Celtics-Bulls is one for the ages
There are four scenarios for a memorable first-round series and only four. All are in play for the 2009 NBA playoffs.
Scenario No. 1: A superstar (Dwyane Wade) singlehandedly keeps an underdog competitive against a better team.
Scenario No. 2: An underdog (Philly) unexpectedly shocks a heavy favorite (Orlando).
Scenario No. 3: Two evenly matched teams (Spurs-Mavs, Rockets-Blazers) have a well-played dogfight with a handful of twists and turns.
Scenario No. 4: An aging, injured, exhausted, depleted heavyweight (Boston) fights off a hungry young challenger that's clearly coming into its own (Chicago).
I love the last scenario because it happens so rarely anymore: From the past 25 years, I can only remember seven like it: Detroit-Cleveland (2007), Utah-Dallas (2001), Utah-Sacramento (1999), Los Angeles-Utah (1988), Boston-Atlanta (1988), Boston-Detroit (1987) and Philly-Jersey (1984). It goes to another level if you feel as though the young upstarts might be building something special before our eyes.
And, yeah, I feel that way about the Bulls. They are slightly more talented than a depleted Boston team. They can control the boards without Kevin Garnett around. They have just as many options at the end of games. They will be positively frightening at home with their crowd behind them. (I see them winning Game 3 by 20-plus on Thursday night.) And yet, I still think they will lose the series. The playoffs come down to experience and savvy and trust and teamwork and little things like "we ran out of timeouts two games in a row" and "in Game 2, we had the ball up five with 2:30 left and a chance to put Boston away and somehow didn't feed Ben Gordon even though he had an actual fireball shooting out of his butt." These Bulls (not just the players, but the coach as well) haven't had enough playoff reps.
I might be wrong. Ultimately, it doesn't really matter because we're all winners. Games 1 and 2 could have been simulcast on ESPN Classic. This has a chance to be remembered as one of the most exciting first-round series ever played. Beyond the simple beauty of the matchup of old guard vs. new guard, the following 12 subplots are either in play or have already been explored:
1. The History
The Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls combined for 23 of the past 51 titles. They gave us three of the five greatest players ever and two of the greatest basketball venues ever (both now deceased). They have two of the most identifiable uniforms and logos. They have veteran crowds that know how to affect games and make them a little more fun to watch. They were indirectly involved in the greatest sports television show ever ("The White Shadow") and two of the worst sports movies ever ("Amazing Grace and Chuck" and "Celtic Pride"). They have the only two acceptable candidates for the question, "Who was the greatest NBA team of all-time?" You could choke on all the history in this series. And I might. You might have to perform the Heimlich maneuver on me.
2. The Prodigy
Here's what you want from your much-ballyhooed rookie in the playoffs: You want him to raise his game a level, make his teammates better, play without fear, exhibit the requisite competitiveness and have a few "Good God, did you just see that????" moments. Through two games, Derrick Rose nailed all of these checkmarks unlike anyone we've seen since (gulp) Magic Johnson. You cannot say enough about him.
Of all the remarkable plays Rose made through two games, one stood out for me: With about eight minutes remaining in Game 2, Rose was hoping to foil a modified fast break. Instead of trying to beat Rose off the dribble, Paul Pierce lobbed a pass to Eddie House in the corner. Even though he was backpedaling, Rose sniffed out the pass, whirled around on the foul line, took TWO giant steps, improbably closed out on House's 3-pointer and tipped the shot. Watching it live, I rewound the play on TiVo even though the game was still going -- just for the record, I never, ever, ever rewind plays until the commercial -- and only because I was thinking, "Wait a second, he didn't just take two steps from the foul line and block a corner 3, did he?" Yup. He did.
One thing separates him from other world-class rookies who preceded him on a big stage: As far as pure point guards go, he might be the best athlete we've ever seen. If you built the ideal point guard, like how you can create a player from scratch on "NBA Live," wouldn't you basically create Derrick Rose? Lord help us if he ever learns how to shoot 3-pointers. Regardless, after Games 1 and 2, the ceiling has been removed for Rose. I am prepared for anything over the next 12 years. Anything.
3. The Inefficiency
Congratulations to Bennett Salvatore! Bennett, your Hall of Stink performance in Game 1 upped the ante for any naysayers who mistakenly believed that NBA officiating couldn't possibly get worse. The highlight? Er, lowlight? A rarely seen "inadvertent whistle" call that ruined a scoring chance for Chicago in the final 10 seconds of regulation. Here's what the words "inadvertent whistle" mean: "I am so bad at my job that I mistakenly stopped the action, and we had to make up a rule on the spot to undo all the damage I just inflicted on the game." I wish real life had inadvertent whistles.
• "Whoops, I'm drunk and I just told someone I've hooked up with four times, who has a small kid and a tattoo of poison ivy covering the bottom half of her back, that I loved her. INADVERTENT WHISTLE! Let's do that conversation over."
• "Whoops, I'm the President of the United States and I just made a Special Olympics joke on the "Tonight Show." INADVERTENT WHISTLE! Ask me that question again, Jay."
• "Whoops, I just built a new baseball stadium with taxpayer money during a dreadful economy, priced out my real fans, killed a great atmosphere, destroyed one of the best home-field advantages in sports and mistakenly turned our ballpark into Coors Field. INADVERTENT WHISTLE! We're gonna keep the old Yankee Stadium!"
4. The Assassin
You have to love any series in which Ben Gordon finally realizes his destiny as a playoff killer. As a Celtics fan, I'm terrified. As a basketball fan, I'm titillated. But it was always meant to be. Even if comparisons to Vinnie "Microwave" Johnson make more sense on paper, I'd liken him more to a shorter Andrew Toney. Vinnie was called "The Microwave" for a reason -- either he got hot right away, or they unplugged him. Toney was a more substantial player. Everyone remembers Moses and Doc carrying the '82-83 Sixers to a title; nobody except Philly fans remember that they ran every big play for Toney that season. That makes Gordon either a rich man's Microwave or a poor man's Toney.
Either way, he shares two qualities with them: He can silence a crowd to the point that it feels like someone just muted your TV, and he cannot be defended when he catches fire. In Game 2, Boston double-teamed him on Chicago's final possession and Gordon still scored on an uncontested shot. Again, he had two defenders flanking him and they KNEW he had to shoot. Has there ever been a shorter player who got better shots in traffic?
He finished with the ultimate Ben Gordon box score: 41 points, one rebound, no assists. This is why nobody touched him last summer. He does one thing and that's it. He is always happiest when he's the one scoring. When the ship is sinking, he's like Billy Zane in "Titanic" -- one of the first guys to jump off. This is what scares GMs, and this is why a team that could desperately use someone like him (say, the Zombie Sonics) might be afraid to spend for him. Especially in this economy.
All I know is this: Only a few current players can win two games per playoff series by themselves, and he's one of them. If the goal is to win the title and not just compete for one, then I want Ben Gordon on my team. It's as simple as that. My father has been attending Boston playoff games since 1974 and ranked Gordon's Game 2 performance up there with the best of Toney, Microwave and Nick Weatherspoon -- probably the Mount Rushmore of "Streaky Scorers Who Annihilated the Celtics In a Playoff Series" -- saying simply, "We just couldn't stop him." And we couldn't.
5. The Secret
Lost in all of this: Rajon Rondo trumping a special regular season with two phenomenal games to start the playoffs. (Note: Don't downgrade him for being unable to stay in front of Rose. Under the current rules, NOBODY is staying in front of Derrick Rose. I said it before, I'll say it again: if Kevin Johnson had played with today's rules and managed to stay healthy, we'd be remembering him as the greatest offensive point guard of all time. It cannot be overstated how much the rule changes after the 2003-04 season help point guards. If you don't believe me, go to Steve Nash's house and stare at his MVP trophies.) Hold on, I'm about to get corny. One of the best things about following sports is following someone from the "Hmmmmm, this guy has some talent, we might have something here" stage all the way through the "He did it, he's here" stage. It's almost like investing in a stock and watching it balloon to a ridiculously high price. You know, back when stocks used to do things like that.
With Rondo, I fell in basketball love with him during the 2006-07 preseason. The guy couldn't shoot a lick and carried himself like the little kid from "Witness," but he was always up to stuff. I like guys who are up to stuff. I wanted him to play. The Celtics weren't going anywhere. He showed some promise down the stretch of that putrid season. Then the Garnett and Allen trades happened and Rondo morphed into The Question Mark for a veteran team with a chance to win the title. He handled the pressure gracefully, progressed in all the ways you'd want (I even wrote a "Rajon The Late Bloomer" column last April) and ultimately helped the Celtics prevail. This season, he played with distinctive flair -- by midseason, I decided he and Reggie Lewis were the single most exciting non-Bird-era Celtics of my lifetime -- and had some truly astonishing box scores of the 12-9-17 variety. And just when I thought he couldn't get better, he limped around with a sprained ankle for a must-win Game 2 and played with so much heart that he has now become interesting in a historical sense.
Here's my question ...
You can always see pieces of older players in the current ones. I mentioned the Toney/Microwave DNA in Toney. Rose is the spitting image of a sober Micheal Ray Richardson. Joakim Noah is doing the same things Marcus Camby did for the 1998-99 Knicks. Kendrick Perkins plays exactly like Cliff Ray, which is funny because Cliff Ray is Boston's big man coach. Ty Thomas hops around like a cross between Young John Salley and Young Dennis Rodman on those great Detroit teams. You get the idea. Well, who does Rondo remind you of? Has there even been a point guard who could palm the ball like Doc and Connie? Rondo doesn't get enough credit from an entertainment standpoint; he does three things every game that you will not see from another human being who plays basketball for a living. And his basketball IQ is off the charts. Watch his reliable trick during which he drives toward Ray Allen's guy, sets up Allen for a 3 and sets a moving pick on Allen's guy at the same time and you will see what I mean.
So, where is Rondo headed? I still believe a modified version of Magic's surreal 1981-82 season could be in play for Rondo down the road: Something like 16.7 ppg, 10.7 apg, 8.2 rpg, 2.5 spg and an All-Defense nod to boot. I mention this only because the seeds of a really good Rondo-Rose rivalry are being planted; including Chris Paul vs. Deron Williams, now we're talking about two potentially phenomenal point guard feuds for the next decade. Remember the lessons of boxing: It takes more than just talent for a great rivalry. The styles need to mesh properly. Paul-Williams works for the same reason Ali-Frazier worked; one is a boxer, the other is a puncher. Rondo-Rose works because of the unbelievable physical gifts in play; one is an athletic freak in the LeBron sense, the other is an athletic freak in the "his gifts are unique to him and only to him" sense.
We always hear about "The Big Three," but Rondo might be the most compelling story on the 2008-09 Celtics: a very good point guard with a chance to be superb. Can he get there? Stay tuned.
6. The Cannister
I keep taking solace in one undeniably true fact: One of Chicago's veteran leaders is Tim Thomas. Tim Thomas!!!!! The guy I once dubbed "The Postmaster General" for his inimitable way of mailing in every Clippers game! He stole from the Clips for three seasons; they dumped him on the Knicks; now he's lingering on the 2008-09 Bulls like the biological weapon cannister that Tony Almeida is carrying in his knapsack right now. It's only a matter of time before that cannister gets dropped or inadvertently opened and all hell breaks loose. As a Celtics fan, I have faith in your powers, Tim Thomas. Your losing spirit and lack of pride will infect everyone else. I know it will. Don't let me down. Speaking of wild cards working in Boston's favor ...
7. The Dunce
I don't want to jinx it, but Vinny Del Negro is putting on an anti-coaching clinic for the ages. He ran out of timeouts in both games, never double-teamed Pierce when he was heating up in Game 1, didn't attack a one-legged Rondo in Game 2, put Kirk Hinrich on Allen for the biggest play of Game 2, played Brad Miller too much when the JoakimNoah-Ty Thomas combo was destroying the Celtics, and called two timeouts in the final three minutes of Game 2 to design plays for Ben Gordon, who, again, had an actual fireball shooting out of his butt. You can't just scream "go to Gordon again" from the sidelines, Vinny? Actually, why am I complaining about this? Forget I mentioned it.
8. The Spectator
I don't know if you noticed, but Garnett obliterated the record for "most playoff F-bombs dropped on the bench by someone in street clothes" in Game 2. Honestly, it was like Wilt's 100-point game for F-bombs; all it was missing was a postgame picture of KG holding a sign with "100" written on it. As Vegas reader Frank B. joked, "My roommate and I just invented a new drinking game. Whenever they show a close-up of KG on the bench, you drink. If he drops an F-bomb, you drink again. If he drops the MF-bomb, you chug. Important note: You need a case of beer to play this game."
(That reminds me, the Celtics haven't received enough credit for persevering without Garnett these past two months. Let's say San Antonio was missing Duncan instead of Ginobili. Would you think they were getting out of Round 1? No way. The 2008-09 Celtics have given the minutes of the 2007-08 Defensive Player of the Year, a career 11.1 rebounder and one of the best help defenders of all-time, to "Big Baby" Davis. That's not a downgrade, it's a freefall off a cliff.)
9. The Stew
My wife made lamb stew on Easter. It boiled for something like eight hours in one of those special pots. We weren't allowed to taste it because it hadn't come together yet. I was watching a baseball game when she brought over a wooden spoon: "Taste this to see if it's ready." I tasted it. Yes. The stew was ready. You could say Games 1 and 2 were like the wooden spoon for the Bulls: Instead of eight hours, it took them eight seasons to come together: a lottery pick stew if you well. It kept boiling and boiling, and we kept tasting it and saying, "Nahhhhhh, it's not ready," and suddenly, we stuck the wooden spoon in there and "Hey, that tastes like a delicious stew!!!!"
Everyone keeps pointing at Rose and Gordon, but there's a bigger reason why Chicago became such a scary force: The playoffs come down to three issues (scoring, rebounding and protecting the rim). Gordon and Rose handle the first issue; Noah and Thomas handle the other two. What's happening in this series isn't an accident, and it has little to do with Garnett's injury or Boston wearing down from 190-plus games played over the past 18 months. Noah and Thomas have bloomed. If the Bulls win this series, they will also win the next one -- lock it down right now -- and I can guarantee you, the Cavaliers are thinking right now, "The only Eastern team who makes us sweat even a little is Chicago."
The question remains: Do we credit John Paxson for this?
(I'll let you mull it over.)
(Keep chewing on it.)
Of course we don't credit John Paxson for this! He's the luckiest guy on the planet! Chicago had something like 0.00000000000000043 odds to get Derrick Rose last spring and got him. Without him, NONE OF THIS HAPPENS. You can't credit any GM for succeeding with a team that has drafted first, ninth, second, third, seventh, second, fourth, fourth, eighth and first in the past 10 drafts and recently stumbled into one of the best No. 1 overall picks of the past 25 years. Unless you want to hurt me. He deserves a tiny bit of credit only for the John Salmons/Brad Miller trade ... although Chicago was the only team desperate enough and wealthy enough to make that trade. At that point, Paxson was like a college kid down to his last $100 at a Vegas blackjack table who decides to bet everything on one hand. I know I've been betting $15 every hand, but screw it, I need to change my luck, and if I lose, I'm done. That's what he did. He gets credit for the success of the deal, but the credit gets sullied because he created that do-or-die situation in the first place.
10. The Agitator
There's hate and there's sports hate. Real hate is not OK. Sports hate is OK. We are fans. We are allowed to "love" certain athletes and "hate" others. It doesn't mean we actually love them or hate them. So under that umbrella, I present you with the following statement: I hate Joakim Noah. I hate looking at him. I hate his hair. I hate how he dunks. I hate the way he high-fives. I hate every reaction he has. I hate his game. I hate the way announcers pronounce his name. I hate the story that I've heard a million times about his tennis-playing father.
I want the Celtics to win for a variety of reasons, but one of them is because it means Joakim Noah would lose. I want him to cry when it's over. And we are only two games in. I can't imagine how I'm going to feel about him by Game 5. He's like a cross between Bill Laimbeer, Marcus Camby and Lisa Bonet. Near the end of Game 2, he wandered over to the Boston bench after a whistle and lingered there pretending to be disappointed about a call -- breaking the NBA code of "don't hang out for too long near someone's bench," because, you know, he's a complete jerk that way -- and I was screaming at Kevin Garnett (on my TV), "PUNCH HIM! PUNCH HIM! DON'T LET HIM GET AWAY WITH THIS! YOU'RE NOT PLAYING ANYWAY! PUNCH HIM IN THE FACE!!!!" I hate Joakim Noah. I hate him.
Little does he know, but I already exacted my revenge on him a few months ago, when I took my daughter to a Clippers-Bulls game. She was entranced by Noah's hair for some reason and asked me in all seriousness, "Is that a girl?" I thought it would be funny to convince her that, yes, Joakim Noah was a girl. She didn't fully believe me for about a quarter. By the end of the game, Noah was her favorite player and she was excited that girls could play in the NBA. We came home and she said, "Mommy, we saw a girl play at the Clippers game!" My wife thought it was evil that I did this. She made me feel bad. Now I feel happy. I love that it happened. Just retelling the story makes me happy. I hate Joakim Noah.
(Of course, if he played for the Celtics, I'd love him.)
11. The Battle
How 'bout Aaron Gray shocking the world by out-12th-manning Billy Walker (and after I dubbed Billy as "Black Haley" and everything)? This was the single biggest shock of the playoffs, other than the Hornets doing everything but holding a news conference to announce, "We have quit on Byron Scott." As Danny from Chicago taunted me this week, "Not only is Rose shredding your team, but Aaron Gray's performance on the bench has been nothing short of spectacular. You and Bill Walker can eat it."
My one defense: Gray has been there before. He had a few playoff chest bumps and high-fives in 2007. Black Haley is battling rookie playoff nerves and the realization he might play in this series with Leon Powe out of commission. Just remember, it's a marathon, not a sprint. I still have faith in you, Black Haley.
12. The Old Lion
The dirty little secret of this series: Paul Pierce is wiped out. The dude played 108 games last season, then another 82 this season -- all while waving a "come and get us, we're the champs" bull's-eye for every comer -- and spent the past two months carrying a KG-less team on both ends. Now he's wiped out and there is no real way for him to rest: This series is going seven, so is the next one and, if they make it that far, Cleveland will be waiting ... and Pierce is the only guy on the Celtics who can remotely consider handling LeBron. By that point, after playing 200-plus games in 20 months, he will potentially have to slow down the Bo Jackson of basketball seven times over 14 days. And that's if Pierce doesn't break down before then. There was an uh-oh play in the fourth quarter of Game 2 when he tried his hesitation step-back jumper on Rose, couldn't get any lift and got the shot swatted in his face. In 10 years of following him, I can't remember that happening once.
The situation is what it is. Just know that Boston's future in Round 1 rests in Ray Allen's hands. Chicago doesn't have anyone to defend him. The Celtics lost Game 1 because he stunk. They won Game 2 because he went bonkers in the second half. He has become the litmus test of this series -- as Allen goes, so will the close games.
But that's not why I am writing about him. In last week's MVP column, I mentioned that the 2008 playoffs and 2008-09 season cemented Allen's reputation as a Hall of Fame shooting guard, pushing him past the Moncrief/Dumars/Maravich/Monroe group and right next to Reggie Miller historically. A number of readers disagreed, which I expected for the simple reason that Allen is underrated and Miller is overrated. For his nine-season prime (1999-2007), Ray-Ray was remarkably efficient (23-5-4, 45 percent FG, 40 percent 3FG, 90 percent FT) and rarely tried anything he couldn't do. If he were a baseball player, he would have been Wade Boggs -- not a franchise guy, but someone with a few elite skills (milking pitch counts, getting on base, stroking singles and, in Boggs' case, rarely missing a game) that made him a genuine asset as long as you surrounded him with other quality players.
Miller had that luxury; Allen did not. Allen played on two contenders in his prime. His 2000-01 Bucks were so alarmingly screwed by the officiating against Philly -- please, Google "Bucks Sixers 2001 playoffs officials" and you will see what I mean -- that the '01 Eastern Conference Finals became the forgotten older brother to the infamous Kings-Lakers series a year later in the NBA's family of Series We Kinda-Sorta Rigged. In 18 playoff games, Allen averaged a 25-6-4 with blistering 3-point shooting (48 percent). Four years later, he averaged a 27-4-4 in 11 playoff games for an inspiring 2005 Sonics team that severely tested the Spurs (who won the title two rounds later). How would we remember Allen if he thrived on Miller's Indiana teams from 1994-2004? Flipping that around, how would we remember Reggie had he spent his prime relying on low-post scoring, shot-blocking and rebounding from Ervin Johnson, Jerome James, Predrag Drobnak, Armon Gilliam, Tractor Traylor, Scott Williams, Reggie Evans, Jason Caffey, Danny Fortson, Vitaly Potapenko, Nick Collison, Johan Petro, Robert Swift and a washed-up Anthony Mason ... which, by the way, was the entire line of power forwards and centers who played with Ray Allen in his prime?
Allen made nine All-Star games (and counting); Miller made five in a weaker era. Allen made a second-team All-NBA; Miller never did. Statistically, Allen is better in every respect -- slightly better scorer, slightly better shooter, even percentages in every other category -- although Miller was definitely more durable. Miller had more big moments but played in more big games; everyone conveniently forgets about all the crappy ones he had. Like his unequivocal stink bomb in Game 7 of the '94 Eastern Conference Finals. Like his no-show Game 7 of the '95 Eastern Conference Finals (a 32-point blowout). Like how he disappeared in the fourth quarter of Game 7 of the '98 Eastern Conference Finals against an aging Bulls team that was running on fumes. He never had a consistently scorching run like Allen did in the 2001 playoffs or even in the 2008 NBA Finals. His two iconic performances (the 25-point quarter and the eight-point miracle finish) both happened at MSG, pushing it to a different level of significance, and if you think we'd remember him as fondly if those two games happened in Orlando or Detroit, you're crazy.
The point isn't to demean Miller's credentials; I loved watching him and he's the only guard from the '90s who truly relished going against Jordan. His ability to raise his game in big moments remains his defining trait. Allen possesses that same quality but rarely displayed it because he toiled away on so many piddling teams. At his peak, Allen attacked Kobe with the same relish that Miller went at Jordan. He scared the hell out of countless fans in the last minute of big games. He's one of the best coolers (my term for guys who close out wins on the line) that we've ever seen. If he stays healthy for two or three more years and plays at a level comparable to the past two seasons -- and gets those belated playoff reps to boot -- "Ray vs. Reggie" won't even be an argument anymore. Ray Allen will have had a better career, whether you want to admit it or not.
Just know that I hated the trade when it happened. We're giving up the No. 5 pick for a washed-up shooting guard coming off two ankle surgeries? Really? Where is this taking us? I was devastated. I had no idea how talented he was. I had no idea that he takes care of his body as well as anyone -- never smoked or drank in his life, stays in fantastic shape, stretches every day -- or that his daily work ethic rivals any Celtic we've had in my lifetime, including Bird. Because George Karl dissed him publicly at the end of Allen's Milwaukee run, I had no idea Allen was actually a good guy and a great teammate, someone who would have a profound effect on Rondo's career. I knew he was a clutch shooter, but until you watch someone day in and day out, you can't really quantify the feeling of, "We're down three, we're on the road, but we're going to run a play for Ray Allen and he's going to freaking make this."
At age 33, he's more efficient than ever: 50-plus on 2-pointers, 41 percent on 3s, 95 percent on free throws. He has shown no signs of deterioration at all. Health permitting, he could easily play for three more years at this level and another three in the "tenured clutch guy" role that Miller perfected earlier this decade. And if you don't think his teammates respect Allen, take it from someone who watched Paul Pierce battle a Hero Complex for 10 solid years: For someone with such a healthy end-of-the-game ego like Pierce to willingly defer to a teammate at the end of games, that can only mean that teammate is special.
And now, Allen holds a wonderful Bulls-Celtics series in his hands. The champs will fall in Round 1 unless Ray Allen comes through. It's as simple as that. As a Celtics fan, I can only tell you this: When one of the great clutch shooters in recent NBA history holds your immediate playoff destiny in his hands, it's a good place to be.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. For every Simmons column, as well as podcasts, videos, favorite links and more, check out the revamped Sports Guy's World.