By Steve Aschburner
May 01, 2009

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. Dikembe Mutombo lying and crying on the court after No. 8 Denver's upset of No. 1 Seattle in '94 was classic. So was the eight-over-one shocker two years ago, when Golden State put Dallas' 67 regular-season victories in a shredder.

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 (Kevin Garnett's absence has weakened the defending champions), but it has something even better. There are people in both cities, Boston and Chicago, who will tell you this is the best NBA series they have ever seen -- and they'll still be saying it after Game 7, regardless of outcome. You cannot find many people in Dallas who gushed then or gush now about what happened against the Warriors.

Whatever resistance might have remained about Ray Allen's eventual worthiness for the Naismith Hall of Fame has been smacked down by his play in this series. He hits darn near everything he attempts and he attempts darn near anything he pleases, popping up as incessantly as the nagging cartoon paper clip on your monitor five minutes before the report is due. There's no shaking him if you're the Bulls, just as there apparently is no fouling him for two free throws when your lead is three.

Paul Pierce, for the second consecutive postseason, is gaining respect exponentially from the guy who, once upon a time, took turns with Antoine Walker jacking up shots and grumbling about getting out of Boston. He looks bigger, stronger, more relentless defensively and craftier than ever with the ball (notwithstanding the occasional forced attempt and the brain cramp of fouling Joakim Noah on that breakaway in Game 6).

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 Stephon Marbury (two), to Chicago's two (Brad Miller, both). But Ben Gordon and Derrick Rose have shown glimpses of it, enough for teams to trust and pay them like stars when the time comes.

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 steal and three-quarter-court dash for a slam, but Noah's defense on Allen's toes-on-the-line shot from the right corner in the second OT was textbook. He has an energy and a relaxed, doesn't-know-any-better confidence that only comes from role players. John Salmons, meanwhile, is a card-carrying scorer. Doesn't matter the month or the moment.

Rajon Rondo, aside from (ahem) muscling up to whack Miller in Game 5 and whipsaw Kirk Hinrich in Game 6, skipped right over the Rookie of the Year award on his résumé to chase some playoffs MVP votes so far (if, of course, such an award existed). As for Glen Davis, he has emerged to provide 18.7 points and 7.5 rebounds for a shorthanded Boston frontcourt.

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 Red Auerbach a chance to flex his craftiness. The Bulls boast two distinct golden eras, amid a lot of struggling, bumbling and broken promises.

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 Bill Russell and Michael Jordan stride to center court right before tip-off, in the spotlights, just to shake hands and exit into darkness. Forget about Michael Buffer or Mills Lane -- the significance would be obvious, trophy or no trophy.

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 Luol Deng, on the other hand, is virtually forgotten by everyone but the Chicago team that misses him.

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 Doc Rivers growing up just outside Chicago, Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro hailing from Springfield, Mass. Even the front offices offer intrigue and pathos: heavily criticized John Paxson, whose title and GM duties might shift in Chicago next season despite his lauded deal for Miller and Salmons at the trade deadline, while Celtics boss Danny Ainge suffered a heart attack even before being exposed to seven overtime periods.

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.

You May Like