Bulls-C's: Best series ever? Who wins?
Seven OTs so far. Game 7 looming. Controversy and clutch shooting. Lead changes: 106. Players climbing new career peaks. Too many moments to count.
When at a loss for words, we turn to our experts for their wisdom.
Seven questions on Bulls-Celtics, one of the greatest seven-game series ever:
1. Best NBA postseason series ever, best first-round series ever, or neither?
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: Could be the best first-round series, but can't call the election until all precincts report. If Game 7 is a blowout or a dud, you can't make this series an all-time best.
And I'm big on stakes, so to be the best postseason series, it's got to be either the NBA Finals or the de facto Finals. Neither of these teams will win the championship, so ultimately, this series will be only a sidebar to the 2009 playoff story. It sure is great to watch, though.
Chris Broussard, ESPN The Magazine: The only reason this might not be the greatest playoff series in NBA history is it's a first-round series. It's hard to call a first-round series the best.
But for sheer drama, for individual performances, for competitiveness, this is the greatest postseason series of all time.
Ric Bucher, ESPN The Magazine: Best NBA postseason series ever -- no, but maybe I'd feel different if I had attended the games. For me, best still goes to Warriors over Mavericks in 2007 -- because it was historic (first 8-seed to beat a No. 1 seed in a seven-game series), wholly unexpected and I attended every game.
The Celtics were expected to be vulnerable with Kevin Garnett injured; conversely, it was the underdog Warriors, with Baron Davis limping along, who overcame injury to pull off the upset.
Chad Ford, ESPN.com: I can't think of another playoff series I've enjoyed as much as Bulls-Celtics. I loved the underdog Warriors toppling the Dallas Mavericks in 2007. But I've never seen two teams so evenly matched that they can match each other point for point.
John Hollinger, ESPN.com: In terms of drama, this is the best postseason series, but that's not the only criterion. There's not enough at stake to put it past the likes of Lakers-Celtics in '84 or Mavs-Spurs in '06, just to name a couple of prominent examples.
As far as first-round series go, however, this is clearly the best. Five buzzer finishes in six games? A total of seven overtime periods? Seriously?
Chris Sheridan, ESPN.com: I've witnessed so many classics in the early rounds -- the Charles Smith Bulls-Knicks game at Madison Square Garden in '93, the Allan Houston $160 million lucky bounce at the old Miami Arena, Larry Johnson's four-point play against the Pacers about 6 feet in front of my face, overtime in Kings-Lakers at Arco in '02, Paul Pierce versus LeBron James last spring, LBJ at The Palace two years ago.
With so many great ones, I don't think one can be judged as the best.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: Not trying to be a scrooge after all the overtimes we've been treated to, but I have to say neither.
In my personal playoff power rankings, I have three favorites I had the privilege of watching from up close:
First round: Suns 4, Lakers 3 in 2006, when Phoenix recovered from Kobe Bryant's Game 4 buzzer-beater and a 3-1 deficit.
Second round: Mavericks 4, Spurs 3 in 2006, when Dallas won Game 7 on the road on Dirk Nowitzki's OT-forcing drive and free throw with San Antonio on the brink of coming all the way back from being down 3-1.
Third round: Lakers 4, Kings 3 in 2002, when the personalities and stakes were super-sized and it seemed like every game was a circus unto itself.
All of that, furthermore, is from just this decade. Rewind to the '80s, '70s, '60s and '50s, and you will be reacquainted with several doozies.
2. Game 6: best NBA playoff game ever, best first-round game ever, or neither?
Adande: What keeps this from being the best playoff game is the guy who made the big play: Joakim Noah.
The NBA is a league of stars -- we want people who will add to their legends, not fade into obscurity. It's quite possible this will be the lone entry in the Noah highlight loop when he's done. I'll take Isiah Thomas and Bernard King duking it out in Game 5 of the first round in 1984.
Broussard: Again, I can't call a first-round game the best. It is the best first-round game, though. You had outstanding individual performances (Ray Allen, John Salmons, Derrick Rose, Brad Miller, Joakim Noah), you had tremendous clutch shots, you had feistiness (Kirk Hinrich versus Rajon Rondo). What more could you ask for?
Bucher: Best first-round game ever? Sure, OK. My guess is there have been several better ones, but this kind of deadline demands snap judgment, not a researched one.
Best NBA postseason game ever? Not even close. It was dramatic because of attrition, not excellence. It's certainly not better than Game 5, Lakers-Spurs, 2004 West semifinals. Lakers win 74-73 in a battle of champions on Derek Fisher's buzzer-beating shot off an inbound pass with .4 seconds left after Tim Duncan's improbable shot put the Spurs ahead on their home floor.
Ford: Best NBA postseason game goes to Game 5 of the Bulls-Jazz Finals (June 11, 1997), in which Michael Jordan had the stomach flu. I will remember that one for the rest of my life.
This one was great, with Ray Allen, Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose providing some very memorable moments. But best ever? Nah.
Hollinger: Can't go with best NBA postseason game just because the stakes weren't high enough -- for instance, Boston and Phoenix played a game that was just as dramatic in the 1976 NBA Finals, and you can't put a first-round game on par with that.
But for best first-round game, it's definitely on the short list. You can argue for Seattle-Denver in '94 or Knicks-Heat in '99 because of the massive upsets, but I'm hard-pressed to name a more dramatic elimination game than Game 6 on Thursday.
Sheridan: I watched the first two overtimes with the Magic players in their locker room in Philly. The guys were riveted, and you don't see NBA guys truly riveted by much.
Noah's steal, sprint, dunk and three-point play might be the most impressive athletic play I've seen a 7-footer make. Ray Allen hitting that corner J over Noah with his toe on the 3-point line ... just terrific stuff.
Best postseason game? Again, probably an impossible statement to make.
Stein: Can't go there, either, because -- as unfair as this might sound to the guys on both sides who killed themselves to win that game -- Thursday's stakes weren't quite high enough. Kevin Garnett's presence in a suit on the Celts' bench, furthermore, keeps intruding on my unconditional devotion to this series.
I'll also argue that Game 1 of Spurs-Suns in 2008, in which Tim Duncan made a 3-pointer to force a second overtime and yank the thread that began to unravel the Suns as we knew and loved them, is a first-round game that stands out more.
3. Name three players you'll remember as you look back at this series.
Adande: Ray Allen: Nice to see there's room for a master of his craft, a wizard among all the knights and orcs. Allen's precision, fitness and, most of all, shot making in the clutch have been a pleasure to watch.
Rajon Rondo: He's elevating and descending at the same time. Sick, Oscar Robertson numbers through the first five games, but a should-have-been-flagrant foul on Brad Miller at the end of that game and a WWE-move on Kirk Hinrich in the first quarter of Game 6.
Will he be remembered as the hero who carried the Celtics without KG or the villain who sullied the series?
Derrick Rose: "The Tentative Talent," brilliant in his playoff debut for the ages, but prone to turnovers throughout the series.
Broussard: Hard to pick just three.
1. Ray Allen. He has cemented himself as one of the greatest clutch performers of all time, and while some might call me crazy, he has moved ahead of Reggie Miller on my list of all-time great shooting guards. Miller's only advantage over Allen was his clutch shooting, but Allen now has matched that.
2. Rajon Rondo. Even though he helped the Celtics win the title last season, this is Rondo's coming-out party as an elite player. He probably will be a perennial All-Star from here on out. For a 6-foot-1 point guard to average a triple-double for a series is just incredible.
3. Derrick Rose. It was a toss-up between Rose and Ben Gordon, but the impressiveness of Rose as a rookie point guard playing so well in such an influential role against the defending NBA champions can't be overstated.
Bucher: Derrick Rose -- his coming-out party. Has made it painfully clear that there's not another player in the league who is as solely focused on winning as he is. Loved how upset he was about missing the last two FTs, even though they still won.
Rajon Rondo -- Showed he's much tougher and more clutch than we've ever given him credit for. The Celtics have a solid cornerstone for the post-Pierce/KG/Allen era.
Joakim Noah -- Wasn't he a bust just a couple of months ago? Has proven to be Kendrick Perkins' equal, and no one would've said that in November.
Ford: Ray Allen's performance in the clutch has been amazing. I think he's the best shooter ever in the NBA. Sorry, Reggie.
Rajon Rondo has proved he's an elite point guard. Has there ever been a small point guard who's averaged a triple-double in a playoff series?
Derrick Rose has had his coming-out party. He's looked like a rookie at times, and at other times, he's looked like a 10-time All-Star.
Hollinger: Kendrick Perkins, for the way his toughness and improving post game stabilized the frontcourt for the Garnett-less Celtics.
Brad Miller, for the Rondo episode in Game 5 and for responding with 23 points, 10 rebounds and several clutch free throws in Game 6.
Kirk Hinrich, for re-establishing himself as an elite defender after a horrid 2007-08.
Sheridan: Ray Allen and Brad Miller for what they've done in terms of redemption -- Allen for being fantastic for five straight games after his dud in Game 1 (and his disappearing act much of last spring), Miller for sinking all those clutch free throws in Game 6 without having to swallow blood before shooting as he did in Game 5. It's nice to see the good guys do well.
Player 3? Gotta go with Noah, a freak (and I mean that in a nice, awe-inspiring way).
Stein: Rajon Rondo for the nightly triple-double bids, and John Salmons/Brad Miller as a combined entry because I never dreamed Chicago's trade with Sacramento would have a nightly impact on the playoffs.
And Joakim Noah after his Game 6 steal, sprint and slam that fouled out Paul Pierce ... but mostly because I'm a tennis guy who has some unresolved issues with his dad about a 1989 U.S. Open match against my beloved Amos Mansdorf.
4. What are the chances Kevin Garnett will make a Willis Reed-style appearance?
Adande: I'd say 55 percent. He seemed different in Game 6, almost as if he were gathering himself. I don't think he could take watching Game 7 and what's probably his last shot at another championship without doing something. He'll want to at least try to get out there.
Bucher: None. This is the first round, not the Finals. Two measly jumpers by KG, as Reed provided before sitting down, won't change Boston's fate.
Ford: I know he wants to ... but I think it's about a 1 percent chance.
Hollinger: 0.1 percent. Remember, Reed had to play in the game, too. I'm not convinced Garnett can do that right now.
Sheridan: One percent always looms a lot larger than its numeric value. Doc Rivers threw out that number the day before the series began, I pressed him on it and he then said "10 percent" before backing down to "1 percent."
As I wrote at the time, one ain't zero. And as I think about it Friday morning, I'd say 1 percent looks more like 50-50.
Stein: It wouldn't surprise me if KG hobbled out there Saturday night for a minute or 10. It's almost too predictable.
But I really hope it's just a wild rumor. The Celts can win Game 7 without such manufactured dramas. And I remain 1,000 percent convinced there is no scenario that justifies letting KG play again this season because there is so little to gain. The Celts can't win it all with a half-speed KG. So why risk more serious damage with three years and nearly $60 million left on his contract?
5. If the Bulls win Game 7, how will the next round go?
Adande: Would anyone want to play the Bulls after this? Young and athletic with the added bonus of confident and (new and improved!) playoff tested.
The Bulls would need Brad Miller to lure Dwight Howard away from the rim so Derrick Rose could do his thing ... and you'd think after all those daggers Ray Allen tossed at them, the Bulls would understand the importance of defending 3-point shooters. Bulls in six.
Broussard: The Magic will beat the Bulls in six games. Make no mistake, the Bulls are not a great team. They're a good team that happens to be a tough matchup for the Celtics. I also think that as a young team, they might have a mental letdown after such an emotional victory over the defending champions.
Bucher: Another thrilling series. Bulls' 3-point defense is pretty lousy, which would suggest an easy Orlando run, but I have a hard time seeing the Magic keeping Derrick Rose, Ben Gordon and John Salmons out of the paint -- or Dwight Howard out of foul trouble.
Ford: I think the Bulls have lacked confidence at times. Winning a Game 7 against the defending champs on the road would give them what they need. I'd say Bulls in six.
Hollinger: The baby Bulls again would be serious underdogs, only this time, they'd be facing a much healthier opponent. The Magic would miss defensive stopper Courtney Lee against the Bulls' three guards, but Chicago has nobody who can guard Dwight Howard and lost three of four to Orlando in the regular season. Magic in five.
Sheridan: It would go Orlando's way. The Magic caught a huge break schedule-wise with Chicago-Boston going the distance, and they would get to stay in Florida for games 1 and 2 while the Bulls would have a hard time carrying their intensity into the start of that series. Emotionally and physically, this series has drained Chicago.
Stein: If these unheralded Bulls have the fortitude to win Game 7 in Boston, even with KG in a suit, they deserve our second-round backing. No matter what this series takes out of them.
6. If the Celtics win Game 7, how will the next round go?
Adande: Can't imagine the Celtics would have much left in the tank after playing at least 371 minutes of intense basketball over the past two weeks. If Paul Pierce looks tired now, imagine how he would look midway through the next series. And a steady diet of Dwight Howard dunks wouldn't do much for the confidence of the Celtics' front line. Orlando in six.
Broussard: I think the Celtics would beat Orlando by winning Game 7 on their home court. I understand there are many reasons to pick the Magic now that KG is out. But I think Boston has enough craftiness and moxie to overcome the still somewhat mentally fragile Magic.
Bucher: All depends on how much the Bulls took out of the Celtics. They are an old team and Orlando will push the tempo -- if coach Stan Van Gundy knows what he's doing -- as much as Chicago did.
Ford: The Celtics would be exhausted, and I don't think they could handle Dwight Howard in the paint. But after watching them battle the Bulls, I think they would find a way. Celtics in seven.
Hollinger: Orlando would have a huge advantage in the series for two reasons. One, the Celtics likely would be running on fumes. And two, Boston is running out of players in the frontcourt. The latter point seems particularly salient in light of Dwight Howard's ability to draw fouls, and it's why I'd pick Orlando in six.
Sheridan: Again, there's the question of how much juice Orlando's Game 1 opponent would have left in the tank just 48 hours after this epic concludes. The Magic match up awfully well with the Celtics, and their frontcourt depth would be a major factor with Boston's bigs so depleted by injuries.
Stein: I know Orlando must be thinking the Celts will have nothing left even if they manage to finish off Chicago. But Boston almost certainly would get my second-round backing, too.
It's an obvious heart-over-head pick, when I know quite well the Celts would need Garnett to deal with the irrepressible Dwight Howard-Marcin Gortat twosome, but this has been an emotional series. It's hard not to believe a payoff awaits the team that advances.
7. How will Game 7 go?
Adande: It's rare that NBA games can deliver on demand -- they usually sprout on us unexpectedly, just as this series has.
The standards have been set so high we need at least five more overtimes for Game 7 to feel like it belongs in this series. Won't happen.
The Bulls were a little too jubilant after winning Game 6. That was their Game 7. Going on the road and eliminating the defending champs is too much to ask ... about as greedy as expecting another OT thriller.
Broussard: The only thing that would surprise me is a rout. I think Boston will win, and unfortunately, I don't expect another barn-burning overtime affair. I hope I'm wrong -- I'd love to see another classic, regardless of who wins -- but I think the Celtics will win by eight to 10 points.
Bucher: I have no idea, but I would expect another game decided by whoever has the ball last. The notion that Boston will cruise at home ignores the resilience the Bulls have shown all series long.
Ford: Celtics 120, Bulls 119 -- in OT, of course.
Hollinger: Chicago got its first win in OT, its second win in double OT and its third win in triple OT. So if this thing goes to quadruple OT, the Celtics are screwed.
Otherwise, I think Boston will prevail. While I worry about the minutes piling up on the Celtics' bigs, I think they have been the slightly better team over the course of the first six games, and the home crowd should nudge them to victory.
Sheridan: Boston's way, of course. There are leprechauns in that building, you know, and Pierce isn't missing any more game winners from the right elbow.
Stein: Paul Pierce's clutchness. Ray Allen coming off a 51-point game. The better-by-the-day Rajon Rondo. Another Game 7 at home for Celtics Nation.
It makes near-perfect sense, in a series that has repeatedly defied logic, to ignore all Boston's advantages and predict one more surprise from the Bulls.
But I can't shun experience. I just can't. Not on this stage. Celts win ... and they won't even need OT.