Game 7, the ultimate; what will the Bulls do?


May 1

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So now it’s Game 7 in this amazing NBA first round playoff series between the Bulls and Boston Celtics that no one really wants to see end.

But it will late Saturday night, and one team will be counting the what ifs and could have beens and the other trying to catch their breath and get ready for a quick turnaround with the Orlando Magic.

There is no edge in a Game 7.

The Boston Celtics will talk about the old standbys of veteran experience and having played all those tough games all season to get that deciding game at home.

“I don’t think we’re going to be a group that’s shaky or nervous. We’ve played numbers of Game 7’s,” said Paul Pierce. “And we’re on our home court and we haven’t lost a Game 7 on our court. You got to show up and play the game. It doesn’t mean anything just because we’ve been there. We’ve got to show up and play.”

The Bulls will offer that pressure relief thing, that everything is on the Celtics now. They’re the defending champions and expected to win and the Bulls have already accomplished more than anyone predicted.

“Now most of the pressure is one them,” Ben Gordon said. “They probably didn’t expect it to go this long. I think this team has a lot of confidence the way we played in their building. Every game was an opportunity to win.”

There have been 100 Game 7’s in NBA history with the road team winning 20. The Celtics are 16-3 in their Game 7’s at home. Just numbers now.

Really, few want to play a Game 7. It is a lot of pressure and demanding. You want to get these series over as soon as you can, and if the last one comes down to a final game, well so be it. But in the first round? Not really. Though with this series it could not have gone any other way.

Even for the great teams, Game 7’s are tough.

They were even some of the hardest for Michael Jordan’s dynasty Bulls teams of the 1990’s. They had just two, and both were anxious times.

The most difficult was 1998, the conference finals seven gamer with the Indiana Pacers. The Bulls lost all three games Indiana, two by two points and Game 6 by three points. Then it was back to Chicago for Game 7, where the Pacers battled all game until a crucial jump ball went the Bulls way late and the Bulls went on to escape with a brutal 88-83 victory.

The only other seven gamer in the Bulls championship years was in the 1992 conference semifinals against the Knicks. Pat Riley had just arrived and was putting together his batch of thugs and role players around Patrick Ewing. It was the series Xavier McDaniel was knocking Bulls all over the place and ended up face to face with Jordan. There were one John Starks clothesline takedown foul on Scottie Pippen that would have resulted in long suspensions now, but were just fouls then. Starks was fined $5,000 despite then league disciplinary czar Ron Thorn at the game. The Knicks were far less talented and had been swept by the Bulls in the opening round the previous season. But they slowed the Bulls into that physical, ugly, grind it out game that haunted the NBA in the mid 1990’s. But they were worn out by Game 7, and Jordan, having discussed strategy with his father, James, came out more aggressively than usual and had a big first half that blew open the game on the way to a 110-81 breather.

The Bulls have played eight playoff Game 7’s in franchise history. They are 3-5 in those seventh games. They have won the three at home and lost all five Game 7’s they’ve played on the road.

Here’s a look at those Game 7’s:

1. April 6, 1971. That first great Bulls team that never quite made it had just come together and got Wilt and the Lakers in the Western Conference semifinals. It was a wild series with coach Dick Motta getting fined $1,500 (big in those days) for alleging referee and league bias against the Bulls. Yes, it always has gone on. Wilt had a big 33 rebound game to get the Lakers there and the Lakers had a reasonably easy time of it back in L.A. with a 109-98 victory.

2. April 15, 1973. That’s the one, along with 1975, the guys from that team most remember and still talk about to this day. They had the Lakers on the ropes with a five-point lead in the last two minutes and seven with under three minutes on a Chet Walker junper to make it 90-83 when, as Bob Love remembers it, “Motta gave us the kiss of death. He had us hold the ball.” The Bulls failed to get a shot on four straight possessions and Wilt blocked a Norm Van Lier shot in the last seconds with the Bulls still ahead 92-91. Gail Goodrich turned it into a layup and the Lakers won that Western Conference semifinals 95-92.

3. April 13, 1974. It was the first great Bulls/Pistons rivalry. The Pistons had Bob Lanier and Dave Bing going at the Bulls in that Western Conference semifinal. Jerry Sloan couldn’t play that final game with a tear in his foot. The Bulls had blown a big lead in Game 6 in Detroit, but hung on in Game 7 back home for a 96-94 victory. They would be swept by Kareem and the Bucks in the next round.

4. May 14, 1975. It came a game after the famed Mother’s Day Massacre in the Western Conference finals when the Bulls had taken a 3-2 lead on Golden State and were coming home. Sloan to this day often mentions it as his most memorable game. Typical of Sloan, he remembers the loss the most. This was that team’s last run. They’d won at least 50 the previous four seasons and started slow due to contract holdouts by Love and Van Lier. They went on to win 47 games and were finishing strong. The Warriors would go on to sweep the Bullets in the Finals, and the Bulls had a stronger team as the Warriors were a bunch of role players around Rick Barry. Barry had 36 in that Game 6 and Cliff Ray, traded that season to Golden State for Nate Thurmond, shut down Thurmond and Tom Boerwinkle and the Warriors won by 14. Ray is now a Celtics assistant. The teams went back to Golden State and the Bulls led most of the game. But Barry got hot late with guys like George Johnson making key plays and the Warriors pulled out an 83-79 victory.

5. June 3, 1990. It was Bulls/Pistons Part II in that Eastern Conference finals. The Bulls were coming, perhaps a bit like now, and the Pistons were hanging on, going for their second straight title but aging. The Bulls had the young legs and pushed the Pistons. They knew every game they could get above 100 they’d win. They scored 107, 108 and 109 in the three wins in Chicago. Back in Detroit for Game 7, that was the famous Scottie Pippen migrane headache with the notorious picture of Pippen on the bench before the game with a towel draped over his head. Pippen would play 40 minutes, and the game was close most of the first half. But the Pistons then pulled away for a 93-74 victory. The Bulls would sweep the Pistons in the conference finals the next season.

6. May 17, 1992. That was the nasty Knicks with Jordan finishing them off easily in Game 7 back home.

7. May 22, 1994. The Eastern Conference semifinals and the famous Hue Hollins call on Pippen in Game 5 in New York well after Hubert Davis’ shot had left his hand. Davis’ free throws won the game 87-86. Little recalled was Hollins was one of the refs the previous year in the Game 5 with the missed Charles Smith layup the Knicks felt the refs missed. The Bulls won Game 6 back home easily, but had to return to New York. It was a shocking series with the famous Pippen 1.8-second boycott, Toni Kukoc hitting the winner and the brawl with JoJo English and Derek Harper that spilled into the stands where commissioner David Stern was sitting. Current Bulls assistant Pete Myers was in the Bulls backcourt that day, replacing the retired Michael Jordan as the Bulls had been on the verge of one of the most remarkable seasons ever by perhaps returning to the Finals without Jordan. But New York pulled away late for a 10-point victory and lost in a seventh game to Houston in the Finals.

8. May 31, 1998. It was to be the end of the dynasty, but not yet. Phil Jackson w

as leaving and so was Jordan. The Pacers were stubborn, but the Bulls had enough to get by and set up that dramatic Finals last moment in Utah.

The Bulls also had a few deciding games in five game series and the old best of three. The best one probably was in 1977 when the Bulls and Artis Gilmore had Bill Walton’s eventual champion Trailblazers on the ropes after a classic 107-104 win at home but lost 106-98 in Portland. Walton called that opening rounder the toughest for the Trailblazers champions that season.

Two of the best deciding fifth games were in 1988 and 1989 against the Cleveland Cavaliers. The one in 1989, of course, was the famous Jordan shot in Cleveland to win the series at the buzzer, the only time the franchise had a deciding series win on the road. The previous season, the Bulls went to the deciding fifth game in Chicago with what was Pippen’s coming out. He got his first start for Brad Sellers in that fifth game and even overshadowed Jordan in the six point win.

Will this be a classic 7th Game?

Bill Woten, an author who wrote a book on NBA game 7’s, rated the top 10 with that Willie Reed 1970 Knicks-Lakers game No. 1.

He then had the 2006 Spurs-Mavs conference finals, the 1988 Hawks-Celtics Bird/Dominique shootout, the 1988 Lakers-Pistons Finals with Isiah Thomas’ 25 point quarter on a badly injured ankle, the 1957 Celtics/St. Louis Hawks double overtime Finals Game 7, the 1981 Celtics-76ers, the 2002 Lakers-Kings, the 1965 Celtics-76ers, the 1984 Lakers-Celtics and the 2000 Lakers-Trailblazers with Portland’s 15-point fourth quarter lead.

The Celtics insist Kevin Garnett will not make that inspirational Willis Reed-esque return for Game 7. No one can tell you they saw any of this coming, which also means no one knows what will happen in Game 7. I think it may come down to whether the Celtics believe they can go very far in the playoffs or whether the young Bulls have exposed them without Garnett and they are wounded and ready to go. Everyone knows how competitive and exciting this series has been, more than 170 combined lead changes and ties in the six games.

The Celtics are shooting 44.9 percent and the Bulls 44.8 percent. Boston is 40.7 percent on threes and the Bulls 39.6 percent. The Bulls have 279 rebounds to 272 for Boston. The Bulls have been called for 143 fouls and the Celtics for 142. The Celtics are averaging 113.2 points per game and the Bulls 109.8.

Four Celtics, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen—who, by the way had the greatest shooting exhibition I ever have seen in that Game 6 loss—Rajon Rondo and Glen Davis are averaging more than 40 minutes per game. For the Bulls, Ben Gordon, Derrick Rose and John Salmons are averaging more than 40 minutes per game with Joakim Noah at 39.8.

Pierce, Allen and Rondo all are averaging more than 21 per game. No one coming off the Celtics bench is averaging more than four. Rose and Gordon are averaging at least 20 and Salmons 19.2. Seven Bulls, basically the entire rotation, is averaging in double figures.

The Bulls have led the last two games by double figures in the fourth quarter, each time giving up the lead. Lack of experience? The Celtics have dragged to the finish. Age and fatigue?

Predictions are worthless in this series. I had Celtics in seven before it began. I like the Bulls now.

But perhaps more than that, the Bulls have opened the eyes of the NBA world. Last season’s collapse is forgotten. The Bulls are players again with a combination of youth and savvy knowhow and a potential star in Rose. Going into next season, assuming the offseason can produce some form of upgrade, they’ll be considered a possible top four team as they were before last season.

“They have a great upside,” said Pierce. “They have a lot of good young players. Obviously, you start with Derrick Rose as a rookie and then with solid veterans in Salmons and Miller and it balances out their roster. They’re starting to look like the young, potential Bulls team we expected to be at this level three or four years ago. They’re going to fight and they’ve done a great job putting themselves in this position.”

Tip it up. Let’s go!

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