Second Quarter Surge Propels Celtics to 109-99 Game Seven Win Over BullsThe Chicago Bulls took an early 11-4 lead but the Boston Celtics weathered that storm, seized control of the game by closing out the first half with a 22-2 run to take a 52-38 lead and held on to earn a 109-99 game seven victory. Ray Allen led the Celtics with 23 points, while Paul Pierce had 20 points, nine rebounds and four assists, though he shot just 6-17 from the field. Rajon Rondo finished with seven points, 11 assists, five rebounds, three steals and two blocked shots, narrowly missing in his bid to join the select group of players who have averaged a triple double for an entire playoff series (he averaged 19.4 ppg, 11.6 apg and 9.3 rpg). Eddie House added 16 points and made all five of his shots--including four three pointers--as Boston's bench outplayed Chicago's bench for the first time this series. Ben Gordon scored a game-high 33 points and made all 15 of his free throws but he shot just 7-23 from the field. Derrick Rose had 18 points, four rebounds and three assists.
It is fitting that Gordon was the Bulls' leading scorer, because shot selection was a major theme in this game: when the Celtics broke the game open they were shooting layups, open jumpers and free throws while the Bulls were shooting contested, off balance shots or simply turning the ball over without even getting a shot off at all. TNT's Doug Collins compared Gordon to Collins' former teammate Andrew Toney but I have to respectfully disagree with Collins: Toney shot .500 from the field during his regular season career and shot .478 from the field in the playoffs--and those percentages were dragged down by games he played after suffering the foot injuries that ultimately prematurely ended his career. Toney averaged 24.4 ppg in two NBA Finals appearances--the 12th best NBA Finals scoring average ever--while shooting .490 from the field. Toney was a Hall of Fame caliber talent, though he did not play long enough to put together a Hall of Fame resume; Gordon is a dynamic streak shooter (.437 career regular season field goal percentage, .403 career playoff field goal percentage, .388 field goal percentage versus the Celtics in the first round) in the Vinnie Johnson mold but even Johnson (.464 career regular season field goal percentage, .453 career playoff field goal percentage) shot markedly better than Gordon does. Gordon is a much better free throw shooter than Toney or Johnson, so the major difference between him and those guys is that they had better shot selection. Also, even though Gordon has an impressively sculpted physique, Toney and Johnson were much more effective at using their strength to go inside and score in the paint, even against players who were much taller. As TNT's Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith noted after the game, Gordon previously turned down a deal that would have paid him $11 million per year, so the Bulls face a major, franchise altering decision now that Gordon is a free agent again: how much money should they spend to keep a player who is best suited to being a spark plug off of the bench? Gordon thinks that he should be a starting shooting guard earning starting shooting guard money but if the Bulls want to contend for a championship some day then they need for Gordon to accept being a sixth man earning sixth man money so that they have enough cap space to complete their roster; it is not likely that a team will win a championship with a starting shooting guard who is listed at 6-3 but is closer to 6-0, particularly when that player does not create scoring opportunities for his teammates, plays little defense and shoots in the low .400s.
With the injured Kevin Garnett out of the equation, the Bulls' big men were able to hold their own versus the Celtics' frontcourt for most of the series; the difference ultimately proved to be Pierce and Allen and that is how things should be: they are future Hall of Famers, which is something that cannot be said at this point about any of Chicago's players (Rose is a wonderful talent but he cannot be called a future Hall of Famer after one good season). If the Celtics had lost this series despite having homecourt advantage and a significant edge in playoff experience then fingers would rightly be pointed at the two healthy members of Boston's Big Three, particularly 2008 Finals MVP Pierce; you cannot mouth off last summer about being the best player in the NBA and then get outplayed--or even played to a draw--by John Salmons. Pierce had his ups and downs during this series--and certainly did nothing to convince any objective observer that he should be in the same discussion with LeBron James and Kobe Bryant--but he ultimately did just enough to help his team advance, averaging 23.1 ppg, 6.9 rpg and 2.0 apg while shooting .427 from the field. Salmons, who did not play well in game seven (12 points on 3-12 shooting), averaged 18.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg and 2.3 apg in the series while shooting .401 from the field. Allen was horrible in game one (four points on 1-12 shooting as the Celtics surrendered home court advantage) but he played well for the most part the rest of the way, highlighted by a dazzling playoff career-high 51 point outburst in Boston's game six loss and his very steady performance in game seven. Allen averaged 23.4 ppg, 3.1 rpg and 2.1 apg while shooting .451 from the field during the series. It should go without saying--but I'll say it anyway--that the numbers that Pierce and Allen put up would be considered subpar performances for James and Bryant; can you imagine the uproar that would be sounded if Bryant shot .427 from the field while only averaging 2.0 apg in a series versus a .500 team? The standard that is set and met on a nightly basis by James and Bryant is so much higher than even the standard for future Hall of Famers like Pierce and Allen that it does not even make sense to seriously compare Boston's duo with the two best players in the league.
In my preview of this weekend's two game sevens I wrote, "Game sevens on the road have historically been tantamount to death in the NBA--particularly for young teams that have little playoff experience--and even when earlier games in a series have been close there is a tendency for game seven momentum to snowball into a rout." When the Celtics blitzed the Bulls late in the first half, I fully expected Chicago to get blown out in the second half, so the Bulls deserve credit for finding their bearings at halftime and staying competitive the rest of the way. On the other hand, before anyone gets overly enthusiastic about Chicago's future prospects two things are worth remembering: 1) in 2007 the Bulls swept the defending champion Heat in the first round but the nucleus of that team was never heard from again, with Coach Scott Skiles eventually being fired and other key players either being traded (Ben Wallace, Chris Duhon, Andres Nocioni) or sitting out the Boston series due to injury (Luol Deng); 2) considering how close these games were there is every reason to believe that if Garnett had been healthy the Celtics would have won this series easily and very possibly could have swept the Bulls. Garnett's presence would have shut down the middle defensively and his screens would have made life a lot easier for Pierce and Allen.
I don't know how big a deal the mainstream media will make about a mistake that happened during this game but the NBA is surely very relieved that the Celtics won by a comfortable margin--not because the league office favors any one team over another but rather because if this game had been closer then that would have greatly magnified the significance of a scorekeeping error committed early in the game but not corrected until the fourth quarter. At the 8:32 mark of the first quarter, Gordon hit a jumper from well behind the three point line but the Bulls were only awarded two points. By rule, the referees can consult the video to review such plays at the next timeout and they did just that; according to the NBA, the referees ruled that the shot was indeed a three pointer but somehow this was not communicated to the scorekeeper. Apparently, no one realized this until the 5:44 mark of the fourth quarter, when the referees consulted with the league office, were informed that they had the power to correct this mistake and then added one point to Chicago's total, making the score 89-84 Boston. Gordon made two free throws to cut the lead to three but that was as close as the Bulls would get, so the scorekeeping mistake did not change the outcome of the game but afterwards Kenny Smith made two very important points: 1) The NBA set a precedent in this situation by making a correction long after the original mistake happened; 2) such a correction could have a significant impact on the outcome of a closer game by making a two possession game become a one possession game, thus altering the strategies for both teams. Smith asked what if any rule the NBA has in place regarding how much time can elapse before an error can no longer be corrected. My understanding of the NBA's rule about these situations is that such plays are supposed to be reviewed at the first timeout after they happen and that any corrections are supposed to be made at that time, not later. The statement that the NBA issued right after this game ended--as read on air by TNT's Ernie Johnson--indicated that the correct procedure had been followed, the referees ruled that the score should be changed but that there was a communication breakdown. In other words, the referees did not make a new ruling in the fourth quarter but simply made sure that their original ruling was enacted. This begs all sorts of questions. It is reasonable to wonder, as Charles Barkley did, how anyone could not have seen that Gordon's shot was a three pointer: Gordon was well behind the line. Furthermore, how could such a glaring communication error happen at all, let alone in such a critically important game? How could the referees not notice that one point had not been added to Chicago's score after they reviewed the play? It would also be interesting to know when and how exactly the referees did become aware of this. That communication error really put the league office in a no win situation, because if they stuck to the letter of the law then they would have robbed the Bulls of a point but by making a change so long after the fact they did indeed open up a Pandora's box, as Smith suggested. I suspect that NBA Commissioner David Stern will be issuing a statement of his own about this in short order and that the league will have to clarify this rule as well as institute some kind of back up communication procedure to make sure that nothing like this ever happens again.
posted by David Friedman @ 1:57 AM