By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
The NBA Playoffs have reached Level Two, with most teams (including the Celtics) clearing the first stage swiftly and decisively. Only the Nuggets and Spurs went to seven games. While going the distance in a series isn’t a prerequisite for watchability, it usually indicates something special between the combatants.
In a recent podcast on The Ringer, Bill Simmons and Ryen Russillo made their cases for and against moving the first round back to a best-of-five, which was standard practice before 2003. While that will never happen - what owner doesn’t enjoy additional gate receipts? - the old format at least seemed tighter and less predictable. Making the Celtics play four games to broomstick the Pacers just delayed the inevitable.
But 10 years ago, two teams - the Celtics and Chicago Bulls - produced what season ticket holder and erstwhile hoops podcaster Padraic O’Connor described to me as “the reason the first round is best-of-seven.”
Four games went to overtime - one to double-OT and another to triple - with five remarkable contests decided by just a single basket. Added O’Connor, “If there’s even a prayer a first round series will be this good, you have to take it.”
The 2008-09 Celtics were probably the lost team of the most recent Big Three era. Everyone remembers the 2008 edition, and with good reason. The 2010 team got to the bitter brink of hoisting another trophy. But a 27-2 start for the '08-'09 team was perhaps the apex for that period of Celtics basketball. By the All-Star break, the grinding in Kevin Garnett’s knees closed that window, and the Green finished with a somehow-anticlimactic 62 wins and the No. 2 seed in the East.
The scene was set for Boston, still buoyed by multiple Hall of Famers, to either tiptoe past the upstart Bulls on the way to more meaningful pursuits, or fall flat on their faces against the soon-to-be-crowned Rookie of the Year in Derrick Rose. What happened was squarely in between, and the thrill is in the details.
Game 1: The Bulls stole one, 105-103 in overtime at TD Garden behind 36 points and 11 assists from Rose.
There was a time Derrick Rose was the Giannis of point guards: A complete athletic freak with no jumper to speak of who seemingly got to the basket at will.
In Game 1, Rose “shot rain drops over towering multi-man walls. He moved past green monsters at will, performing graduate dissertations in lane-dicing too quickly to be appreciated by the human eye.” So wrote prolific hoops scribe and Bulls fan John Wilmes in the "The Longest Series Ever Played", about observing the series from his perch in Iowa City, some 1,200 miles by car from the dingy living room O’Connor and I occupied a few blocks from the Quincy shoreline.
Rushing the Game 1 stage to announce his presence with authority, Rose was like a musclebound Iverson ready to take over the league.
Simmons gushed. “The ceiling has been removed…I am prepared for anything over the next 12 years. Anything."
Well, the next 10 would include an MVP award, the disintegration of his knees, a bizarre rape trial, and eventually, five different employers over a span of four seasons.
I don’t know if anybody was prepared for that.
The sky wasn’t exactly the limit for Tyrus Thomas, the former top five pick (and Big Baby teammate) out of LSU who never quite seemed to grow into the 6-foot-9 space he occupied on the hardwood. But he played out of his mind down the stretch in Game 1 and hit a 20-footer to clinch the game in OT.
Game 2: The Celtics bounced back on Patriots’ Day in Boston, with Ray Allen rebounding from a 1-for-12 performance in the opening contest with 30 points and the game-winning three. Ben Gordon poured in an astounding 42 in the loss.
A bunch of people ran the marathon. The Red Sox throttled the Orioles 12-1 at Fenway. The Bruins dispatched the Canadiens to take a commanding 3-0 lead in their Stanley Cup Playoff series. Allen held up his end of the bargain. But Gordon tried his darnedest to spoil the Patriots’ Day sweep.
“It’s Gordon I remember most,” Wilmes told 985TheSportsHub.com. “Making impossible shots, finding space where there wasn’t any, and grabbing his nuts on network television.”
With Rose stepping back in Game 2, the former UConn star constantly rained buckets with multiple defenders draped over him.
“I always thought we had a chance to win any game (with Gordon)…I think he’s one of the more under-appreciated scorers the league has seen.”
Detroit’s Joe Dumars appreciated Gordon to the tune of $55 million that summer, which means this series, in which he averaged 24 points per game, would be his Chicago swan song.
Oh, and by the way, following a 29-point Game 1, Rajon Rondo submitted his first of two triple-doubles in the series, as KG unleashed a torrent of encouraging profanities from the sidelines.
I asked Wilmes how much he hated Rondo during those seven games - not just for his superlative play, but for his extracurriculars.
“I actually hated Ray Allen the most because he was hurting us the most…as for Rondo…I honestly appreciate anyone - friend or foe - who leans into the kayfabe-trolling theatricality of playoff basketball.”
A reasoned approach. Meanwhile, I was busy designating villains from my Quincy couch in a game the Celtics won. And the series hadn’t even really gotten started.
Game 3: The Celtics scored the only blowout win, 107-86, to take the game at the United Center and grab a 2-1 series lead.
Rondo followed up his triple-double with this line: 20 points, 11 boards, six assists and five steals.
Simmons put this out there: "We always hear about ‘The Big Three,’ but Rondo might be the most compelling story on the 2008-09 Celtics: a very good point guard with a chance to be superb. Can he get there? Stay tuned."
He also predicted Rondo-Rose as the Eastern Conference equivalent of the Chris Paul-Deron Williams debate that consumed point guard aficionados for half a decade. Who knew that neither would be able to sustain the peak they hinted at in this seven-game series? And more than just shredded knees were to blame.
“What happened?” asked my wife, an astute basketball observer herself, as we watched clips of the series on YouTube - Rondo in constant motion, emerging from clouds of red and white with the ball and a clear path to the basket.
I couldn’t answer her. There are too many layers, avenues of reasoning that result in inadvertent slandering of either Rondo or Allen. So I just leave it alone. It’s easier that way.
Game 4: Rondo triple-doubled again, with Rose coming a single assist shy of his own. Allen and Gordon engaged in a late-game shootout, with Boston’s former UConn standout forcing overtime and the Windy City’s version pushing it to double-OT. The Bulls prevailed, 121-118.
Chicago could have folded after Game 3. Instead, they turned this into the series nobody expected.
“NBA fans and media love to anoint a player or team at the time of their choosing,” O’Connor observed. “Rose and the baby Bulls showed up early.”
“It was super team against rookie shoe salesman and a team that was two years away from being two years away.”
We haven’t even mentioned the fact that Luol Deng, perhaps the most recognizable Bull before Rose’s arrival, wasn’t even healthy for this series. As Wilmes noted, several key components - Gordon, Thomas, John Salmons (more on him later), Brad Miller and coach Vinny Del Negro - would be gone by the time Chicago challenged Miami for Eastern supremacy a few years down the road.
In the interim, Game 4 moved even more eyeballs to what was developing into a classic confrontation.
“The following games took shape as a preposterously swelling opera, each act more overdone than the last,” Wilmes wrote.
"It was as if they were built to fight each other."
Game 5: They go to overtime again, with Boston prevailing by a 106-104 margin. Paul Pierce avenges a miscue at the end of Game 4 with a vintage closing stretch.
Pierce was a stabilizing force in the series for the Celtics. Despite evidence of age and wear that manifested in the limited lift that defined the latter stages of his career, he scored between 18 and 29 points in each contest.
Salmons - a fine player who rarely gets mentioned anymore - made life difficult for Pierce, including a game-ending swat to ice Game 4 at the United Center. Pierce responded back on the Garden parquet by sending the game to overtime, then nailing three step-back jumpers in OT, each of the variety where Salmons knew exactly what was coming, but there was no way he could stop it.
Pierce was just that great at his craft. Better than Dwyane Wade, even.
Oh yeah, and Rondo hacked the crap out of Miller at the end of OT on a play that unquestionably would have been deemed a flagrant foul today. Miller blew the free throws.
Game 6: The climax of the series, a triple-overtime thriller. Ray Allen poured in 51 points, joining Bob Cousy, Sam Jones, the recently departed John Havlicek, and eventually Isaiah Thomas as the only Celtics to drop 50 in the postseason. But the Bulls prevailed, 128-127.
Rondo was at it again in Game 6. Depending on who you ask, he either body checked Kirk Hinrich into the scorer’s table or just let the overzealous Kansas product’s momentum carry him out of bounds. Either way, Hinrich responded as pugilist, with a referee shielding the prospective combatants from any actual harm to be incurred by their posturing.
Despite being down eight with under two minutes to play in regulation, the Bulls forced OT, with Miller contributing two key baskets down the stretch. Salmons had possibly the best game of his career, posting 35 points in nearly 60 minutes of court time.
Allen was my favorite Celtic of this era. Go ahead, sue me. But he was an absolute maniac of preparation who, when it all came together, made incredible things look easy. It was impossible to not appreciate the result. Game 6 was a case study. As normal beings glued to TV screen, we were reaching the limits of our sanity. But Allen forced triple OT with an off-balance dart over the outstretched arm of Hinrich. Of course he did. Ray was an alien.
Amidst so many perimeter and foul line-extended exploits, we haven’t said much about the big men. Game 6 highlighted both Joakim Noah and Kendrick Perkins, both of whom averaged double-doubles and combined to swat 35 shots across the seven games.
Perk put up 16 points and 19 rebounds in this one, with seven blocks. But it was Noah, long before he put the Bulls on his back out of necessity and nearly won the 2014 MVP award, plying his trade as professional irritant, stealing both ball and game away from Pierce and the Green, icing the contest with a thunderous dunk.
Game 7: Despite being completely fried after the Game 6 defeat, the Celtics rebounded on their home floor, 109-99 to take the instant-classic series 4-3.
Of course the Bulls kept the outcome in doubt for much of the second half.
Eddie House had 16 points in the clincher.
I’m completely exhausted from writing this, and I didn’t even mention the contributions of a Boston bench anchored by a man with a star tattooed on the side of his face (Stephon Marbury), another who had dozens of pet snakes (Mikki Moore), and Brian Scalabrine, who contributed a cool eight points in the deciding game. I’m a sucker for nostalgia, but revisiting this series exceeded my recommended daily allowance.
Ten years have passed. Our heroes retired. The boundless promise of nascent NBA careers went by the wayside, while others reached their logical conclusions. The John Havlicek news stunk. For all we’ve lost, we’ve gained a lot, I’m reminded, as I watch my one-year old son stir on the baby monitor.
Stripping away 10 years reveals a more vulnerable version of me, both as a human and sports fan, and boy, did this series leave a mark.
Padraic and I didn’t watch that series. We ached it. He just texted me. “In my memory, this series lasted for six months, was a best-of-82, and the Celtics barely squeaked by, winning narrowly, 42-40.”
When I reminded him of the anxiety that permeated our apartment for those two weeks (or six months) of 2009, he responded, "yeah, but it was the kind of anxiety you crave."
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can follow him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.