Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The Making of a Great Playoff Series:
Celtics-Bulls in Perspective

The thrilling, instant-classic Celtics-Bulls playoff series is justifiably being considered to be among the best playoff series in NBA history.

Do I think Celtics-Bulls was the best series in NBA Playoffs history? Certainly not, there was simply not enough at stake - I would rate Celtics-Sixers '81, Celtics-Lakers '84 and Mavs-Spurs '06, for starters, as clearly better.

Do I think Celtics-Bulls was the best first-round series in NBA history? Quite possibly, and perhaps even probably. It's just so hard to remember the details of specific series going way back to yesteryear.

Let's just say that I include Celtics-Bulls pretty much at the top of my favorite first-round series dating back to when the playoffs expanded to 16 teams in 1984, a list comprised of the following:
    Nets-Sixers 1984
    Knicks-Pistons 1984
    Bulls-Cavs 1989
    Celtics-Pacers 1991
    Suns-Lakers 1993
    Jazz-Kings 1999
    Mavs-Jazz 2001
    Warriors-Mavs 2007
    Celtics-Bulls 2009
I offer quick breakdowns of those series below, but first of all, let's do a deeper breakdown of the Celtics-Bulls series in a wider context. Let me preface this by saying: I thought Celtics-Bulls was awesome. I loved watching it from start to finish, and it featured some of the most exciting basketball games I've ever seen.

By bringing up some potential reasons why it was maybe not the best series ever, I am not trying to take the fun out of the series or to try to argue that it was anything less than awesome. I just think that if you're considering whether it was the greatest first-round series ever, well, that's a pretty high standard to meet, first of all, and I think that the wider context does matter when considering that kind of lofty standard. I'm just trying to have to fun with the topic, really, so remember: Celtics-Bulls was awesome.

With that in mind, here are some of my pro and con points regarding Celtics-Bulls as an all-time great series:

Pro: Competitiveness
Obviously, what Celtics-Bulls had going for it more than anything else was the staggeringly competitive and back-and-forth nature of the ballgames, with 7 overtime periods in 7 games and an unreal 108 lead changes over the course of the series, with about 107 of those seeming to come in 4th quarters or overtimes (or 2nd or 3rd overtimes!).

One of the few that didn't go to OT, Game 2, was decided by a last-second Ray Allen three, and even Game 3, a 21-point Celtics win, was compelling for the way Paul Pierce and the C's came to Chicago so determined to recapture home-court advantage.

Con: Quality of Teams
All that said, I couldn't shake the observation that these two teams, as constituted during the series, were both pretty flawed and that the series got a bit sloppy at times, often due to poor execution/coaching. Doug Collins noted on the Game 7 broadcast that this was really more of a 4-5 series than a 2-7, and I agree.

I think Chicago was actually better than its 41-41 record. They were 16-11 after the Salmon/Miller trade, the equivalent of a 49-win team, and that's about what they looked like to me.

Meanwhile, without Kevin Garnett and Leon Powe, Boston was significantly worse than its 62-20 record. I'd say that they looked more like a 50-win team. That seems fair - how can you say these teams were anything but evenly matched? It's ultimately not a terrible thing, I guess, but it relates to the next "Con" below....

Pro: Champs on the Ropes
One of the great playoff storylines across all sports is when a defending or former champion is fighting to stay alive, seemingly on heart and memory alone. Certainly, that attribute was wholly on display thanks to the gritty Celtics, not just old vets Pierce and Allen, but also guys like Perkins, Big Baby, and Rondo, who seemed to be applying their championship experience even at their young ages, as they defended the crown with vigor.

It's also always a nice contrast to have the vets of a championship team trying to hold off a team and turn back time against some young upstarts trying to make their name and establish their team, as was seen in this series. Time will tell if this was actually a first step toward greater things for these Bulls.

Con: Upsetting the Apple Cart of the Playoffs
Ideally to me, a great first-round series has a larger impact on the Playoffs as a whole, on influencing which teams ultimately compete for the championship. I think that many people viewed this series as a potentially big upset b/c it was a 2-7 series. As noted above, I felt that, with these rosters, this was a 4-5 series between two evenly-matched teams.

I'm sorry, but, without KG, Boston is not that good. They're good, but clearly not championship-caliber. I think they'll be handled fairly easily by the Magic. Ultimately, I think Celtics-Bulls will not have a larger impact on the Playoffs - they were basically competing to get wiped out by Orlando.

Contrast that to a 67-win Mavs team getting knocked out in the first round, or the top-seeded Suns in 1993, who eventually made the Finals, fighting for their playoff lives in the first round.

I do think that this factor will lessen the impact of this series in memory over time.

Pro: Great Individual Performances
What can you say here? Several different players turned in performances for the ages. There was Derrick Rose announcing his presence with authority with 36 points and 11 assists in his rookie debut in Game 1. There was the UConn shootout in Game 2, with Ben Gordon hitting for 42 as Ray Allen scored 28 of 30 in the second half (and Rajon Rondo posted a 19-12-16). There was the point guard duel in Game 4: Rose (23-11-9) v. Rondo (25-11-11). And, of course, there was Ray Allen's 51 points on 9 threes in 59 minutes in the epic Game 6. Rondo went for an incredible 19-9-12 for the entire series.

On top of that, there were several game-winning and game-tying shots in the waning seconds along the way, not to mention several outstanding individual plays in the clutch, such as Joakim Noah's coast-to-coast drive in Game 6 - probably the play of the series - or Rose's last-second block on Rondo in the same game.

Con: Superstar Presence Gets an Asterisk
All that said, I couldn't shake the sense of the impact that KG had on the series by being relegated to a guy making faces and saying bad words in a suit on the sidelines. Of course, if he had been able to play, this series likely wouldn't have even been close.

But, on top of that, most of the playoff series which retain their place in memory over time are ones with a superstar imprint on the series, and this series had its superstar sidelined due to injury. One of the main reasons, for example, that the Bulls-Cavs '89 series has retained and enhanced its place in memory was because "The Shot" was a key moment in the narrative of Michael Jordan's career.

Pro: Good From Game 1/Classic Game 6
I think that an underrated factor in a great playoff series is when a series grabs your attention right from Game 1, often because the underdog serves notice by stealing Game 1 on the favorite's home floor.

This is why I think that the historic Nuggets-Sonics series in 1994 was not a truly great series. The Sonics won the first two games in ho-hum fashion, and everyone expected them to cruise. Even after Denver won Game 3, no one expected them to win. It wasn't until Shawn Kemp missed two FTs that would have sealed the game late in Game 4 did it seem like the Nuggets even had a chance to win the series. In many ways, the drama of the series didn't start until the end of Game 4.

Meanwhile, Bulls-Celtics was certainly compelling right from Game 1 with Chicago grabbing the home-court advantage in dramatic fashion.

Additionally, the series was blessed with a single classic game in the epic triple-overtime Game 6, which Chicago won 128-127.

Con: Game 7 Was Only OK
How important is it to have a great decisive Game 7 (or Game 5, in first-round history)? A great decisive game can lift a series to another level. The Celtics-Bulls Game 7 was certainly OK rather than great. While it may lessen the quality of the series overall by a notch, the consistency of greatness in Games 1-6 was so high that the relative weakness of its Game 7 probably doesn't affect it too much.

A series can also be taken to another level if it is part of a rivalry that builds over a few years, as we've seen with Celtics-Sixers, Celtics-Lakers, Bulls-Knicks, Kings-Lakers and many others over the years. This Celtics-Bulls series does not have a rivalry behind it (though these are now two of the most storied franchises in the league) - I'd take points off in terms of overall series, but most great first-round series have not been part of larger rivalries.

So, all that said, taking in the pros and cons of different factors related to Celtics-Bulls both in a wider context and in and of itself, I think the series scores very high. Certainly, it's a very rare series that can nail *all* the factors that I've described (maybe only Celtics-Sixers '81 in the post-merger NBA).

I think that most of the "Cons" I've described for Celtics-Bulls above drop the series a notch or two in the rankings of best overall series, but don't really affect the series' ranking at the very top of the best of the first round.


Here are some other capsules on some of my favorite first-round series since the playoffs went to 16 teams in 1984, chronologically:
Nets-Sixers 1984
It was assumed that the Celtics and the defending-champion Sixers were headed for their fourth Eastern Conference finals matchup in five years, before the Nets shocked them by winning the first two games at the Spectrum in Philly.

The champs fought back to win two games back in Jersey, before the Nets knocked out Moses and Dr. J with a 101-98 win in Game 5 in Philadelphia in a series where the road team won all five games. Good characters, too, with the Nets featuring ex-Sixer Darryl Dawkins, Micheal Ray Richardson, Buck Williams, Albert King and Otis Birdsong.

Knicks-Pistons 1984
Makes it largely on the strength of the otherworldly decisive Game 5, a 127-123 Knicks win OT in which Bernard King scored 44 points with two dislocated fingers to outlast the Isiah Thomas scoring spree of 16 points in 94 seconds, which brought Detroit back from an eight-point deficit in the last two minutes of regulation.

Gets bonus points and holds a special place in our heart for the images of Hubie patrolling the New York sidelines with the sweat-soaked short-sleeve button-down and Afro.

Bulls-Cavs 1989
This series was carried by the famous Game 5, which featured not only "The Shot" by Michael Jordan at the buzzer, but also three lead changes in the final seven seconds.

Game 4 wasn't too shabby, either, as Cleveland won on the road in OT, 108-105, in a game where MJ had 50 but missed a key FT down the stretch.

Certainly, the place of this series in the Jordan narrative is a key element of its appeal. Jordan was brilliant throughout the series, with 44-9-6 in Game 5 and averages of 39.8 pts, 5.8 reb and 8.2 ast overall. The Shot propelled Chicago into the second round, where they beat the Knicks and advanced to the conference finals for the first time in the Jordan era.

This series also had a little rivalry behind it, as Chicago had beaten the Cavs in 5 in 1988, and both were teams on the rise.

Celtics-Pacers 1991
Larry Bird pulls off the Willis Reed Jr. in Game 5, returning after hitting his head on the floor to spark the C's to a 127-124 win at the Garden. Lots of drama in this one, as 34-year-old Bird spent a night in traction after a 21-12-12 triple-double in Game 1. Great shootout in Game 2, as brash youngsters Chuck Person and Reggie Miller led a surprising 130-118 road win and weren't afraid to talk about it. Boston wins back home-court in Game 3 and Indiana forces a decisive Game 5 with a 116-113 win in Game 4.

Suns-Lakers 1993
This is one of my favorites, as the top-seeded Suns (62-20) experienced a rude awakening against the 39-43 Lakers (with Showtimers Worthy, Scott and Green reaching back for a last hurrah), who shockingly stole Games 1 and 2 in Phoenix.

The Chuckster and friends such as rookie Oliver Miller righted the ship by taking two back at the Forum, but then had to fight to hold off the Lakers in OT, 112-104, back at home in Game 5.

Jazz-Kings 1999
The confluence of the decline of the two-time defending conference champion Jazz and the rise of the exuberant Kings of the early 2000s. In this case, Utah held off Sacramento in a series where four of the five games went down to the final minute, including Game 5, which Utah won in OT after Vlade Divac missed a hook shot at the end of regulation. The Jazz stayed alive in Game 4 on a last-second shot by John Stockton to win at Arco Arena.

Mavs-Jazz 2001
Same contrast of old-and-new as above, but now the changing of the guard is officially afoot as the Mavs beat the Jazz in the full five, with Calvin Booth, of all people, providing the game-winner in Dallas' 84-83 Game 5 win. It's the first playoff appearance of one the most entertaining teams of the decade - the Nash-Dirk-Finley outfit of the Mavs - and meanwhile, Stockton-to-Malone would never win another playoff series together in Utah.

Warriors-Mavs 2007
This series is really one of a kind - it was so unique and even insane that it's really hard to compare it to others. There was a 25-game spread is wins between Dallas (67) and Golden State (42), though the injury-riddled Warriors became a much better team once they finally were able to get Davis-Richardson-Jackson all healthy and together late in the season.

The crazy thing about this series was that it wasn't that close - the wild 118-112 Dallas OT win in Game 5 was the only one that came down to the wire. Still, the three blowout Golden State wins at Oracle in Games 3-4-6 were some of the most wildly entertaining games of basketball I've ever seen, with the Warriors making spectacular plays left and right (punctuated by Baron dropping the Boom Dizzle on AK 47 - from the second-round, duh; still, there were several great plays from this series) in front of an insanely frenzied crowd that fueled the remarkable upset.

Celtics-Bulls 2009
Well, see above. Certainly holds its own among first-rounders. Probably the best of the post-merger era, though I still don't think I've ever enjoyed a first-round series more than Warriors-Mavs.

These series fall short for me:
Nuggets-Sonics 1994
For reasons described above.

Suns-Lakers 2006
Kobe's dismal Game 7 was so bad that it killed the goodwill of Games 4, 6 and beyond for me.

Any Knicks-Heat matchup
I'm sorry, my eyes still hurt from these.

What are your favorite first-round series? Which ones did I miss?


At 9:45 AM, Blogger James said...

I sort of felt like the series was kind of a consolation prize. For most of the year, it looked like we would have a fantastic eastern conference playoffs with Cleveland, Boston and Orlando duking it out for the right to throw down with LA. With Boston out of it and Orlando not looking that great, the finals seem almost pre-ordained. Getting some great series on they way is nice. Hopefully Orlando gives Cleveland a good battle (or possibly Boston gives Orlando a battle. Both those can't happen really )

At 9:47 AM, Anonymous Alec said...

I think the best first round series of all-time is fairly fitting, with the caveat that Derrick Rose becomes a superstar. History changes as time passes, and this will be seen as either a key moment in his development into a superstar, especially if he goes on to win championships. If he doesn't this series might be seen as detrimental to his confidence, or a precursor to future failings.

HOWEVER, I would like to bring up a single game, that in my mind, was easily the greatest first round game I have seen, and perhaps my favorite playoff game of all time. Round 1. Game 1. Sun-Spurs 2008. This game had everything. Rivalry. Double OT. Timmy hitting a big three. Steve Nash hitting some very clutch shots. Ginobili closing out the game. But it was a battle to determine the future of the franchise. Getting eliminated in the first round was a huge blow to the Suns, and would have been to the Spurs as well. It signaled the end of the D'Antoni era in PHX, and had major repercussions across the league. Then again, I have only been watching Basketball for since 2004, but I think we can all agree that greatest xxxx of all time is somewhat a subjective topic.

At 9:55 AM, Blogger Sean said...

Umm, a quick correction. Baron Davis Dropping the Boom-Dizzle on AK-47 actually happened in the second round against the Jazz

At 10:02 AM, Blogger M. Haubs said...

Oh crap, thanks Sean - dumb mistake by me.

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