Friday May 1st, 2009

Here are five thoughts on the latest too-good-to-be-true installment of the Celtics-Bulls series, along with a couple of other Game 6s that were rumored to be taking place Thursday.

1. Applause, applause.

A big bravo to the Chicago Bulls, who hereby are to be saluted as the NBA's version of Hickory High. In their 128-127 win (RECAP | BOX) across three overtimes of Game 6 Thursday, the character of Jimmy Chitwood was played humbly by midseason latecomer John Salmons, who went four seconds short of 60 minutes to score a team-best 35 points while carrying Chicago through key stretches of its fourth-quarter comeback as well as the first two overtimes.

Another unlikely star was Brad Miller, who two nights earlier had been spitting blood as he missed the game-tying free throws to lose Game 5 in overtime. He had a different taste in his mouth Thursday while making all five of his free throws and 8-of-9 field goals, including the last five points of regulation on a three-pointer and a long drive for an OT-forcing layup.

But the biggest play of Game 6 was struck by starting center Joakim Noah, who intercepted a frontcourt pass by Paul Pierce and outdribbled him to the other end for a three-point play that fouled out Pierce and helped put down the Celtics. Noah had been performing well enough throughout the series in his role as a hyperactive defender and rebounder, but with that one steal-and-dunk sequence, the poor man's Kevin Garnett became the kind of surprising game-winner you see in the movies.

2. This evolving Celtics-Bulls series transcends anything we've seen this season.

In Philadelphia, the Orlando Magic finished off their first-round series by beating the 76ers 114-89. It's a nice win for them, but here's my question: Is anyone 20 years from now going to be talking about the night Orlando won on the road without Dwight Howard? I didn't think so.

Celtics-Bulls Game 6 was like a work of the theatre in its variety of themes and turns of plot. The Bulls came out playing angry to seize a 30-18 lead, but their aggression resulted in early foul trouble for several key players and a brief tussle when Kirk Hinrich was flung backward into the scorer's table while boxing out Rajon Rondo.

While the young Bulls were leaning angrily in the direction of Darth Vader, Ray Allen was behaving smooth as a Jedi. He should have been angry after fouling out away from the ball in the fourth quarter of Boston's OT victory in Game 5, but instead he channeled those destructive emotions into a spectacular 29-point first half that carried the Celtics into halftime trailing by a mere 59-57. Allen finished with a playoff-best 51 points (9-of-18 on threes) in 59 minutes, including nine dramatic points to propel Boston's 23-3 comeback run in the fourth quarter that silenced the building and threatened to finish off the Bulls once and for all.

The home team found itself trailing 99-91 with 3:38 remaining -- having relinquished a 12-point lead over the last seven minutes -- when Derrick Rose inspired his teammates to stop settling for jumpers by taking a pass from Salmons inside for a layup. Salmons and Miller spent the final 2:08 combining for eight points to force the first OT (with no small thanks to GM John Paxson, whose decision to trade for Miller and Salmons in February now looks worthy of consideration for Executive of the Year).

Every time one team looked dead, it sat up, turned on a chainsaw and chased the other guys screaming across the court.

In the first OT, Glen Davis (23 points) nailed a fallaway jumper on a bold crosscourt inbounds pass delivered with three seconds on the shot clock to give Boston a 109-107 lead.

But Salmons finished a difficult runner with 23.5 left to force another OT. He went on to score his team's next seven points in that second OT to put Chicago ahead 116-113 with two minutes remaining until the third OT, which was forced by a pair of Allen jumpers, the first with his toe on the three-point line (with :20 remaining) and the second from safely behind the arc (:07.6) after he was freed by a rigid screen from Pierce on Salmons.

Despite Noah's breakaway dunk near the end of OT No. 3, the Bulls gave Boston an opportunity to steal the night when Hinrich inexplicably missed an open layup after being left uncovered on an inbounds play. That Buckner-esque error left Boston with 16.7 seconds to execute a play capable of overcoming the Bulls' 128-127 advantage. It started promisingly with Rondo going into the lane, pivoting -- and finding himself engulfed by the shot-blocking reach of Rose, who picked up the loose ball to go to the line with 3.2 seconds left.

He missed both free throws, because that's what happens in this series. Players make incredible leaning threes and ridiculous runners from out of the forested paint, but they can't for the lives of them sink the equivalent of a 3-foot putt. But Rose was spared Miller's Game 5 embarrassment when Rondo missed a Jerry West heave from inside midcourt at the buzzer.

3. In Houston, the Rockets beat Portland 92-76 to win that series in six games.

And a fine win it was, their first series win since the days of Hakeem Olajuwon. But that outcome wasn't exactly surprising.

Here's something that was: Pierce missed jumpers at the end of regulation and the first OT that could have won the game for the Celtics. The real story there was that he was playing effectively with stitches sewn inside his nostril after receiving a sharp swipe from the fingernail of Tyrus Thomas in their skirmish for a third-quarter rebound.

In hindsight, the Game 5 performance of Ben Gordon -- who went 51 minutes and made several ridiculously difficult shots -- appears all the more amazing after watching him struggle throughout this game to overcome his strained hamstring. It finally appeared to get the best of him as he forced and missed an impossible fallaway jumper over Pierce that could have won the game at the end of regulation. Gordon fouled out with 11:54 still to play in the overtimes. That they were able to win without his clutch shotmaking is another reason for the Bulls to be confident entering Game 7 in Boston.

4. Looking ahead to Friday's lone playoff game, the Hawks will be trying to close out their series with a Game 6 win at Miami.

And hasn't that been one ugly matchup?

On the other hand, the Celtics-Bulls has turned into the NBA's answer to the NCAA tournament -- an endless run of extended, exhausting and unpredictable finishes in which the underdog always lives to play another day.

5. So now we prepare to say farewell Saturday night to a first-round event that is unique in NBA history, the only series to ever send four games into overtime(s).

Under normal circumstances I would naturally predict the reigning champs to win a Game 7 on their home floor against an inexperienced seventh-seed. But I've seen this story before in the movies. Gene Hackman was the coach, and he fell in love with Barbara Hershey. Better stop there before I give away the ending.

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