While Game Seven between the Bulls and Celtics wasn’t quite the timeless classic the rest of the series turned out to be, it nonetheless was filled with heroic plays, goat-horned villains, masterful adjustments, heart, toughness, skill, and willpower.
In the end, Boston simply had more patience, and wore out the overwhelmed Bulls both physically and mentally in the Celtics' 109-99 closeout victory.
Forget the fact that he only had 14 points: Kendrick Perkins’ wrecking ball screens, and ability to roll, catch, and finish were never answered.
Very early on in the affair, Perkins missed two close-range shots and was beaten to an offensive rebound. Instead of hanging his head, he methodically wore the Bulls out, posting and drawing fouls on Joakim Noah, obliterating Tyrus Thomas on the glass, cutting hard to the hoop on every screen, and being rewarded with layup attempt after layup attempt.
His belligerence on the boards allowed Boston to plant their Celtic flag on the offensive glass. Perkins alone had five offensive rebounds, compared to Chicago’s team total of seven. And he led Boston’s cavalcade at the basket, leading the Celtics to a 44-18 advantage in points in the paint.
While other players will get more of the glory, Perkins provided the might in the middle that allowed Boston to control both the offensive and defensive paint—and subsequently, the game.
Ray Allen—6-14 FG, 2-5 3FG, 9-9 FT, 23 PTS—wore out Ben Gordon like an old running shoe, curling, fading, and beating Gordon backdoor when his head was turned for a layup. And as the Bulls tried to come back late in the fourth, Allen’s cool-handed free throw shooting kept them at horn’s length.
Allen also made excellent passes curling and dishing, blocked two shots, and chipped in with seven rebounds. It was a championship-level performance for one of the game’s most clutch performers.
Paul Pierce made three of his first five shots, and then missed nine of his next 12. Still, Pierce put maximum pressure on the Bulls by isolating or getting a screen at the top of the circle and forcing the Bulls either to double him or create awkward mismatches elsewhere. Those double-teams resulted in three fourth-quarter assists that vanquished the Bulls.
Pierce also displayed his might with nine rebounds of his own. If it wasn’t an epic performance, Pierce made the biggest plays when they mattered the most.
Brian Scalabrine and Eddie House shot dagger-edged three-balls—6-of-7 combined from the badlands.
Rajon Rondo made several terrible decisions, including an awful lobbed inbounds pass with less a minute left that was intercepted and almost converted into a huge three for Gordon.
However, Rondo frequently was able to get into the lane and create open looks for all of his teammates, and he made more spectacular passes than boneheaded ones.
Plus, while Derrick Rose’s numbers were good, Rondo succeeding in keeping his counterpart out of the paint, restricting Rose to where he could do the least amount of damage.
By helping off Rose and doubling penetrators, the Celtics allowed Rose to hit a number of open baseline jump shots, but also choked the Bulls from generating open layups. Rondo also got revenge on Rose by blocking two of his jump shots.
Even Mikki Moore contributed with a charge and a tap-in during his brief playing time.
As a team, the Celtics were much better at having their bigs show on Gordon’s curls before having them retreat to cover their own men. Their interior rotations were generally on point, and they did a great job of pressuring every dribble, ripping a number of loose balls out of the hands of Chicago’s penetrators.
And while Chicago’s offense degenerated into a number of one-on-one affairs, Boston always stayed patient and trusted in its offensive sets. This is why the Celtics had 25 assists on their 35 field goals.
It was that toughness, trust, and defensive wherewithal, combined with clutch shooting and playmaking, that allowed the Celtics to persevere with their playoff lives hanging in the balance.
Early on, the Bulls had success running their combo screens to free up Ben Gordon for open jump shots, but once Boston started hugging tighter around his curls, and started forcing him left, the Bulls offense devolved into a lot of overhandling and poor shot selection.
Forget Ben Gordon’s 33 points—in truth, he was a dud. While his defense was atrocious the entire series, he was especially picked on in Game Seven like an itchy scab.
How many times was he out of position as Eddie House snuck around him to open spots behind the three-point line? How many times did he flat out give up chasing Ray Allen around screens? How many times did he commit the cardinal sin of turning his head on his man, allowing him to slip back door to the basket?
His offense wasn’t much better. Finding the going rough after a hot start, his answer was to force nearly a dozen shots or drives, including a boneheaded pull-up three in transition late in the fourth with the Bulls down three. Paul Pierce punished the shot selection with a block, the Celtics scored the following possession, and the Bulls were never that close the rest of the way.
What else did Gordon do wrong? He went up weakly and missed four attempts in the shadow of the basket. He made a careless pass and was ripped midway through the second when the Celtics were making their 22-2 run that gave them command of the game. He also missed a wide-open three after stealing the inbounds pass that would have cut the lead to three with 30 seconds remaining.
Gordon did make a number of nifty passes after curling and feeding the screen setter fading or rolling to the hoop. And he was perfect on his free throws, hitting all 15 of his attempts. But his shot selection derailed Chicago’s offense, and he couldn’t outscore his defensive inadequacies.
Since he never experienced heavy minutes before this season as a bit player in Philadelphia and Sacramento, and because he spent so much energy making clutch play after clutch play in Game Six, John Salmons—3-12 FG, 1-5 3FG, 3 AST, 2 STL, 2 TO, 12 PTS—simply ran out of gas.
While he never settled for contested jumpers, and while his defense on Paul Pierce was professional grade, Salmons lacked the explosion to finish at the rim or to get lift on his jump shots.
Of his misses, two were layups, and one was a wide-open three ball late in the fourth. Plus, he committed the mental mistakes of stepping on the baseline and charging into a defender, both easily avoidable. A tragic end for a valiant performer.
Joakim Noah played hard, hustled, bustled, and scrapped, but he doesn’t have the offensive repertoire to be a scoring threat.
Tyrus Thomas made multiple mistakes—playing too far from the screener when defending a screen allowing Ray Allen to split him, not recovering after showing on screens, missing rotations, forcing drives into double coverage, letting a pass go through his hands—and played like a rookie.
Brad Miller was too slow to defend screens, and ball handlers frequently blew by his attempts to hedge. And he too was a non-factor in the post.
If Kirk Hinrich played heady defense all game long, and if he made a number of big shots to get Chicago back in the game (14 fourth-quarter points), he turned his mojo on too little, too late.
Rose actually made six of his 11 jump shots outside of the paint, but he made a share of questionable passes, and had trouble getting to and finishing at the rim.
However, it was Rose’s passive defense and failure to help on time that allowed Boston’s bigs to overpower him in the paint. In time, Rose will learn the importance of these plays (or so we hope), but despite his prodigious opening act in the initial game of the series, the truth is that he was badly outplayed by Rajon Rondo, especially on the defensive end.
In fact, the characteristics that did the Bulls in against Boston were the same failings that have plagued them for a decade: Too much of a reliance on very young players, no post offense whatsoever, too heavy a reliance on jump shooting, poor defense, and questionable shot selection.
Alas, let’s give the Bulls a bit of credit for providing one hell of a show before fading to black. The only thing that was missing from the series was the quadruple overtime Game Seven buzzer-beater finish to end the series.