Chillin’ Like a Villain: That’s Entertainment

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It happens in every single great basketball matchup – one team’s fan base ordains one player on the opposing team as the villain.  For Boston Celtics fans, they immediately latched onto the haterade for Joakim Noah at the beginning of what has turned out to be an epic series with the Bulls.  It took a few games for Bulls fans to coalesce around a single Celtics villain, though.  Last week, my money would have been on Eddie House, who just grates on me on a personal level if only because he kicks out his legs like a buffoon when he takes a jumpshot.  However, the events that transpired in games 5 and 6 of this first round series has catapulted Rajon Rondo into an illustrious club of Villains of the Bulls, which includes John Starks, Reggie Miller, James Posey, and, of course, my least favorite athlete of all-time by a landslide margin, Bill Laimbeer.  As I mentioned in my post the other day, my respect for Rondo had grown exponentially over the first four games of the series as he led a Celtics team depleted by injuries with the most consistent play of any player on either team.  In game 5, though, Rondo was involved in two plays that caused Bulls players to get stitched up, including the controversial hard foul at the end of the game on Brad Miller that many people thought was a flagrant foul.  (It wasn’t just Bulls fans – even Charles Barkley, who was the master of hard fouls, immediately thought that it was a flagrant.)  Personally, I thought that it was a flagrant foul as it’s defined by the NBA rule book, but there were a whole lot more reasons as to why the Bulls lost that game (i.e. failure to close out the game in regulation with an 11-point lead late in the 4th quarter, letting Paul Pierce prance to the exact same spot on the left side of the free throw line where he apparently can swish jumpshots blindfolded, etc.) and I didn’t think that Rondo had any malicious intent.  So, while most Bulls fans seemed comfortable in making Rondo as Chicago’s new Public Enemy Number One after game 5 (and the United Center crowd admirably let him know it by booing him mercilessly every time that he touched the ball in game 6), I still reserved some judgment on the young Boston point guard since I have been so impressed with his overall leadership skills in the series and he appeared to be the quiet and humble type like his opposing counterpart of Derrick Rose.

However, when Rondo tossed Kirk Hinrich into the scorer’s table in game 6, I finally came to the conclusion with the rest of Bulls fans that he’s a straight-out thug.  He might be a thug with actual basketball skills like Reggie Miller (and unlike Bill Laimbeer), but he’s still a thug.  It was amazing to me that Rondo would do such an idiotic move when ESPN and every sports media outlet in the country had already put him under such intense scrutiny.  (It was almost equally amazing by how quick Captain Kirk was ready to throw down.)  Congratulations, Rajon Rondo – you’ve guaranteed yourself a lifetime of catcalls every time that you step in the City of Chicago.

As for the series overall, it’s a bit premature to put this in the “greatest series of all-time” category in the annals of NBA history.  In just Bulls history alone, is this really a better series than the Bulls-Knicks and Bulls-Pistons battles of the early-90s, or the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals against the Pacers that also went to 7 games?  Those were games featuring numerous Hall of Famers on the floor such as Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Patrick Ewing, Isiah Thomas, and Reggie Miller all at full strength.  The Celtics’ battles with the Lakers and Pistons in the late-80’s were also all classics with guys like Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, and Larry Bird on the floor in crunch time.  So, I’m not going to be so quick to grant this “greatest ever” status since arguably the best player on either team, Kevin Garnett, has been reduced to scowling like Tony Montana on the bench.  However, for pure entertainment value, this series is definitely off the charts.  I’d compare this to watching five buzzer beater first round NCAA Tournament games(with one blowout mixed in) all in a row – the quality of basketball might not be at a peak level compared to what we might see in, say, a potential Cavs-Lakers NBA Finals, but the back-and-forth nature of the games keeps you fixated at the edge of your seat.  So, if you’re a casual sports fan that wants to see intense games that go down to the wire, this series has been a boon.  At this point, I have no clue what’s going to happen in game 7.  I seriously didn’t believe that there could possibly be another overtime game after game 5, yet game 6 ended up giving basketball fans three overtime periods. (Joakim Noah’s steal and dunk (in the process posterizing and fouling out Paul Pierce) and Derrick Rose’s block on Rondo in the third overtime of game 6 are easily the most memorable Bulls moments in the post-MJ era.)  Chances are that game 7 is going to be just entertaining – I can’t imagine it being any other way after how everything has gone up to this point.  (One bit of advice to Vinny Del Negro: when the Bulls have the last possession in regulation or overtime to win or tie the game, GET THE BALL IN DERRICK ROSE’S HANDS FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THINGS HOLY!!!  That is all.)  Enjoy the weekend and GO BULLS!!!

(Image from Chicago Tribune)

A Bulls Market Once Again

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With all of the people that have been jumping on the Blackhawks bandwagon (which halfway includes yours truly), it’s been easy to forget how many people still love the Bulls in Chicago.  In my opinion, when all things are equal (understanding that a less popular team that’s doing extraordinarily well in a particular year is going to receive more buzz than a more popular team that’s performing poorly at the same time), the Bulls are third in the overall Chicago sports pecking order behind the Bears and Cubs, but that’s been tough to observe these past few months with the team needing a surge after the All-Star break to secure a .500 regular season record and the concurrent Hawks renaissance and high expections for the Cubs, White Sox, and Bears.  However, the Bulls’ literally heart-stopping playoff series with the Celtics is likely going to return the pecking order back into normalcy as the general public starts to truly understand how special of an athlete Derrick Rose already is at 20-years old and that we’re witnessing a young team on the ascent.  Certainly, there are a number of issues with this club (as I’ll get to in a moment), but I’m really enjoying how the town is buzzing about the Bulls again (speaking as someone that followed this franchise intensely through a whole lot of dark days over the past decade and is anything but a bandwagon Bulls fan).  When I went to the Bulls-Lakers game at the United Center last month, it was apparent that the sold-out crowd (whether they were cheering for Chicago or L.A.) was mostly there for the chance to see Kobe Bryant and Company.  Now, though, the Bulls (and specifically the magnificence of D-Rose) are becoming an attraction unto themselves, which means that tickets at the United Center are going to become a whole lot harder to come by.  Here are my thoughts on the series that’s tied up at 2 games apiece so far:

  • I’m wondering where that significant contingent of people that thought that the Bulls should have taken Michael Beasley over Derrick Rose have gone.  That argument is looking as inane as the 1998 NFL Draft debate where Ryan Leaf supposedly had more upside than Peyton Manning.  (Of course, every upside has a commensurate downside.)  There’s been plenty of print about Rose’s performance so far, but it’s all deserved – here’s a rookie point guard that was attending his high school prom two years ago at this time completing already breaking veteran players down, in a playoff series against the defending NBA champs, no less, in a manner that legitimately has made impartial observers openly state that there’s no ceiling on what this kid can achieve.  This was why I was so excited when the lottery balls bounced the way of the Bulls a year ago – while there’s no 100% sure thing in sports, Derrick Rose was about as close to that as anyone could reasonably get.
  • The focus on Rose and also shone the spotlight on his counterpart on the Celtics, Rajon Rondo.  While watching the Celtics’ run to the title last season, I saw Rondo as a solid complementary piece to a championship team – someone along the lines of a more athletic version of Kirk Hinrich.  However, I’ve been completely blown away by Rondo’s performance during this series with the Bulls, where he’s been the best and most consistent player on either team over the first four games.  The jump in his game from last season to this year makes me believe that Rondo has gone from a supporting cast member to a cornerstone player that the Celtics can build around once the Boston Three Party has moved on.  Frankly, even as a Bulls fan, I’m miffed that the media swarm around Rondo has been relatively muted compared to his stellar performance – the storylines around Rose, the ability of both Ben Gordon and Ray Allen to swish 30-foot jumpshots while double-teamed by 7-foot defenders, and Paul Pierce’s overall game seem to have taken away a lot of print from the former Kentucky point guard.  This is a shame since Rondo’s play is the most surprising story in the first round of the playoffs.
  • I still have no confidence that the Bulls can make a key defensive stop when necessary.  Both of the Bulls’ wins would never have even gone to overtime if the team could have avoided a stupid foul and/or buckled down in man-to-man defense in the respective last possessions in regulation.  The defense at the end of game 3 was passable in the sense that Ray Allen made a ridiculous fadeaway shot over Joakim Noah that no one could have defended, but that also ignores the fact that Allen was the one guy that the Bulls absolutely couldn’t let get the ball in the first place.  This series is a Paul Pierce free throw and game 1 and a made open Celtics jumpshot in game 4 from being a Boston sweep as opposed to an even series.  Ultimately, the subpar defense in pressure situations is going to be the downfall for the Bulls whether it’s in this round against the Celtics or another team if they somehow move on.
  • It’s hard to believe, but Joakim Noah is actually growing on me.  I was a harsh critic of the Bulls drafting him two years ago, but his overall play in this series along with his performance over the second half of the season has at least given me some indication of his value.  If Tyrus Thomas can keep up his all-around production (which I have my doubts on – we’ve seen a whole lot of flourishes from him over the years and he always seems to recede shortly afterwards), then Noah makes a whole lot of sense on the floor as a disruptive defensive player.  For all of those people out there that are just starting to get back into following the Bulls and have a completely negative impression of Noah, whether it’s because of his days at Florida, ridiculous hair, or general d-baggery, I completely understand where you’re coming from.  However, if you can just focus on his basketball play, you’ll find that he actually has been a very good contributor and the Bulls are certainly a lot worse off defensively when he’s not on the floor.
  • It took up until game 4, but it appears that Vinny Del Negro has finally figured out that a timeout in the last seconds of the game might be a little bit useful.  I’ll repeat my mea culpa on my premature dissing of Rick Carlisle last summer (although I’ll note that I wrote that post before the Bulls hit the lottery jackpot) – it’s not that he’s a particularly great coach, but at least he’s not affirmatively making his team worse by his presence.  As everyone is witnessing now, this Bulls team is pretty talented and deep.  There’s no doubt in my mind that the Bulls would have won 9 or 10 more games in the regular season along with game 2 of this series with a halfway competent coach.
  • What’s the test of whether you’re a true Bulls fan that stuck through the down years?  If you saw the brief spat between Brad Miller and Glen “Big Baby” Davis in game 4 and immediately thought back to this legendary fight between Miller (during his first stint in Chicago) and Shaq.  Please note the irony of Ron Artest actually acting as the peacemaker in this brawl (plus Shaq gets tackled by Charles Oakley – honestly, there’s nothing that I don’t love about this video).
  • I wonder if I’m alone in this reaction, but I went from laughing out loud in watching this Burger King commercial featuring Sir Mix-a-Lot to being quite disturbed upon finding out at the end that it’s actually to sell kids’ meals (and I usually find a direct correlation between offensiveness and comedy).
  • Speaking of old school rap in commercials, I was delighted to see the marketing recognition of the genius that is Biz Markie.
  • The one thing that has surprised me above all else is that despite the defensive and coaching flaws of the Bulls so far in the series, this team has still been able to win games.  Prior to the start of the series, I was pretty convinced that the Bulls would need to play completely perfect games in order to take any games from the Celtics.  Part of me is disappointed in knowing that the Bulls ought to be seeded a whole lot higher (maybe even fourth so that they would have had home court advantage) if they had played up to their talent level all season, but overall I’m ecstatic that they’ve showed up at the right time and making the most of their opportunities against a depleted Boston team.

Boxing analogies applied to other sports are all too commonplace, but in the case of this series, it’s entirely appropriate.  Outside of the horrific game 3, these games between the Bulls and Celtics have been about withstanding multiple punches and who can throw the last knockout blow in the end.  As emotionally draining as these games have been, it’s the first time in a whole long time (maybe since 1998) where it’s a whole lot of fun to be a Bulls fan!

(Image from Chicago Tribune)