Chicago's Joakim Noah, left, goes up for a shot past Boston's Paul Pierce as the teams took an NBA-record fourth game of their series to overtime.
CHICAGO The NBA would be well suited to dump Atlanta, Miami and Orlando, and just hold on to the Celtics and Bulls for another month, best-of-15 series, winner to play Cleveland for the Eastern Conference championship. How do you get rid of one or the other when together they keep producing classics, when the athletic theater is almost too much to bear? It's become must-see TV, each episode more ruthless and more compelling than the previous.
The sixth game, all by itself, should go down as one of the great tests of will in NBA playoff history. Every time it appeared one team had the game won, the other would answer with an improbable run or surreal shot. If it wasn't Brad Miller making a three-pointer, then a driving layup when the Bulls seemed dead and gone in regulation, it was Ray Allen hitting yet another three-pointer to tie when the Celtics were down to their final breath in the second overtime. Or Chicago's 6-foot-11 Joakim Noah stealing the ball from Boston's Paul Pierce and driving two-thirds of the court for a dunk and free throw. That play fouled Pierce out of the game with 35 seconds left in the third overtime and gave the young Bulls, finally, a margin they could manage, though not without near calamity for Chicago, which won, 128-127 on Thursday at United Center.
Whoever wants to see this end after Saturday night's Game 7 in Boston is a fool.
For the fifth time in six games, the Bulls and Celtics took the NBA playoffs to basketball nirvana with another desperately played confrontation that looked for all the fallen bodies and swinging elbows like it should have been played in one of Chicago's West Side alleys inside a cyclone fence, with chains on the rims, shirts and skins. For the fourth time in this series, which has never happened in the playoffs, the teams needed to play beyond regulation to decide the outcome. And this time they needed three extra periods.
As the Bulls' Derrick Rose told the Associated Press, "It's crazy, but you got to love it."
The defending champs looked like just that when they put together a devastating 18-0 run that turned a 10-point Chicago lead into an eight-point Boston lead with just a couple of minutes to play in regulation. The young Bulls, not wise enough yet to know how to grab and hold after being clipped on the chin, choked away a double-digit lead for the second straight game. The Celtics, Allen and Pierce draining bombs, made Chicago pay dearly for every careless mishandling of the ball and every dumb shot, of which there were plenty. You could see the Bulls' players, even Rose, begin to melt under the pressure . . . until he blocked Rajon Rondo's shot with a few seconds left in the third and final overtime, and dribbled down court to get himself fouled.
Rose, who played 59 minutes, then missed a pair of foul shots, of course, to prolong the drama. But the Celtics had no timeouts and Rondo -- who played 57 1/2 minutes with 19 assists and no turnovers -- couldn't hit a desperation heave at the buzzer.
Whatever the Bulls lack in poise they more than make up for in guts, and perhaps athleticism, too. They're neophytes in every sense, yet the champs are unable to shake them. The combination has produced a stunning contrast, making the tension even more delightful, whether it's the wondrous plays or a few jaw-dropping mishaps.
Asked if he was watching the series between the Bulls and Celtics, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said, "That's not Game 6, that's the 'Thrilla in Manilla,' Round 19."
It's about as apt a description as anyone has come up with for Celtics-Bulls. It has been the series with everything, just maybe the best first-round series in NBA history. No other series has had even three overtime games. And don't forget, Game 2, which the Celtics won, was decided by an Allen three-pointer with less than three seconds to play in regulation.
"This series is a lot of fun for the fans, the people of Chicago, the people of Boston," Noah told the AP Thursday night. "It's a lot of fun for us, too, playing in environments like this on the big stage. It's special to be part of this, and I know that it's a series people will be talking about for a long time."
There have been great performances from all-stars (Allen and Pierce), the greatest playoff debut since Lew Alcindor (Rose), one of the rare triple-doubles over a full series (Rondo), and one impossible shot after another by the best bad-shot maker in the NBA (Ben Gordon). That, in most other circumstances, would have been theater enough . . . but not in this series.
Anger and, uh, bloodshed didn't enter the mix until the final seconds of overtime of Game 5 in Boston on Tuesday night, when Rondo, all 6 feet of him, hacked the 7-foot Miller across the face on what turned out to be the critical play of the game and perhaps the series. Miller took seven stitches in the mouth, but not until after missing two free throws that let the Celtics walk out of the arena with the game.
Bad enough the game officials missed calling a flagrant foul on Rondo, which would have given Miller two free throws and the Bulls the ball on the sideline with two seconds left. Worse that Stu Jackson, the NBA's czar of discipline, blew it again the next day by not realizing that Rondo's hack job was absolutely excessive, thereby warranting a flagrant designation.
But Jackson's failure to make the proper call probably just gave Rondo the green light to push the envelope even further in Game 6, which he promptly did at the end of the first quarter. After dragging Kirk Hinrich down intentionally, Rondo swung an elbow at Hinrich, which should have called at least for him to be ejected from this game. Instead, officials gave Rondo only a "flagrant 1" foul and left him in the game. The Bulls were up 10 at the time, and having to play the game without Rondo must have sent a shiver through the Celtics.
One could see the Celtics' coach, Doc Rivers, a native of Chicago, screaming at Rondo during the stoppage in play, in essence, "I told you about that before the game!" Just before the game, sensing the same tension and edge, Bulls Coach Vinny Del Negro said: "We can't afford to get a bunch of technicals and flagrants. We have to be as physical as we need to be to win . . . whatever that means."
The anticipation that something nasty and even more dramatic might happen had much of Chicago on edge all day, as people talked basketball everywhere, like they did in the 1980s and 1990s when Michael Jordan's Bulls made basketball the pride of the city, an identity that made Chicagoans feel they were better than anybody's Second City.
But that's just the kind of widespread expectation that young teams -- and these Bulls are one of the youngest teams in the NBA -- don't handle especially well. They built a 13-point lead in Game 6 but clung to a 59-57 halftime lead after briefly falling behind.
The tag-team of Rose (28 points) and John Salmons (35 points) battled Boston's tandem of Allen (who scored a mesmerizing 51 points, including nine three-pointers to tie a playoff record) and Pierce, who had to retreat to the dressing room for a while in the third quarter to fix a bloody nose, the better to set up one more quarter, and as a result one more dramatic evening back in Boston.