5/02/2009 - Celtics win epic series with Bulls

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(A suited Garnett celebrates in Game 5. Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler, Getty Images)

It may not have been the most memorable series, or the most significant, or the most star-filled. But when it was all said and done, the 2009 first round series between the Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls, which finished on May 2, 2009, was unquestionably the best first round series in NBA history. 120 lead changes, 80 ties, four overtime games, seven overtime periods, four game-winning shots, sensational performances from Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Ben Gordon, Paul Pierce, Derrick Rose, and many more helped make this best-of-seven matchup one for the history books.

Had Kevin Garnett not fallen fray to a knee injury, the Celtics-Bulls matchup might've ended in a rout. However, with the former MVP sitting out the entire series, the Celtics weren't at their best when they played Chicago. On the opposite end, the Bulls came into the postseason on a roll thanks to their mid-season acquisitions of Brad Miller, John Salmons, and Tim Thomas. Chicago, who was eight games under .500 more than halfway through the season, won 12 of their final 16 games to advance to the postseason.

From a distance, the 2-7 matchup looked to be a lopsided series in favor of the Celtics. But essentially what you had was a Boston team that wasn't as good as a #2-seed, and a Chicago team that wasn't as bad as a #7. The two teams talent levels wound up being completely even, which made it the series that it was.

In Game 1, the Bulls pulled out an overtime thriller that they had no business winning. In the final seconds of the fourth quarter, Bulls center Joakim Noah ran at Paul Pierce, who was about to go into his shooting motion. Pierce waited for the bigman to collide with him before hoisting up his jump shot, which fell far short of the rim. Noah was called for the foul, and the crafty Pierce went to the line for two massive free throws.

With the Bulls unable to advance the ball having used all of their timeouts, all Pierce had to do was sink both freebies and the game would be over. He made the first to tie it at 97. But on his second free throw, Pierce's shot rimmed in-and-out, and the game was sent to overtime.

Tyrus Thomas scored six of the Bulls' eight points in the extra session, including a jumper with 51 seconds left that turned out to be the game-winner. Ray Allen had a last-second, open jumper to send the game to another OT, but it clanked off, giving the Bulls a 105-103 win. Allen had one of the worst games of his career: he went 1-12 and shot just 0-6 from three-point range.

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(Noah fouls Pierce in the closing seconds. Photo by Brian Babineau, Getty Images)

The big story from Game 1, besides Pierce's miss and the Bulls' win, was the point guard play from both teams. On the Celtics side, Rajon Rondo had the game of his life with 29 points, nine rebounds and seven assists. Bulls rookie Derrick Rose was even better; he scored 36 points, dished out 11 assists, and made all 12 of his foul shots. The 36 points tied the record for the most ever scored by a rookie in a playoff debut (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scored 36 in 1970).

In Game 2, Ben Gordon revealed himself to be the true face of the Chicago Bulls. The former UConn star scored a game-high 42 points, including the Bulls' final 10 points in regulation. With 3:13 to go, Gordon hit a long three that gave the Bulls a five point lead, after they trailed by 12 early in the first half. The crowd at the TD Banknorth Garden began to squirm -- another home loss would practically assure a defeat in the series.

That was when Ray Allen, who for the first 72 minutes of the series was down-right awful, stepped up in a big way. Allen scored 28 of his 30 points in the second half and carried the Celtics down the stretch. The game came down to the wire as Gordon and Allen, both hailing from the University of Connecticut, traded clutch (and sometimes impossible) jumpers.

After a Celtics timeout -- with the score knotted at 115 -- Ray Allen came off a curl and knocked down a wide-open three with two seconds left. Celtics coach Doc Rivers gave a Tiger-esque fist pump as soon as the shot went in. Chicago had again used up all their timeouts, forcing Tyrus Thomas to take a desperation half-courter that fell short. Boston won 118-115 and kept their season alive. Rajon Rondo, who would have the best series of anyone on either team, had a terrific game with 19 points, 12 rebounds, 16 assists, and five steals.

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(Ray Allen celebrates after hitting the game-winner. Photo by Brian Babineau, Getty Images)

Game 3 turned out to be the only lemon of the series, as the Celtics crushed the Bulls 107-86 in Chicago to reclaim home court advantage. The Celtics had everything rolling as the Bulls shot a paltry 37.5% from the floor. Stephon Marbury had his lone good game of the series with 13 points off the bench, while Rose and Gordon combined to shoot just 9-27.

The next game more than made up for the snooze-fest of the previous one, as the Bulls squeaked past the Celtics, 121-118, in double overtime. It was a total team effort for the Bulls as all seven of their players who got in the game scored at least a dozen points. A Ray Allen three sent the game to overtime, which the Celtics briefly had control of. But Ben Gordon, suffering from a strained hamstring, knocked down a well-defended three of his own to send it to another OT. Rondo added his second triple-double of the series while Rose chipped in with 23 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists.

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(John Salmons drives to the hoop late in Game 4. Photo by Gary Dineen, Getty Images)

With the series heading to a crucial Game 5 back in Boston, word arose that Gordon's injury could keep him out of the lineup. Expected to miss the game, Gordon played through the pain and stayed on the floor for the rest of the series.

Game 5 may have been the best game of the series (which is definitley saying something). Chicago had the defending champions on the ropes early in the fourth quarter; a Joakim Noah layup with just over nine minutes to go had them up 11. It was then Paul Pierce's turn to step up and make big plays. Pierce, who to that point had had a very mediocre series, scored 19 of his 26 points in the second half. He continually went to his sweet shot on the floor -- a stepback from the right elbow -- and sent the game to overtime with a jump shot over Salmons.

It was the first time in NBA history that a series featured three overtime games.

In OT, Pierce and Rondo carried the Celtics in the absence of Ray Allen, who had fouled out midway through the fourth. With another jumper over Salmons with 36 seconds left, Pierce gave the Celtics a 104-101 lead. On Chicago's next posession, Ben Gordon was being guarded by Tony Allen, who had been inserted into the game solely for defensive situations such at that. But Allen didn't make good on his insertion -- he jumped into Gordon right as he attempted his three, sending Gordon to the charity stripe. Ben knocked down all three free throws and tied the game at 104.

Pierce wasn't done yet. An All-Star forward who had famously called himself "the best player in the world" ten months earlier, Pierce sank another dagger -- another elbow shot over Salmons -- with 3.6 seconds left, giving Boston a two-point lead.

Chicago wasn't done either. On the Bulls' next posession, Brad Miller caught the ball with a wide-open path to the hoop. As the bigman dribbled towards the rim, Rondo reached his out with his right arm and wacked Miller in the face. Miller would go to the sideline and get his mouth checked out while the officials conversed over the play. A foul was called on Rondo -- but not a flagrant, which would have been two foul shots and the ball. It was a fortunate break for the C's considering that Rondo had knocked out one of Miller's teeth.

Miller stepped to the line for two of the most pressure-packed foul shots of his life. He missed both free throws and the Celtics won in dramatic fashion, 106-104. Boston center Kendrick Perkins had a fantastic game with 16 points, 19 rebounds, seven blocks, and no fouls. In fact, he became just the third starting center in playoff history to play 48 minutes without committing a personal foul. The other two were Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell.

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(Paul Pierce celebrates his game-winner. Photo by Elsa, Getty Images)

By Game 6, the series was already being considered as one of the greatest of all time. It didn't hurt then that Game 6 produced another thriller of a contest, as the Bulls escaped with a 128-127 victory in triple overtime.

For the second consecutive game, the Bulls blew a double-digit lead early in the fourth period. The Celtics went on an 18-0 run to take an eight-point lead with just under four minutes to go. But the Bulls fought back. With Ben Gordon having an off game, Salmons got his revenge on Pierce by dropping 35 points on the Celtics superstar.

Brad Miller stepped up even bigger. In a close game that went to triple overtime, Miller somehow finished with a plus-minus of +26, a game-high. Miller produced 23 points and 10 rebounds on 8-9 shooting; he scored the Bulls' final five points to send it to overtime, and he made crucial free throws to make up for the ones he missed in the game before.

No one, however, played better than Ray Allen, who couldn't hit the broad side of a barn in Game 1. Allen scored a career-high 51 points and went 9-18 from three-point range; his final three was a rainbow jumper that sent the game to OT No. 3. The nine three's tied the playoff-game record set by Rex Chapman, Vince Carter, and himself when he was in Milwaukee. The 51 points was the second-most scored in a postseason game by someone on the losing team; that record was held by Michael Jordan, who scored 63 points in a loss to the Celtics 23 years earlier.

The classic game was tied in the third overtime when the play of the series was made. With under a minute to go, Paul Pierce was dribbling to the left with Joakim Noah defending him. Pierce saw that Boston reserve Brian Scalabrine was open on the left side of the floor and attempted to pass it to him. But just as the ball left his hands, Noah jumped out in front of him and stole the ball. Mustering all the energy he had left, the bigman dribbled down the court, out-racing Pierce, and slammed it down with one hand, collecting a foul on Pierce in the process. As Noah celebrated with a yell, Rivers lowered his head and sank his hands to his knees. It was a Wide World of Sports moment if ever there was one: the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

Noah's dunk, as well as a final Derrick Rose blocked shot on Rondo, gave the Bulls their third overtime win of the series. Rajon Rondo, playing far better than anyone expected, was averaging a triple-double through the first six games.

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(Noah slams it down in triple overtime. Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler, Getty Images)

In Game 7, everyone looked a little rusty. Gordon, Pierce, and Allen all scored well, but shot poorly from the field, while Rondo had his worst game of the series: seven points and 11 assists. The difference-maker turned out to be Celtics reserve Eddie House, who hadn't played much at all in the series. House went 5-5 and made all four of his three-pointers to give the Celtics a giant boost. They finished the first half on a 22-2 run and maintained a double-digit lead for most of the second half.

Boston won 109-99 and advanced to the next round, where they faced off with the Orlando Magic. It wasn't a bad game, though compared to the other five classics the series had produced, it was underwhelming to say the least.

And so ended one of the best series in NBA history. Had it been played in a later round, such as the Eastern Conference Finals, it probably would have gone down as the greatest series of all time. Instead, its place in history is up for debate, though no series had ever been as maximized as fulfilling as this one.

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