Friday May 1st, 2009

We look ahead to Game 7 of the Celtics-Bulls saga happy, for the first time, that the NBA chose years ago to extend the opening round from its former best-of-five format.

5. Will Game 7 go to four overtimes? If it does, the Celtics and Bulls will have played the equivalent of eight games in this series.

In which case, the Celtics almost surely will be dead. The longer Game 7 is extended the better it will be for the younger Bulls, whose key performers are in their 20s and whose subs have been more effective.

When you look at the matchup of starting fives, the Celtics should be winning this series based on the superior talents of Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. But the Bulls are subbing in Kirk Hinrich (19 points on 12 shots in Game 5) and Brad Miller (23 points on nine shots in Game 6), reinforcements for which the depleted Celtics have no answer. And while Rajon Rondo is winning his matchup at point guard statistically, Bulls rookie Derrick Rose is creating opportunities for his teammates and raising the level of his team in ways that don't credit him in the box score.

Take the best March Madness game you've ever seen and multiply it again and again and again -- and that's what this series has become. It is two stubborn teams -- the injured champs trying to hold on, the seventh-seeded underdogs with nothing to lose -- playing a seven-game tournament as if each game were a knockout, one-and-done event at the NCAA tournament. It rarely works out this way in the NBA, but a relative nobody like John Salmons, a midseason replacement for the Bulls' injured $71 million forward, Luol Deng, may wind up being the hero of this exhausting drama. Salmons began the season as a swingman for the lowly Sacramento Kings with a career average of 7.1 points per game, but he enters Game 7 on the regal Boston parquet with postseason numbers of 19.2 points and 4.5 rebounds while holding up well against Pierce.

4. Is it or isn't it the greatest series ever? It isn't. It can't be.

For starters, it has played out this way because of Kevin Garnett's absence, a tournament-changing event. If he were healthy, then the Celtics would be preparing for the second round against Orlando, and the rest of us would be anticipating a flip-of-the-coin conference finals between Cleveland and Boston.

The NBA has never seen anything like this Celtics-Bulls operetta. Never has any postseason series been extended to three games of overtime, never mind four.

But what is it going to amount to ultimately? Neither team is a threat to reach the NBA Finals. When Kobe and LeBron are exchanging baskets next month, is anyone going to be talking about Chicago and Boston?

When No. 8 Golden State knocked off No. 1 Dallas two years ago, the Mavericks were a healthy 67-win team favored to win the championship. Their absence from the ensuing rounds changed everything in the playoffs. When Baron Davis and Stephen Jackson were knocking down those ridiculous shots, they were upsetting the entire bracket. So now let's say the Bulls succeed in knocking off the defending champs. Is that going to affect the outcome of the championship next month? The answer is no, because we're going to be watching LeBron and Kobe no matter what. Unless the Lakers and/or the Cavaliers suffer a major calamity of their own, those teams are going to be meeting in the Finals.

What we are watching here is short-term, disposable entertainment. It is terrific, it is unprecedented and it is unpredictable. But it is not keeping LeBron from a good night's sleep.

3. So let's enjoy it for what it is. Why does something so good have to be called "the greatest'' of all time? Isn't it enough that it matters in the here and now?

The rest of the first round has been relatively drab. So Dallas knocked off the Manu Ginobili-less Spurs. So the 76ers caved while yielding Game 6 on Thursday despite the suspension to Dwight Howard. So the desperate Rockets drubbed the baby Blazers.

If it weren't for Ben Gordon, Allen, Pierce, Salmons and Joakim Noah taking turns pretending to be Jack Bauer, most of us would be looking at these otherwise straightforward playoffs and begging to leapfrog the next two rounds to get to the Lakers-Cavaliers already.

Instead, we are reminded in a most dramatic way basketball isn't all about the money for champs such as Pierce and Allen, teamwork and effort can elevate the lesser names to some extent, and Rose is going to be one of the elite players sooner than later.

2. And now for some local color. Or should I say "cullah"?

This is not an original idea -- it comes from a good friend who is happy to let me co-opt it -- but I wish the national broadcasters would include a local announcer while airing these playoff games. In the case of this series, it would do no harm for the rest of the country to be entertained by the unique point of view of Celtics color commentator Tom Heinsohn.

While broadcasting Game 6 from Chicago for Comcast SportsNet New England, Heinsohn called Miller "a baby'' for missing his free throws at the end of Game 5 after being clobbered in the mouth by Rondo.

Here's what Heinsohn said when Rondo and Hinrich scuffled in the first half: "This is all instigated by Brad Miller, who crybabied. Now they're going to be mean and tough in front of their fans. Put it on the blackboard, get mad, get mean, get tough -- no layups, hurt somebody.''

By including a local broadcaster, the networks would provide an insider's insight as well as an informed (and potentially biased) point of view that you don't find nationally. After one of Heinsohn's diatribes, longtime Celtics play-by-play man Mike Gorman turned to his partner and asked, "Are you channeling Johnny Most tonight?''

The late Most was the legendary Boston radio voice who used to criticize Celtics opponents in a most vitriolic way.

"I hate a baby, a crybaby like Miller,'' Heinsohn answered with a laugh. "I hate him!''

Miller got the last laugh by contributing 23 points and 10 rebounds to the Bulls' victory. When he went to the line for a pair of big free throws at the end of the second OT, Heinsohn had this to say: "I wonder if his mouth hurts.''

Miller made both free throws.

1. A prediction. Somehow the Celtics win Game 7, driven through their short-handed fatigue by the support of their home crowd and their refusal to be embarrassed by a first-round defeat. But nothing is improbable any longer in this series -- including the potential for one more big game from Gordon, regardless of his hamstring.

4. I have to qualify my statements with the fact that I am a Mavs fan. But I still do not understand your reasoning that a healthy Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili would have driven the Spurs past Dallas. Even without Ginobili for much of the season and with a hobbled Duncan, the Spurs won enough games to earn the No. 3 seed. Based on that logic, they should have at least had the capability to beat the No. 6 seed in the playoffs with the players they had. Look back to when these teams played each other in the playoffs and were healthy: The Mavs beat the Spurs on their home court with the same core group of players, albeit in a different year and with different role players. I don't agree with your statements implying it was a given that the healthy Spurs would have won the series, and also that nobody had any interest in this series besides fans of the teams. -- Aaron K., Dallas

I understand why you cared about your series in Texas, and you should understand why the rest of the country didn't. At their best, the Spurs haven't drawn a large national audience (as proven by their low ratings in NBA Finals), and they became less intriguing when Ginobili's season-ending injury took them out of title contention.

The Mavs were deeper and far more promising three years ago, when they edged past San Antonio in the conference semifinals. I don't think I'm being reckless when I draw on years of accumulated evidence to say that if Ginobili, Duncan and Tony Parker were healthy, then the Spurs would be the No. 2 contender in the West. I credit the Mavericks for exploiting the Spurs' weaknesses (see below), but this simply was not a provocative series.

3. A 58-point loss in a playoff game? That's unreal. A coach needs to be held accountable for that -- no matter how banged up his team is. Is Byron Scott in trouble in New Orleans? -- Mark, Oakland, Calif.

You're right, Mark. Everyone should be held responsible for such an embarrassing loss in a home playoff game.

But I remember last year when the Hornets were viewed as an overachieving team with a thin bench that had no business winning 56 games. The bottom line is that they need to have everything going for them to compete in the playoffs. The exquisite floor balance that made everything work last year was ruined this season by the injuries to Peja Stojakovic and Tyson Chandler, their only big man.

They looked exhausted and decrepit around Chris Paul and David West, and I don't know how they fix it this summer while shaving $8 million to avoid the luxury tax next season.

2. What should be the Blazers' top priority in the offseason? -- Ryan, Fort Wayne, Ind.

They should seek an elite scorer at small forward or an elite point guard. I have no doubt they will offer anything and everything not named Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge or Greg Oden to New Orleans to see if they can pry away Paul. I doubt it will succeed, but in this summer of contraction, the Blazers shouldn't be shy about trying to rob any team in financial trouble.

1. I noticed that after Game 1 of the Celtics-Bulls series Doc Rivers was very feisty when asked about the game being a duel between Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose. He dismissed the idea quickly, and made it clear that one-on-one play will not win the series. After Game 2, he described the duel between Ray Allen and Ben Gordon as "amazing." The difference? A Celtics win or loss. Do you think coaches really care how they win, as long as they win? -- Sean Rutherford, Baltimore

Coaches who are trying to win a championship care how they win during the season and in the early rounds. During the season, you often hear Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich and Rivers complaining after victories if they think their team is playing to a style that will fail them during the NBA Finals in June.

Of course, that perspective changes in the latter games of a playoff series. In a Game 7, no coach will worry about style as long as his team survives.

I have a different take than you on Rivers' view of those two matchups. Allen and Gordon are finishers who are expected to score down the stretch, so a duel between them is commonplace and natural. But Rondo is a playmaker upon whom Rivers depends to create for his teammates. He's a young point guard and Rivers doesn't want to see him getting caught up in a personal duel with Rose when Rondo needs to be running the offense and spearheading the defense. I think that's why Rivers shot down talk of the Rondo-Rose matchup.

No one has furthered his standing more than the Celtics' point guard (averaging a triple-double of 21.5 points, 11.7 assists and 10.0 rebounds in six postseason games), but these three aren't far behind.

3. Josh Howard, Mavericks. His absence for 30 games was a big reason for the Mavs' inconsistency this season. But Howard averaged 18.8 points and 5.4 rebounds in 31.8 minutes to exploit the void created by the injury to Ginobili. After winning twice on San Antonio's floor to seize the opening round in five games, the reunited foursome of Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Howard and Jason Terry gives Dallas a reasonable chance in the next round against the hot Nuggets.

2. Luis Scola, Rockets. Houston's most reliable player throughout the regular season, Scola raised his production 36 percent to lead the Rockets with 17.6 points in their six-game win against Portland. Scola emerged as Houston's backbone while the Rockets sought a new identity in the absence of Tracy McGrady -- and they found it in his hard-working, blue-collar style at both ends. At 6-foot-9, he was expected to struggle against the bigger NBA power forwards, but Scola's exceptional work-rate and craftiness around the basket often nullify the advantages of taller or more talented opponents. The Spurs traded his rights before last season because they couldn't afford him, but Scola's success throughout this season and his heightened performances in the playoffs make that decision all the more regrettable.

1. Ben Gordon, Bulls. He led the Bulls in the regular season with 20.7 points per game, but Gordon's big-time shotmaking has gone to a higher level in these playoffs. At 6-3, he appears too small to be an elite shooting guard, but until his strained hamstring got the best of him in Game 6, the Celtics had been unable to stop him whether he was pulling up in transition or muscling his way past double teams to make shots in traffic that most shooters wouldn't dare attempt -- especially in desperate, game-ending situations. It just so happens that the 26-year-old Gordon will be an unrestricted free agent after refusing the Bulls' offer of a $51 million contract last summer, and his work in these playoffs has pushed him further ahead of Allen Iverson, his main offseason free-agent rival among undersized scoring guards. Not only is he almost eight years younger than Iverson, but Gordon also has proved over the years that he can dominate coming off the bench or as a starter.

Now the issue changes dramatically for the Bulls: Instead of questioning whether they can afford Gordon, they need to ask whether they can afford to let him walk or unload him in a sign-and-trade. With $26.5 million over the three seasons ahead already committed to Kirk Hinrich, will they be willing to throw another big contract at Gordon (and will he demand as much or more than the Bulls were offering last season -- which may be a reach in this financially-strapped market)? The good news is that they'll have Derrick Rose on his rookie-scale salary throughout the length of Hinrich's current deal.

Nothing is as bad as losing by 58 in the playoffs on your home floor. But these players also haven't helped themselves in the playoffs.

2. Josh Smith, Hawks. How infuriating is it to see Smith trying -- and failing horribly -- to dunk between his legs in the playoffs, as he did in Game 5 against Miami? It was the postseason equivalent of Ricky Davis looking to miss a layup at the wrong basket to get his 10th rebound in hopes of creating a triple-double for himself.

Here's a guy in Smith who improved his heretofore bizarre shot selection to convert a career-best 49.2 percent this season. He still attempts too many threes (2.2 per game in the Heat series, of which he is making just 18.2 percent) but he's leading the Hawks in postseason scoring with 17.2 points, and he has the talent to become a Defensive Player of the Year. But, at 23, he clearly doesn't have a grasp of the bigger-picture issues like leadership and discipline and focusing on the needs of the team, because otherwise he wouldn't be trying to turn Game 5 into his personal playground. Doesn't he think Michael Jordan could have windmilled a dunk through his legs in the open floor? So why then did Jordan never attempt such a thing? The answer is because he had too much respect for the game, the team and himself.

1. Allen Iverson, Pistons. He is making $20.8 million this season and yet had nothing to do with Detroit during its sorry playoff sweep by the Cavaliers. For a fighter like Iverson, a guy who has shown courage in absorbing punishment from bigger opponents over the years, his premature departure from the Pistons stands as an indictment. Even if his move to Detroit hasn't worked out, even if his back is killing him, a great player like him is expected to keep trying to find a way to succeed. This was not the behavior of a superstar. Why should anyone invest millions this summer in a soon-to-be 34-year-old who bailed on his previous employer?

1. Flip Saunders to the Wizards. It looks like we aren't going to see many firings this summers, with the Nets deciding to bring back Lawrence Frank in part because they don't want to pay him for not working -- a cash-saving perspective that other teams are likely to exercise. So the ambitious move by the Wizards stands out because they were able to target their No. 1 candidate and sign him with a minimum of fuss.

The criticism of Saunders is that he can't win big in the playoffs, that his Timberwolves made it once past the first round and that his Pistons never reached the NBA Finals. But that's an unrealistic complaint. Only four active coaches -- Doc Rivers, Gregg Popovich, Larry Brown and Phil Jackson -- have won championships, so are we to say that the other 26 teams have the wrong coach? Saunders has won 50 or more games in seven of his last eight full seasons. The standard of a 50-win season is something the Wizards' franchise hasn't achieved in 30 years. It should not be taken lightly, and it must be realized before anyone can begin dreaming the dream of title contention. The Wizards were a talented team in a horrid funk, and Saunders has the proficiency to steer Washington back into the playoffs in a big way.

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