Celtics-Bulls Was Great, But Not the Best Series Ever

At the conclusion of a series that featured five games decided by three points or less, Ray Allen, right, and Kirk Hinrich show each other respect.
At the conclusion of a series that featured five games decided by three points or less, Ray Allen, right, and Kirk Hinrich show each other respect. (By Elise Amendola -- Associated Press)
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By Michael Wilbon
Monday, May 4, 2009


It's fair to wonder if there's an encore to this, if the six weeks remaining in the NBA playoffs will have anything remotely as thrilling as the seven-game series the Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics just concluded. One wouldn't think the high note of the 2009 postseason has already sounded. But when a single series has four overtime games, another game decided at the buzzer, 65 ties, more than 120 lead changes and an unthinkable number of improbable shots taken and made, it becomes entirely possible that a series played in the very first round will not be eclipsed . . . even by Kobe and LeBron, should they face each other in the Finals.

Okay, the Celtics' 109-99 Game 7 victory on Saturday night was downright lopsided compared with the rest of the series, even though with 25 seconds left the Bulls were one made three-pointer from being in position to force yet another overtime. Otherwise, it absolutely was that compelling a round of basketball, historically speaking as well. By the time the Bulls and Celtics had played their unprecedented third overtime game of the series, people were wondering openly whether the two teams were producing the best opening-round series in the history of the league. After a triple-overtime Game 6 in Chicago, the talk was whether it was the greatest series ever . . . of any kind, in any round.

Celtics Coach Doc Rivers was about the only person connected with the series who couldn't see how it had seduced basketball fans everywhere. "I didn't see 'great,' " Rivers said, "I saw 'hard.' I'm serious, that's what I saw; 'difficult' . . . but not 'great.' "

But Rivers, who grew up in Chicago idolizing Bulls stars of the 1970s, such as Jerry Sloan and Norm Van Lier, walked into his office about an hour after Game 7, where his brother Grady told him what everybody else had seen and felt. "My brother told me I need to sit down this summer, turn on the DVR and watch the whole thing with a couple of my boys," Doc Rivers said, smiling. "I guess I'll have to take him up on that."

Most people, even hardcore hoops junkies, now agree that Bulls-Celtics is the greatest first-round series in league history. But best series ever? No. There simply wasn't enough at stake. And posing the question means people, as we tend to do these days, have forgotten or don't know about too many great series. The recently retired Jalen Rose, now working as an analyst for ESPN, tag-teamed with ESPN's ace researcher Lisa Brooks the other night because Rose was convinced people were overlooking too many great basketball series, such as . . .

-- The 1981 Eastern Conference finals between the Celtics and 76ers that produced five games decided by one or two points, including the Celtics' three consecutive wins after coming from a three-games-to-one deficit to win the series. The Celtics, led by Larry Bird's late bank shot, won Game 7 by a single point.

-- The 1987 Eastern Conference finals between the Celtics and Pistons when "Bird stole the ball" from Isiah Thomas to win Game 5 in a series Boston won in seven.

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