofore helpless subs. "I didn't know if I could use them.''
But his second unit wound up outscoring highly productive Bulls subs Kirk Hinrich and Brad Miller 30-25. Of particular help was backup guard Eddie House, who not only dug out steals while trapping Chicago's big men in the post, but also made all five of his shots at the other end, including an enormous quartet of threes. Brian Scalabrine threw in a couple of threes, Stephon Marbury initiated the offense in lieu of Rajon Rondo (who was struggling with a stomach ailment) and the practically forgotten Mikki Moore provided a crucial 2:39 of relief for center Kendrick Perkins by drawing a charge and converting four points at the other end.
All of these efforts contributed to a series-changing 22-2 run to conclude the opening half and undo the strong start of the visitors. Following a Tyrus Thomas jumper 3:59 into the second period, the Bulls didn't make a field goal until Derrick Rose in the opening minute of the third. The Celtics took a 52-38 lead to the intermission and didn't trail again.
"We turned into the Celtics again,'' Rivers said. "We started playing defense, getting stops. We thought if we could get stops and rebounds, we could be the transition team tonight.''
In an exchange of roles, the Celtics scored 14 of the game's 19 fast-break points, while through three quarters the half-court Bulls outshot their hosts 27-18 in free throw attempts (with Gordon going 15-of-15 from the line overall as part of his game-high 33 points.) The Celtics were unable to break off a second-half run as the Bulls matched them score for score and then some, pulling within 89-86 midway through the final period. But the Celtics put Chicago into the bonus four minutes into the quarter and earned 17 points at the foul line in the fourth to steady themselves home.
So now Boston moves on to the second round against No. 3 seed Orlando, which has won both of its games against the Celtics since Garnett was sidelined in February. Before Game 7, the Celtics' staff had put detailed scouting reports in their players' cars, both as necessity of the quick turnaround as well as to show confidence that they would beat the underdogs once and for all. The next series begins Monday, further dampening any thought of celebrating this first-round adventure that the Celtics never imagined would push them so far.
As Rivers approached his locker room a half-hour after the win, who did he run into but Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro. In his first year in charge of the Bulls, Del Negro had earned newfound respect at the Celtics' expense. Rivers greeted him with a hearty slap on the shoulder.
"Hell of a job,'' Rivers said. "Trade all of them guys -- I don't want to see them anymore!''
With that, the Celtics' coach allowed himself one hearty laugh. And then he continued down the hallway, head down, as he considered how in the names of Moore and Marbury he is going to beat Orlando.
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