Classic finale awaits a classic series
Entertainment value of series, stars have enthralled fans of Bulls and Celtics
Role players have stepped forward to give the series even more of a boost
Celtics and Bulls have played seven overtime periods in first six games of series
Rather than joining in the parade of people tripping over themselves to stamp just the right superlative on this first-round Eastern Conference playoff series between the Boston Celtics and the Chicago Bulls -- stunning, epic, incredible, exhausting, stupid and a hundred other adjectives that pale next to the videotape and memories still too wet to touch -- we'll stick with numbers, not words.
Here are seven reasons that this series, properly and poetically headed to a Game 7 on Saturday night in Boston, rates among the classics:
1. Sheer entertainment value
OK, we know this is "only" a first-round series. Preliminary rounds in pretty much every sport's postseason rarely qualify for the imprimatur of greatness, simply because they aren't definitive. And because of that, they're not as likely to sear themselves indelibly into our memories. For a long time, for instance, Super Bowls weren't nearly as close or exciting as their magnitude seemed to require, and the early NFC and AFC games that fed winners to them often packed a greater punch. But Roman numerals, trophy presentations and congratulatory phone calls from the White House are hard to top. With the NBA, it's the finality of, y'know, the Finals that adds gravity to the showcase. Besides, that way, we only have to remember one series per year.
But don't get "classic" mixed up with "greatest." Rings and reputations ride on the NBA series that, these days, begins and ends entirely within June. Destinies get fulfilled, all that mumbo jumbo. Fine, save the "greatest" tag for one of those. But you're neglecting all sorts of terrific, surprising and subplot-laden showdowns if you impose such narrow limits -- only the last series of spring, only when there's one team from the East and one team from the West, only when it goes seven games -- on the list of eligibles.
Portland beating Philadelphia in six games in the 1977 Finals was classic. The Lakers erasing Portland's 71-58 lead after three quarters to take Game 7 of the 2000 Western finals and spoil the Blazers' near-comeback from a 3-1 series deficit was classic. Dikembe Mutombo lying and crying on the court after No. 8 Denver's upset of No. 1 Seattle in '94 was classic. So was the eight-over-one shocker two years ago, when Golden State put Dallas' 67 regular-season victories in a shredder.
Well, not only does this Bulls-Celtics series rank among those just cited, it quite possibly trumps them. Here's why: the entertainment value of each and every game (OK, five of six so far, with 35 minutes of overtime as make-up thrills for Game 3). This series lacks the shock value of an underdog toppling a heavy favorite (Kevin Garnett's absence has weakened the defending champions), but it has something even better. There are people in both cities, Boston and Chicago, who will tell you this is the best NBA series they have ever seen -- and they'll still be saying it after Game 7, regardless of outcome. You cannot find many people in Dallas who gushed then or gush now about what happened against the Warriors.
2. Stars playing like stars
Whatever resistance might have remained about Ray Allen's eventual worthiness for the Naismith Hall of Fame has been smacked down by his play in this series. He hits darn near everything he attempts and he attempts darn near anything he pleases, popping up as incessantly as the nagging cartoon paper clip on your monitor five minutes before the report is due. There's no shaking him if you're the Bulls, just as there apparently is no fouling him for two free throws when your lead is three.
Paul Pierce, for the second consecutive postseason, is gaining respect exponentially from the guy who, once upon a time, took turns with Antoine Walker jacking up shots and grumbling about getting out of Boston. He looks bigger, stronger, more relentless defensively and craftier than ever with the ball (notwithstanding the occasional forced attempt and the brain cramp of fouling Joakim Noah on that breakaway in Game 6).
The Bulls don't really have any stars -- Boston has 29 All-Star appearances on its roster, counting Allen (nine), Pierce (seven), the injured Garnett (11) and Stephon Marbury (two), to Chicago's two (Brad Miller, both). But Ben Gordon and Derrick Rose have shown glimpses of it, enough for teams to trust and pay them like stars when the time comes.
3. Role players not knowing their limitations
This is a vital part of any classic playoff series, the unheralded and the unexpected coming through at crucial moments, in ways well beyond their portfolios. Noah has a lot of folks re-evaluating their view of him, from some sort of undisciplined character to a mobile and exuberant big man with a nice sense of timing and defense. We've already mentioned his steal and three-quarter-court dash for a slam, but Noah's defense on Allen's toes-on-the-line shot from the right corner in the second OT was textbook. He has an energy and a relaxed, doesn't-know-any-better confidence that only comes from role players. John Salmons, meanwhile, is a card-carrying scorer. Doesn't matter the month or the moment.
Rajon Rondo, aside from (ahem) muscling up to whack Miller in Game 5 and whipsaw Kirk Hinrich in Game 6, skipped right over the Rookie of the Year award on his résumé to chase some playoffs MVP votes so far (if, of course, such an award existed). As for Glen Davis, he has emerged to provide 18.7 points and 7.5 rebounds for a shorthanded Boston frontcourt.
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