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Rob Peterson

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Bulls-Celtics epic series rightfully comes down to Game 7

By Rob Peterson, NBA.com
Posted May 1 2009 7:38AM

CHICAGO -- About halfway through the third overtime on Thursday, Boston All-Star Paul Pierce had already played nearly 50 minutes when he saw the ball heading out of bounds. He was about five feet behind the ball, which was already floating over the first row of seats.

But that didn't stop Pierce from trying as he flew over folks in the front row who had been booing him and his teammates all night long. By the time Pierce landed, all you could see were his shoes in the air.

That's been this series in a nutshell: no matter how bleak the situation, there has been no quit in nor any yielding. None. Not even by a guy who suffered a cut to his nose in the second quarter.

Give up a nose, a hamstring or a couple of ankles for a win? Whatever it takes.

Just like Joakim Noah late in the third overtime, floating out in defensive space. He had no reason trying to play the passing lanes. If he misses deflecting, then stealing and finally finishing an and-one dunk off a Pierce pass, his man is wide open in the paint.

But like Pierce, Noah didn't quit. Unlike Pierce, he made the play. Then there's rookie Derrick Rose making a game-saving block on the series' best player, Rajon Rondo.

That too, has been the series in a nutshell: huge plays in big moments on both sides of the ball.

In an epic series that even became even more so, the Bulls needed three overtimes to defeat the defending champion Celtics 128-127 in Game 6, tying a series that demands (and deserves) a Game 7 in Boston (8 p.m. ET, TNT).

Thursday's game marked the third straight overtime game, the fourth OT game in a series that has amassed seven total overtimes. No one has ever seen a series like this. We may never see one like this again.

"This is the best series I ever coached," Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro said to laughs.

At this point, laughter may be one of the few plausible reactions to this series besides awe or disbelief or wonder -- or a combination of all three.

Just when you think after a tightly-called first quarter that this game would proceed without incident, there's Rondo getting tangled up with Kirk Hinrich near the Celtics' bench, drawing a flagrant for Rondo and a technical for Hinrich.

Just when you think Game 7 is a certainty because the Bulls have an 88-76 lead with 10 minutes to go in the fourth quarter, the Ray Allen-led Celtics go on a seemingly series-clinching 23-3 run. These are the defending champs we're talking about. A 99-91 lead with 3:38 to go should be as safe as the gold in Fort Knox.

But the tide turns once again, as the Celtics' ball movement stagnates and Allen, who had 42 of Boston's 99 points at that time, sees the ball twice in the final three minutes. Instead of placing that sword between the Bulls' shoulder blades and finishing off the game, the Celtics pounded the rock as the seconds ticked down until they were forced to take an awkward heave. Celtics coach Doc Rivers, for one, couldn't believe that it came down to that.

"We had chances," Rivers said. "We were down in the fourth and came back and took the lead ... and we stopped playing. We tried to hold on and that's not how we got the lead.

"Overtimes are overtime. Guys foul out and things like that, but you've got an eight-point lead in the fourth quarter and we just stopped playing. Give them credit."

Don't worry, Doc. The Bulls deserve a lot of credit for this one. When they saw the Celtics going soft on offense, the Bulls made one last charge thanks to two veterans -- Brad Miller and John Salmons -- who didn't even start the season with Chicago. After a driving layup by Rose, Salmons hit an and-one jumper to bring Chicago within three at 99-96.

Allen followed that with his 43rd and 44th points of the night, but there was Miller, who missed both free throws at the end of Game 5, draining a 3-pointer with the shot clock leaking away. Then there's Miller again, experiencing déjà vu as he drove to the lane. This time, he didn't find three Celtics in his way or 10 new stitches in his mouth. What he found was a clear path to the basket and another overtime period shortly on the horizon.

And there's another nutshell: redemption. This series -- each game, really -- has offered anyone who wanted one a second chance.

Prior to Game 6, Salmons shot .370 from the field. But there he was, making 15-of-22 shots, including 5-of-9 from behind the arc to lead the Bulls with 35 points.

"For me, these games have been the best experiences I ever been a part of in my life," Salmons said. "I'm happy to be a part of it.

"A couple months ago, being in Sacramento, I never thought I'd be in this position."

There's Rose, who after his 36 in the series opener 12 days ago, had been thoroughly outplayed by Rondo, scoring 28 points and notching the game-saving block.

Even some Celtics found deliverance in this contest. Ray Allen, who fouled out of Game 5, did everything humanly possible to get the Celtics in the next round. Allen scorched the Bulls for a game-high and personal playoff-best 51 points. Allen, who hit a game-winning 3-pointer in Game 2 and a game-tying trey in Game 4, hit another game-tying 3-pointer in the second overtime.

But all those points and all that gumption couldn't salve the wounds on the Celtics hands as they let another one slip through their fingers.

"It all boils down to Game 7," Pierce said. "What more could you ask for, especially in this series."

You couldn't ask for much more, especially with the champs having one game to defend their title on their home floor. After all, what do you get for a series that has everything? Then again, there's one thing you could ask for: You could ask for all the myths to be erased.

No, not the mythical nature of this series, which has already reached epic status and will only grow with time. No, this series -- this incredible, unbelievable, awe-inspiring, never-ending series -- has given lie to all the myths about NBA players and the way they approach the game: they can't shoot, they can't play defense, they take nights off, they have no heart. Basically, they don't care and they're just around to collect a check.

Well, these two teams have earned their money and given us our money's worth. Just ask those folks in the front row who almost took home Pierce as a souvenir nearly three-and-a-half hours after the game tipped off.

This has been entertaining, well-played, hard-fought basketball. It has been one of the best Playoffs series in NBA history.

Rightfully and thankfully, this one comes down to one game. But make no mistake. No one will lose this series. Someone will win it.

And they will have earned it.

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