Classic finale awaits a classic 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:
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.
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 (
Whatever resistance might have remained about
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
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
Let's be honest, this wouldn't be as much fun if it were Indiana vs. New Jersey, even with the rosters and histories of the two teams intact. These are anchor markets, not just of the NBA but across all major sports. Their traditions, like their uniforms, are as iconic as they are different. The Celtics are arguably the most successful franchise in NBA annals (chill, Lakers fans), their glory stretching back to the middle of the last century, interrupted by occasional lapses that mostly gave
One club claims the greatest winner in team sports history as its most famous and revered alumnus. The other employed the most lethal and famous performer in the modern, high-definition era of 24/7 coverage and hoops popularity. If the NBA wanted to do up this Game 7 right, it would have
You just know that Garnett, if only his doctors hadn't expressly forbidden it, would gnaw off his offending right leg coyote-style to get onto the court. He has done a swell job of avoiding an aneurysm while trussed up in his Sunday best on the Boston bench, a less swell job with the glares and the lip-reader-offending theatrics aired on TNT and ABC. Bulls forward
Miller getting a chance to bounce back from his missed foul shots near the end of Game 5 with a huge performance and key free throws in Game 6 is the stuff memories, and classics, are made of. Miller's bloody mouth, Pierce's scraped nose and Hinrich's Scotch-taped brow, too. Hinrich blowing his open layup late Thursday seemed wrong, given his uncomfortable introduction to the scorer's table courtesy of Rondo. But then, his side won.
There's Celtics coach
Seven overtimes in six games. Five of six games decided by three points or fewer. More than 100 lead changes. Sixty-five ties. An uncanny number of three-point shots made to tie games. The longest NBA playoff series, by minutes, already guaranteed, throwing at least 48 more onto the pile of 323.
Not only are those statistics breathtaking, it's great to have empirical evidence that what we're witnessing isn't just a lot of sleight of hand and right-here, right-now subjectivity.
From the final horn while Rondo's desperate fling from half court still was in the air Thursday night until the opening tap Saturday, we have the best of all worlds. One of the all-time classic NBA playoff series -- there, we've said it -- is still very much alive and with us. Moving on (as we all must) and turning our attention to subsequent, allegedly more important rounds (as we all will) invariably will sap at least a little something from this one. Memories fade even as they enhance, and DVDs eventually gather dust.
Right now, though, Game 7 is a blank slate, one more masterpiece waiting to happen. The air at TD Banknorth Garden, same as in sports bars on the South Side of Chicago and in homes across the country, is ripe with anticipation for something equally amazing happening. For once, the tinkling piano music and black-and-white cinematography isn't doing justice to living color and real time.