Bulls and Celtics Heading For Game 4 Showdown


Apr 25

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It was the second consecutive practice day Saturday for the Bulls in their opening round playoff series with the Boston Celtics, which meant Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro was going to note the Celtics still had outworked and outplayed the Bulls and had more energy and more, and I’d be nodding off about this time…

So I decided to undertake a mission to Celtics practice at DePaul.

Unfortunately, I have to report they didn’t seem particularly nervous, though Celtics coach Doc Rivers was angry.

Before addressing reporters’ questions, Rivers said he had something he wanted to straighten out.

OK, here it comes. Forget the old NBA bromide of the series doesn’t get started until someone loses at home. The series gets started when someone is upset. The refs? Illegal screens? Noah’s hair?

“First,” said Rivers, deferring a question, “Whoever reported I wanted to go to a Cubs game, please. I read that yesterday. I almost fell out of my chair. I’m a White Sox fan through and through.”

Laughs. Like Obama? someone said.

“I was there first,” said Rivers. “He made ‘em hip.”

Yeah, those Celtics seem uptight.

So what about Rajon Rondo being carried off the floor after the Celtics Game 3 blowout win to go ahead 2-1 with Game 4 here Sunday?

The seemingly relaxed humor had to be hiding that.

So about Rondo, Doc?

“Everyone was good (and practicing) today,” said Rivers. “Him, Garnett everybody… just joking…

“Rondo went through the whole practice,” Rivers added. “He had no problems. They carried him off afterwards, but other than that he was fine….”

Ba dum!

Who are these guys?

Oh, that’s right, defending NBA champions.

Losing Kevin Garnett seemed to change everything. Until the Celtics changed everything back Thursday in the United Center in handing the Bulls one of the worst playoff losses in franchise history.

“We adjusted to being who we were rather than making big changes,” said Rivers. “We didn’t play great defensively in Games 1 and 2. Offensively, we played pretty well. That kind of became fool’s gold for us. We fell in love with the scoring a little bit and we forgot our real jobs and our identity.

“We haven’t changed our defense much,” Rivers insisted about the Bulls 86 points in Game 3 and 37.5 percent shooting. “We’re just starting to play our defense now. I was probably more upset with our team after Game 2 than I was after Game 1. Because I thought we went backward in Game 2 defensively. We won the game, but they scored 115 points in regulation. We were making up our own stuff on the fly out there. I told the guys at least (stick to our schemes to) give the coaches a chance to make an adjustment.”

Let me say this first about the Celtics. They are a pleasure to be around because of Rivers and Ray Allen. In those two they probably have the most accessible and fan friendly combination of coach and player of any team in the NBA.

Rivers generally remains in a class by himself, outgoing, smart and funny. Allen is what reporters call a go-to guy. When things go bad, he’s the one who’ll stick around to explain and enable reporters to do their job by obtaining some information and comments for the fans.

Rivers, quietly, actually, has developed into one of the fine coaches in the NBA, and if the justification for Mike Brown being coach of the year was the Cavs’ success, what happened with Rivers last year.

Here’s my Rivers story.

As a player he was like Allen, open and cooperative, but even more so. I remember calling Rivers on the road one time early in his career. Most players won’t do interviews that way. Rivers would call back.

He was relentlessly cooperative and friendly. I think I had the distinction of being the only reporter Rivers ever got mad at. It was when he was with the Knicks and I’d written something about a deal I’d heard about him going to Seattle and for some reason someone in his family was upset. I didn’t know he was upset and had gone to see him as usual when the team was in Chicago in the visitors’ locker room. I stopped him and he proceeded to tell me off, that he didn’t like the story, that his mother was upset and I better check my information. I listened and began to leave when he stopped me. ”OK,” he said, “what do you need?”

Yes, he still wanted to do the interview and help me out.

Amazing guy.

No offense to the Bulls. They have a decent bunch of guys. No real problem types. But no one who exactly captivates you.

So I wandered over to talk to Allen.

Some years back when I was president of the Basketball Writers we wanted to create an award to honor a top player who also was cooperative and open with the media and fans. We named it for Magic Johnson, the best ever in that category.

The first winner by a lot was Allen.

He’s unusually thoughtful for an athlete and can do what few athletes can, which is tell a story and relate anecdotes. This is gold for reporters. Gold, Jerry! Writers then use the trick of writing it like they were there because someone has painted the scene for them.

I got to talking with Allen about defensive rotations (talk about your complete afternoons), and here’s how he answered:

“I was riding with a cabby two days ago in Chicago. He didn’t know I was in the cab. He was driving and then stopped at a light and looked back and recognized me. He said, ‘Man, how did they leave you wide open?’

I said, ’They really didn’t leave me wide open. I was somewhat guarded, but I got the shot off in the little window I had to get it off.’

So he said, ‘But they should never have left you open. They should have had two guys on you.’

I said, ‘It’s easier said than done because there are so many things that go into that fourth quarter and the last second. This guy could have been hot and you don’t necessarily want to leave him as much. So you stick close with him. So when the guy rotates you have to make a decision, and that split second decision causes you to hesitate.’ Everybody has to be on a string. We have guys in position where they can make shots. Rondo is making shots, so when the trigger is pulled everyone has to be on the same page.”

Yes, Ray spent part of his afternoon explaining the Celtics defensive rotations to his taxi driver.

I know Kendrick Perkins can act like a fake tough guy at times and Glen “Big Baby” Davis can be a bit of a character. Though I must say you can’t get too down on a guy who says he’s “the Big Ticket stub.”

But it’s an interesting and professional group, and now they have the Big Three again.

No, not Garnett. Yet.

This Rondo guy may just make it.

In case you haven’t noticed, he’s absolutely killing the Bulls and has been the best player in the series.

Rondo is averaging 22.7 points, 10.7 rebounds and 9.7 assists.

If LeBron James were getting those numbers, ESPN would order the playoffs stopped and James nominated for sainthood.

I thought I may actually have seen Rondo in a highlight chasing Derrick Rose from behind.

I asked Rondo about this, and you know those people you see at the Westminster show who look like their dogs. Well, Rondo talks like he runs. Fast. I’d make a reference to a 78rpm record, though very few people alive anymore know what that is. Rondo has kind of a squeaky voice that’s on a fast break.

“They got to pick on somebody,” he said. “Why not the point guard?

It doesn’t make me a difference. It doesn’t bother me at all. I don’t try to prove anything to anybody.

I play for myself, the team. I don’t try to go out there and prove anything to the opposing team or the critics or the media. I hear them but it doesn’t bother me. I don’t really care.”

Yes, there’s Paul Pierce and Allen, and last year and most of this there was Garnett. And you have to pay attention to them. We keep hearing Rondo can’t shoot and he keeps making jumpers. We also hear that about Rose and he keeps making jumpers. It’s difficult to overcome a reputation, even one based on misinformation.

Rondo wasn’t a great shooter, but he clearly has worked on the shot. It looks more like some nine-year-old pushing up a too heavy ball. But it goes in.

“It’s like every game, every city you go to, it’s not the positive Rondo questions. It’s about what Rondo can’t do and what he’s not doing,” said Rivers. “And I keep saying he won a world championship at the point guard spot. He’s had an unbelievable year and we tend to want to keep picking out his flaws.

I tend to look at his brilliance of playing through those flaws. It just drives him more

“I thought it was justified last year because he hadn’t done it

,” said Rivers. “You’re not going to criticize Paul or Ray or Kevin. He must be the next guy. They say you can help off this guy but every time you do he’s hurting you. He’s so quick. I don’t think people realize how really fast he is. I think he’s played at an elite level in this playoff series. No doubt about it. He came into this playoffs with a chip because people say he only played well at home last year. You could figure getting the first one, you knew he’d have unbelievable focus.”

Most underrated in the NBA?

“I think he’s up there,” said Rivers. “Andre Miller. (They say) he can’t shoot, either. Those two guys.”

We love these lists. So the Most Underrated. We now have to take off David West who was mentioned so much he’s now overrated. And to be underrated, you have to be rated, which means a good player.

1.   Rondo.

2.   Miller.

3.   Luis Scola

4.   Jose Calderon

5.   Andris Biedrins

And I enjoyed Allen’s take.

“With myself and Paul out there, we’ve been scorers and people understand we’ve carried teams where we’ve had to score and had big numbers,” Allen said. “He hasn’t established himself as that kind of scorer. So it becomes. ‘Don’t let Paul do this. Don’t let Ray do this and we’re going to let Rondo beat us, Kendrick Perkins.’

“He has this pocket of creativity,” explained Allen. “He understands what the league has given him and he has to play within those confines. There’s the point where the league takes that away from him and he’s going to have to reinvent himself again. There are the players who don’t and they peter out. There are those who become greater and even better because they develop a better jump shot and they might now start using a left hand even more because they say he goes right. Once the league figures you out you have to figure it out more.”

You hear about the importance of veterans on your team. That’s what it means. It’s also why I think we look at Rondo and Perkins and Davis and didn’t think much of them. And now they make big plays in big moments, and you get to understand how.

“He’s a kid who thinks he knows everything, anyway,” Allen added about Rondo’s confidence. “With the three of us being talked about he needed to have his own credibility. He’s fought every day trying to get respect. ‘I can do this and I can do that and you guys aren’t going to say this about me.’ That’s the recipe for a young player like him coming to a superstar status. You have to have the fight in you.”

Someone tried to bait Allen by mentioning how Tony Parker had said a year ago Rondo was overrated. The expected remark would be something like a “Nyaah, nyaah, nyaah.”

“That’s a big compliment,” Allen said. “That means somebody is saying how good he is. Somebody is talking about him in the category of being one of the best point guards in the NBA and him being on a championship team, being the point guard everyone has to talk about him.”

It is hard to trip up these guys.

My mission wasn’t having much success.

So it’s the next must game. The Bulls need to win it or likely face Game 5 elimination in Boston.

“They’re going to respond,” said Rivers. “They’re going to give us a great effort. You know that. We know we’re going to have to play one hell of a game. We understand that. They’re going to play with as much energy as probably you’ve seen ‘em ever play with. And they’re going to try to execute some of the things they didn’t do. We have to come with that thought that we’re going to take it, take the punches and keep moving forward.”

They seem ready.

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