By Jeremy Gottlieb
Four games down and it feels like 24. One blowout sandwiched among three total nail biters, the most recent of which was an absolute classic. What more can the Celtics and Bulls possibly give us? Yet there are at least two, potentially three more games to play (and believe me, this series is going seven) and if those games follow anything close to the same path the rest of the series has, ESPN Classic may have to rethink its strategy of showing nothing but reruns of the World Series of Poker. The series has had its fair share of intriguing plotlines, from the explosion of Derrick Rose to Rajon Rondo’s taking the next step, to Paul Pierce’s surprising amount of lethargy in three of the four games to the emergence of Joakim Noah as a supervillian (the thought here is that he’s involved in at least one fracas before the series is over). And as entertaining as each of the first three games were in their own ways, none of them combined added up to what we got from Game 4, a relentlessly “can you top this,” type of contest that alternately blissfully and painfully seemed to never end. It was playoff basketball at its finest, one of the best, most competitive games of the year, a true test of wills that ended with the Bulls winning 121-118 in double overtime.
Early on, things were mundane at best. It took Pierce, who was absolutely blistering hot to start Game 3, until almost halfway through the second quarter to score his first points. Kendrick Perkins, who seems to have Noah’s number in the low post, was the Celts’ most reliable option at this point, and he, along with Rondo, carried the load while Pierce was taking his time waking up in time for the noon central time start and Ray Allen got untracked. Meanwhile, as happened so often during the season, the bench turned a slim, first quarter lead into a 16-2 Bulls run practically on cue in the early stages of the second quarter. It was quite dispiriting to see Stephon Marbury and Mikki Moore, after each of their solid performances in Game 3, return to the ranks of the irrelevant at best, hopelessly lost/overmatched at worst.
The Bulls were certainly not the same team that stunk out the gym in Game 3. They were much looser, more focused and calmer. Their energy, which was nonexistent Thursday night, gave the Celts fits, especially on the defensive end, particularly when it came to Pierce. And speaking of energy, the game also marked the official emergence of Tyrus Thomas as a certifiable beast. Thomas was all over the place, adding to his league-leading playoff blocked shot total, in on every rebound, ferocious on defense, particularly down low and pretty much just jumping through the roof. All the talk about Rose and his enormous talent is certainly justified, but if Thomas, who also has hit a few big shots in the series, continues to develop, he will be an all-star several times over.
Pierce and Allen both hit a few shots in the waning stages of the first half but for the Celts, it was all about Rondo. He hit the break with 11 points, six rebounds and six assists, and continued to be the best player on the floor wearing a green uniform. On defense, he was a one man swarm, holding Rose pretty much in check (at least temporarily) while keeping up his furious pace on the glass and doing all of the little things that any team needs to win. On the ABC telecast, both Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy were falling all over themselves praising Rondo for everything short of doing cartwheels, all of it perfectly justified. And even though Pierce made just three of 10 shots and Allen took only four in the half, the Celtics were ahead going into the locker room.
The second half started quite similarly to the first, with the Celts confounding propensity for sluggish starts rearing its head again. They missed nine of their first 10 shots in the third quarter but were bailed out by the Bulls’ youth and inexperience. The hosts couldn’t get out of their own way, committing seven turnovers and sending the Celts to the line 12 times in the quarter. Worse, Rose was playing passive which made up for the facts that Pierce again couldn’t get going and Big Baby, such a crucial offensive weapon for the Celts since his man doubles off him and he’s wide open all the time, was suffering through a horrendous shooting day. It seemed as though the Bulls wouldn’t be able to capitalize on their best chance of the day to send the Celts home and the Celts took advantage when Pierce got hot toward the end of the quarter and they ended the frame on a 12-0 run.
The fourth quarter was when things started to enter a different realm. Big Baby and Bulls’ big man Brad Miller got into a near-scuffle and it ignited Rose. Suddenly, the player who owned Game 1 was back. Rose was trying to take the game over and if it wasn’t for Rondo, who was careening toward another triple-double, he may well have done it. Meanwhile, Perk, who averages 1.5 moving pick fouls per game, committed his second one of the game and fouled out. I love Perk and how he’s developed over the past couple of years, but it would not be asking too much for him to learn how to set a legal screen. Anyway, his expulsion from the proceedings robbed the Celts of their only real shot blocker and their second best rebounder (if anyone wants to argue that Rondo is not their best right now, please feel free to bring it). This lack of a defensive presence in the paint opened things up for Rose even more and he took advantage.
Down the stretch, with Rondo still controlling things and Big Baby’s shooting struggles extending into the post, where he missed three layups between the final quarter and second overtime, Allen started to make his presence felt. He hit a three in the final two minutes so naturally, with the Bulls up three with just under 10 seconds to play, it seemed a foregone conclusion that he’d be getting the ball. What wasn’t so obvious was that the Bulls defense on the play would be so bad. Both Noah and Thomas got caught in a screen set by Big Baby and Allen’s look from the right wing was wide open. He buried the shot and we were on to the first OT.
Soon after extra session No. 1 began, Rondo had the triple-double. He’s now averaging one for the series, only the fourth player to ever do that, and the first Celtic since Larry Bird in 1986 to have two in the same series. Allen drilled a couple more from long range and Rose was beginning to lag. When they went up five with two minutes left, it felt like the Celts would survive. But Ben Gordon, who put on the best Andrew Toney impression in Game 2 since Andrew Toney, had bounced back from a sore hamstring to make a couple of big shots in the overtime, including a swooping runner high off the glass over both Big Baby and Tony Allen that defied logic. Ahead by two, Pierce made a free throw then missed his second one of the series that would have ended the game with nine seconds left. Just as it was a no-brainer for Allen to take the shot at the end of regulation, so too was it that Gordon would get the ball at the end of the overtime. The Bulls called his number, he barely shook free of Pierce, launched an off-balance bomb from the right wing and nailed it. What goes around comes around and we were headed for another extra frame.
There was some suspense in OT, version 2.0, but not as much as there had been. The Celtics were the team that seemed to have had its spirit broken, not the youthful, inexperienced Bulls. John Salmons, who was awful in the first half, made two big shots, scored six of the Bulls 11 points in the frame and rung up two huge defensive plays on Pierce, one a strip while Pierce was driving with the Bulls up two and the second a partial block of Pierce’s last-second three-point heave. Rose and Gordon each had a couple more big moments and even though Pierce made a huge three to cut the Bulls lead to one, making the thought of a third overtime very real with about 15 seconds left, it just wasn’t going to happen, despite the heroics of both Rondo and Allen. Both teams had multiple chances to win and both teams probably should have won before it was all said and done. The Bulls just made one more shot than the Celts did, the way it usually goes down in the best games.
So what do the Celts need to do going forward? They need Pierce to play more like he did in Game 3, for starters. Sure, the Bulls are playing him extremely well, trapping and harassing him when they can and siccing defensive maven Kirk Hinrich on him when they can’t. But his energy and intensity just don’t seem right which is very confusing. He must step up, which we all know he can if he so chooses. They also need to tighten up defensively. They were positively demonic on D in Game 3 and for stretches yesterday. But there were missed assignments and slow rotations at crucial points yesterday as well and that sort of thing needs to be eliminated.
Still, there isn’t that much to complain about. It was a very tough loss and naturally, it’s far better to be coming home up 3-1 than tied 2-2. But it was such a great game, so worthy of all the praise one can dish out, so exhilarating and infuriating and exhausting and magnificent all at once that the final outcome seems less important. It will be pretty hard for any of the remaining games to live up to Game 4. But it can’t hurt to hope.