The best NBA first-round playoff series this side of ever finally came to a reluctant end Saturday evening as the Boston Celtics cut the Chicago Bulls into Game 7 sushi rolls. The C's won 109-99 and move to the Eastern Conference semis against Orlando. The B's return to Chicago, but with their heads in the raised position.
Anticlimactic? Sure, but only because there's almost no way this series could have sustained its historic pace. It would have been like running 2-minute miles for the entire Boston Marathon.
But it tried. Seven games, seven overtime periods. Just one blowout. There were stitches, bloody towels, pain-killing injections, shoves, flagrants, technicals. More ice was used in this series than at a 3-for-1 Happy Hour.
Afterward, in a hallway just outside the Celtics' locker room, Boston coach Doc Rivers, wearing his shamrock cuff links, and Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro exchanged hugs. It was a respect thing.
"Helluva series," Rivers said to the rookie coach. "Helluva job. Trade all those guys away. I don't want to see them anymore."
Rivers is right; the Bulls weren't much fun to play. And they're only going to get better. But the Celtics didn't win a championship by accident last season. They're world-class grinders, and that's what they did Saturday night -- they paper-cutted the Bulls to playoff death.
Trying to put this particular best-of-seven into quick historical perspective is a little tricky. Celtics captain Paul Pierce said it was "one of the most mentally tough series I've ever had to deal with." Rivers added, "I didn't see great. I just saw hard."
It was great and hard. Just because it was a first-round series doesn't lessen how compelling it was.
"I tip my hat off to the Bulls," Pierce said. "You didn't really expect them to come in and play the way they did throughout the whole seven games. We expected them to play hard. They really pushed us to the limit. This was a great, great series. Thank goodness we were battle tested. Next year, I was telling some of the [Bulls], if they bring that team back and get [Luol] Deng healthy, they're going to be tough to beat."
Rivers quickly corrected Pierce.
"The Bulls were phenomenal in this series," he said. "The coaches did expect them to be very good, and they were."
These aren't the two best teams in the league. I'm not sure the Celtics are even the second-best team in the East -- not with Kevin Garnett and his injured knee stuck on the bench and in street clothes. But criticizing the quality of this series because the teams were equally matched is like criticizing Angelina Jolie because her lips are too pouty.
Anyway, on behalf of anybody with a pulse, I'd like to thank the Bulls and Celtics for turning an opening-round series into a symposium on basketball classics. I might frame my media pass.
After all, how can you not appreciate a series in which we saw the future (the Bulls' Derrick Roseand the Celtics' Rajon Rondo), the present (the Celtics' Ray Allen and the Bulls' John Salmons) and the past (Ben Gordon, if -- and management would be nuts not to -- the Bulls don't re-sign the unrestricted free agent)? It was hyper-intense, hyper-chippy and hyper-compelling.
Even Celtics announcer and local legend Tommy Heinsohn got into it. When a sideline reporter informed Heinsohn that the Bulls' Joakim Noah had soured on Garnett, Heinsohn growled to viewers, "Go back to France."
Uh, Tommy, Noah was born in New York City. But you get the point.
There was mutual distaste and mutual respect by the end of these seven games. Both the Celtics and the Bulls knew they had been part of something extraordinary.
"I definitely think it was one of the best series ever," said Gordon, who scored 33 in the loss. "If it was any other round, it could easily be THE best ever."
Gordon played a lot this series with a bad hammy. He and Allen spent most of those seven games hitting shots from the four ends of the Earth. And on Saturday night, Celtics reserveEddie House joined in, making treys from everywhere, including just inches from the Bulls' bench, with Chicago reserves standing up behind and screaming in his ear. Didn't matter. House was 4-for-4 on 3-pointers.
The Celtics needed everybody and everything (home-court advantage) to subdue the Bulls. House scored 16 off the bench. Brian Scalabrine had eight points. Milk-carton candidate Stephon Marbury actually provided something close to quality minutes. Mikki Moore scored four points in his 2 minutes, 39 seconds of play.
The Bulls, who led early, did what they could, but a comatose second quarter sort of did them in. Boston outscored them 29-11 in the quarter.
"We gave them a run," Rose said of Chicago's second-half charge.
They'll give the league more than that next season. But for now, this series will have to get them through the summer.
"If the whole team is back, it will give us a full year to really jell," said Gordon, who said he'd like to return, huge long-term deal permitting. "I think we'll continue to get better, and we'll have a way better season than we did this year."