|Game 7: What to watch for||05.02.09 at 4:25 pm ET|
The last 48 hours or so the most persistent thought about Saturday night’s Game 7 between the Celtics and Bulls is: This can’t get possibly get any better, right? How could these two teams top what we’ve seen so far. Five overtimes with Ben Gordon and Ray Allen playing a game of UConn H-O-R-S-E right to the end–last Huskie with the ball wins? Just about the only thing we seem to know about this series is that we don’t know how it will end.
But we’ve had six games and seven overtimes to figure out just about everything else. There will be no secrets tonight. Both teams have thrown everything they have at each other and barring a Tim Thomas sighting (the Bull, not the Bruin) we now have a fairly clear blueprint of what each team wants to do.
Here are six things to watch (we snuck in an extra one because it’s that big of a game).
1. Rajon Rondo vs. Derrick Rose
Derrick Rose has had three great games in this series–Game 1, 4 and 6. Not coincidentally, those were the games the Bulls won. Rajon Rondo has had five great games and one somewhere between brilliant and disastrous. Rondo scored but eight points in Game 6, shot 4-for-17 from the field, missed two huge free throws down the stretch in regulation and had his game-winning shot attempt blocked by Rose. That Rondo took the shot, and not Ray Allen who was video-game hot, is another mark against him. And yet, Rondo still had nine rebounds, 19 assists and no turnovers. Not one.
The Bulls kept Rondo out of the lane in Game 6 by packing in in and also by making a ton of shots and not allowing the Celtics to get out and run. The other issue with Rondo is his temper. After he swatted Brad Miller’s face at the end of Game 5, the Bulls have been looking for some payback and Kirk Hinrich almost succeeded in getting Rondo out of Game 6. Rondo has been saved by the NBA twice now, who ruled his Game 5 foul was not flagrant and that his Game 6 altercation with Hinrich didn’t require any additional penalty upgrade.
Rondo and Rose have both been spectacular, but Rondo has had the clear edge overall in this series. He can solidify his spot as the best point guard in the East if he bests Rose tonight, while Rose can stake an early claim to the title if he can lead the Bulls to the upset. Either way, this matchup is now a marquee event for the next decade. Like Chris Paul and Deron Williams. But better.
2. Who’s Got the Hot Hand?
If you care, there’s a lot of evidence out there that the so-called hot hand simply doesn’t exist. That’s probably true, but given the shooting exhibitions that Ray Allen, Ben Gordon and John Salmons (at least in Game 6) have put on, and the ridiculous number of last-second 3-pointers both teams have launched, and made, it seems likely that at least one of those three players will have a huge say in deciding things.
The smart money would be on Allen in that he has the most experience of the three and the fact that he has had the best series. In six games, Allen is averaging 23.5 points on 25-of-53 shooting (47 percent) from 3-point range. Gordon, meanwhile, is averaging 22.8, but shooting 38 percent from 3-point range. One wonders if Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro elects to switch Hinrich, who is far and away his best perimeter defender, on to Allen if he gets off to a good start.
If it’s close at the end, count on the former UConners to get more chances at winding up in an Amazing montage.
3. Your Other Most Important Players? We Give You Kendrick Perkins and Brad Miller
Miller wasn’t the only reason the Bulls were able to win Game 6, but he was the biggest. He only missed one shot all all night, made two huge plays at the end of regulation and sank crucial free throws in the overtime. Miller was an incredible +26 in the +/- ratings in Game 6, a number that looks slightly better than it really was because he often gets taken out for defensive purposes, but not that much.
Perkins, meanwhile, has become a defensive monster in this series. Bill Simmons wrote that Perk was playing like Robert Parish and much as I’d like to come up with a different analogy I think the Sports Guy nailed that one. What’s been so amazing about Perkins’ play is that he has kept his composure and not committed silly fouls. As well as Big Baby Davis has played offensively, Perkins is really the only Celtic capable of holding down the middle against the Bulls. He has to stay out of foul trouble in Game 7 (this is a recording).
4. Whither Big Baby?
Speaking of Davis, he is Option B in the middle of the great small-small lineup debate. The Bulls have made great use out of playing Rose, Gordon and Hinrich together with Hinrich playing strong defense on his fellow Jayhawk, Paul Pierce.
But when Del Negro replaces Tyrus Thomas with Salmons and goes really small, Doc Rivers has countered with Tony Allen, and that backfired in Game 6 when TA had to take two shots and bricked them both.
If Del Negro goes back to that lineup, and he should, it will be interesting to see if Doc sticks with Baby and accepts the defensive matchup trade-off for more size and rebounding, not to mention a huge size edge on offense. Baby has averaged 18.7 points and 7.5 rebounds, but half of his boards are coming at the offensive end.
Option C would be Stephon Marbury, incidentally, but Marbury has not played like he’s ready for the big stage at all in these playoffs and Rivers has seemingly lost faith in him.
5. The Truth About the Captain
The truth is no one knows if Paul Pierce is hurt or tired, or a combination of both, but he has not had the lift on his shots and appeared a step slow at times. If there was one play that symbolized Pierce in the playoffs it was losing a race to Joakim Noah in the third overtime and not being able to get enough of Noah to prevent getting dunked on and picking up his sixth foul. It was an instinctive play by Pierce and one can argue it was the right one if he didn’t have five fouls.
Throughout his career Pierce has shown a fierce determination to play through just about everything. He had a huge Game 3 (not coincidentally, the only blowout of the series) and an even bigger closing stretch at the end of regulation and overtime in Game 5. But beyond that, Pierce has appeared downright ordinary.
More than anyone on the Celtics, Pierce understands the history and the mythology of the franchise. The captain knows deep down that if he can carry his team across the finish line one more time it will only add to his legend. The question is: Does he have it in him?
6. The Crowd
You play 82 games in the regular season to get homecourt in a game like this. The Garden crowd saved the Celtics twice last season in seventh games and it will need to be at its best if its going to have an impact. The emotions have been brewing all series and threatened to get out of control at times. The Celtics need to feed off the energy, but not let it overtake them. The Bulls need to block it out. If there is one true advantage in this game, homecourt is probably it.
The eyes of the sports world are on this game tonight. It can’t possibly live up to its billing, can it? We’ll have updates during the game on Green Street and analysis after it’s over, assuming it ever does get over.
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