Game Preview (Round 1, Game 7): Bulls at Celtics
Saturday, May 2, 2009
TD Banknorth Garden, 8:00 p.m.
RADIO: WEEI 850 AM
Fifteen days ago, we commenced on just another run of the mill No. 2-seed-meets No. 7-seed matchup in the NBA Playoffs. Yes, the shorthanded defending champion Boston Celtics were taking part in that series, and yes, a youthful, exuberant Chicago Bulls team was present as well. But you're kidding yourself if you anticipated anything close to historic.
As we prepare for Game 7 at 8 p.m. Saturday night in the TD Banknorth Garden, words couldn't explain how far from "run of the mill" this series has been. It has placed itself in the record books (seven overtime sessions in four OT games), featured an endless list of extraordinary shots and plays (think Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Ben Gordon, Joakim Noah), numerous hard fouls, and has left us all feeling like we just finished the Boston Marathon five times over.
At this point, no one involved with this game, either inside the locker rooms or out, can expect anything but the unexpected.
This roller coaster series has gone through its twists and turns, its upside-down flips and its 180's, but now it's time for the ride to come to an abrupt stop -- at least for one team. When we arrive back in the loading zone for this roller coaster, one team will exit to the left and the other will stay put, welcoming the Orlando Magic in from the right.
It's hard to forecast what's on the horizon for tonight. Doc Rivers and Vinny Del Negro have emptied their chambers of last-second plays, defensive strategies and unique lineups. Now it's time for these players to simply leave each and every ounce of energy they have on the court.
Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose have certainly done that throughout the first six games of this series.
Rondo has been much more consistent and has continued to average a triple-double and notched his career-high of 19 assists in Game 6. But Rondo's scoring was quiet Thursday night and he seemed to be playing tentatively. It may have stemmed from the hard foul he committed on Brad Miller to end Game 5 or the altercation he had with Kirk Hinrich at the end of the first quarter in Game 6. Or maybe not?
Either way, it was obvious that he was not on the constant attack as he was in Games 1 through 5. He was looking to distribute more than anything in Game 6 (hence the assists number), and to his credit, he did it very well. It could have been a case of taking what the defense gave him, or it could have been a change in his mental state. We'll see where he stands from the very first tip tonight. Still, his play prompted Del Negro to state after the game that, "Rondo is carving us up."
Rose, on the other hand, has rebounded from two poor games and brought his numbers back up to near-triple-double territory with three consecutive solid games. (Check out how his numbers stack up with Rondo's to the right.)
If it's safe to assume anything, it might be that those two will play well in Game 7. The rest of this game's factors are really up in the air.
Ben Gordon has been a mystery since his hamstring injury. He dominated down the stretch of Game 4 to tie the series at two games apiece but has struggled mightily since, making only 10 of 35 shots from the floor. John Salmons (who's battling a groin injury) seems to be heating up, but his streaky shooting has been well apparent this series as well. He was the leading scorer for Chicago Thursday night with 35 points, but Miller was the X-factor. He made eight of his nine shots and the Bulls were an incredible +26 on the scoreboard while he was in the game.
For the hometown Celtics, Paul Pierce has upped his scoring average from the regular season but can't seem to find a consistent touch. He's shooting less than 44% in the series compared to nearly 46% in the regular season. He's hit big shots when they've been needed, but also struggled in some key situations at the foul line, and obviously on the Noah steal Thursday night.
His partner in crime on the wing, Ray Allen, was remarkable in Game 5. There's a difference between 'on fire' and 'unstoppable.' This man was unstoppable. Just ask Noah about the shot Allen drilled in his grill with 20.0 seconds left in the second overtime.
Allen has had three great games (Games 2, 4 and 6), two poor games (Games 1 and 5) and one average game (Game 3), at least by his standards. It seems like he loves the even numbered games, but if he can turn on the heat in this Game 7, it will put a lot of ease on Rondo and Pierce on offense.
At the defensive end, the Celtics need to keep Kendrick Perkins out of foul trouble. The defense has been playing much stronger as a team over the past two games, and much of that is due to Perkins stepping up in the middle. The problem is that whenever he heads to the sideline, the defense really begins to struggle. With his foul trouble this series (3.16 fouls per game), the importance of having him on the court has been even further emphasized.
"We are supposed to be a defensive team," Rivers said. "We've got to be better on defense."
It's no secret that if Perkins can keep himself out of foul trouble, a la Game 5, the defense will have a much better opportunity to play at a high level.
The Celtics have fought hard in each and every game this series, and in spite of their age, looking 'tired' hasn't really been a problem. After a triple-overtime game where only two starters played more than 10 minutes, we'll see what's left in those veteran legs.
"Mentally, it's harder after a game like this because you can't get to sleep," said Perkins. "It's hard to get your rest but the hardest part is watching film."
That's exactly what Rivers limited Friday's practice to. It was such a short practice, consisting of basically all film work, that there was not even media availability.
Usually when teams don't hold media sessions, it's for two reasons: 1- practice is extremely short, 2- team focus is at its premium. Those were probably both the case with Boston Friday afternoon.
The Celtics will be focused for Game 7, that's for sure, but Chicago will be amped up for this game as well. Although the young Bulls will come out with intensity, there's no doubt that the home crowd in the Garden will play a role in negating that energy. The Bulls are on the verge of being the underdog victor in one of the most storied series in NBA history. They'll be hungry, and should come out playing a calm and collected brand of basketball.
"We are going to have to play the best game of the series," Del Negro said. "There is no pressure on us. The pressure is all on them. They are at home, they are the defending champions. We are just going to go in there and play."
By now, the postseason jitters are gone. These Bulls have grown up over the past two weeks but the Celtics have tamed them three times. The series is tied and the scene shifts to Boston, but can anyone realistically expect the Bulls to fold under the pressure of a Game 7 atmosphere on the road after the last six games?
Then again, who expected to be where we are tonight?