Wednesday April 29th, 2009

Have so many injuries, fouls and missed free throws ever created so much theater? First of all, we should thank Paul Pierce and Ray Allen for missing the free throws at the ends of Games 1 and 4 that might have finished off this series ruthlessly and succinctly.

As a lingering result, the Bulls and Celtics dragged each other into overtime Tuesday for the third time in five games, which is something that has never happened in an NBA playoff series of any length, and they might still be playing Game 5 now if not for the blood Brad Miller was spitting as he approached the foul line with two seconds remaining in the 53rd minute. He missed his free throws to clinch a 106-104 win for Boston (RECAP | BOX) that could enable the champions to finish this opening round once and for all Thursday in Chicago. (As if.)

The Celtics were down 10 (81-71) well into the fourth quarter and Allen was on the verge of fouling out -- he would leave controversially with 5:27 remaining following a collision away from the ball with Miller, resulting in a dissatisfying double foul punishing both players -- when Pierce suddenly found his legs. He began going to the basket, and then under duress he rediscovered his shooting range by canning a ridiculously hard 360-corkscrew jumper with 10.5 seconds left to extend the game to overtime.

Pierce had been limping on a leg that had been kicked earlier in the game, rendering him far less relevant than Kirk Hinrich, who was not only occasionally guarding Pierce but was also outscoring him off the bench (19 points overall) through three quarters to give Chicago a big lift. Boston was a foundering, leaky outfit unable to execute its offense or get back on defense.

"I told everybody,'' recalled Celtics coach Doc Rivers of a fourth-quarter timeout, "'Just relax. Let's slow down here, our defense is who we've been all year.' "

It was an inspiring comeback in the absence of not only Kevin Garnett in his tailored suit and earrings, but also of Allen, who could not get over his anger at being expelled on two fourth-quarter fouls away from the ball. Pierce looked over at them on the bench and then at the lineup he was expected to lead on a comeback. Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins, Glen Davis and Tony Allen -- it was an awful lot like the losing teams he was captaining two or three years ago, when he used to imagine demanding a trade out of Boston.

The difference, of course, is that the championship experiences of last year have created a stubbornness in the likes of Rondo and Perkins that the Bulls have yet to acquire. As impressive as it was for Chicago to win tight games earlier in the series, it was another thing entirely for the Bulls to enter the final eight minutes of a momentous Game 5 on the champions' home floor hoping to hold onto a 10-point lead. Nobody should expect such a young team -- a No. 7 seed in the East -- to understand instantly how to win in those circumstances.

But Rondo (28 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds in what is fast becoming his typical postseason line) understands. As the possessions grew more precious, he was all the more audacious, driving inside whenever he could to create points with runners, free throws or open shots for others.

"The kid's just a mentally tough kid,'' Rivers said. "He drove with the intention, I'm going to score or you're going to foul me. You don't see power in Rondo, but his speed becomes powerful.''

Perkins (19 rebounds and seven blocks to go with his 16 points) provided what was left of back-line defense in the absence of Garnett and injured forward Leon Powe. And Pierce finished the OT with three huge jumpers off the dribble over John Salmons in the last 77 seconds, beginning with a 16-footer to overcome Chicago's 101-100 lead. The last, from 19 feet with 3.4 seconds remaining, broke a tie and resulted in the final score.

The Bulls had one last chance. Their obvious No. 1 option would be to go to Ben Gordon, who preposterously had been listed as a game-time decision (strained hamstring) before he wound up playing 51 minutes and overcoming a rough start to finish with a team-high 26 points, including several highly difficult jumpers in the crunch. As he tore past a high screen from Miller, a horde of defenders went with him, which left Miller at the top of the key with the ball and nobody between him and the goal. He turned and drove in before being whacked hard by Rondo, leading to complaints from the Bulls of a flagrant foul.

But ever since Ray Allen's ejection, the Bulls had received very little benefit of the doubt. The irony of Rivers' plea for relaxation was that it coincided with a much more violent style of play and a persistent call for blood that makes Boston arguably the loudest home court in the league. Amid the din and the hangover of the hard foul, Miller missed the first free off the front rim and then failed to hit the rim on the second on an intentional miss.

The depleted Celtics aren't going to win another championship this season, but they've also decided they aren't going to lose the opening round in an embarrassing upset.

"This team has a never-die attitude,'' Pierce said. "We never look up and say, This game is over.' ''

Can Pierce, Rondo and Perkins maintain their high work-rate? Will Gordon still be nimble for Game 6 on Thursday? The only thing for sure, whether the series ends sooner or later, is that it won't be easy.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.