The Celtics held off the feisty Bulls, 109-99, on Saturday to advance in the Eastern Conference playoffs in what has to be one of the best and most hard fought series in recent memory. Four games went into overtime to be decided including an incredible three-overtime thriller the Bulls won to stave off elimination at home. This series was a thrill-a-minute battle between the veteran champion Celtics and the young and hungry Bulls, a recipe that usually results in blowout wins by the champs. But not this series. Chicago was unquestionably the Celtics equal for at least this series. The young Bulls, led by rookie coach Vinnie Del Negro, showed poise beyond their years and made it known they will be a force in the East in the future.
Six Bulls averaged double figures in the series, led by Ben Gordon's 24 points and rookie Derrick Rose's 19. Joakim Noah averaged an impressive 10 points and 13 rebounds.
The Celtics won the series without star Kevin Garnett, sidelined indefinitely with what I am hearing from inside sources is an infected knee. Will he be ready for Orlando? Only time will tell.
The road for the champs gets no easier as the Magic are every bit as formidable as the Bulls, but a balanced inside-outside game led by all-world Dwight Howard, who averaged 24 points and 16 rebounds in the Philly series. Playoff-tested Rashard Lewis adds veteran leadership.
The Boston/Orlando series could be another instant classic, especially if Garnett is healthy and available. As a former fan, who has dismissed the NBA since the disappearance of the Seattle Supersonics, I found myself drawn into the Bulls/Celtics series and could not turn away. I am not a fan of either team and perhaps my indifference to the teams allowed me to enjoy the actual competition with an unbiased view. Deep down I never thought the Celtics would lose the series as that would erase the coveted Lakers/Celtics matchup in the finals you known the NBA is drooling over. I can already see the predictable marketing onslaught of the Coast-to-Coast rematch and the plundering of the historic Bird/Magic years to build interest in it.
Truth is there is no natural connection between those two dynasties anymore. The NBA is in a completely different era - forced to pimp itself to stay topical. Back in the Bird/Magic days the natural momentum and competition drove the league. Bird, magic, Barkley, Malone, Olajuwon, Payton. It just doesn't feel like that anymore. It all seems...forced. I will be stunned if the Lakers and Celtics do not meet up in the finals. Not because I view them as the best teams, although they arguably are, but because it's the textbook matchup the NBA needs. It's the obvious sequel. Sadly, the league seems less about the game and more about the business anymore.
Anyway, thank you Boston and Chicago for a very memorable match-up. Truly one for the vaults. Probably already re-running the games on ESPN's Instant Classic series.