Daily Debate: Was Boston-Chicago the greatest first round NBA series ever?


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In a sports culture beholden to hyperbole, is it possible for something to be impossible?

Some are saying it’s impossible for a first-round series to be the greatest series in history (Michael Wilbon rattles off some examples of significant late rounds in today’s Washington Post), so the debate will rage over where the Boston Celtics-Chicago Bulls epic falls in NBA lore.

There isn’t even a consensus that this was the best first-round series in the league’s history. What about Warriors-Mavericks in 2007? Or -- perhaps a sacrilege in Los Angeles -- the 2006 Suns-Lakers series?


Keep in mind that the best-of-seven format just started in 2003, much to Phil Jackson‘s chagrin. With two extra games to contend with, Jackson’s concern about exhaustion may come to fruition if Boston tanks against Orlando. It’s hard to compare a five-game series to one that goes 96 minutes longer (more, for the Celtics and Bulls). But there was Mavericks-Jazz in 2001, Nuggets-Sonics in 1994, and the Bulls in 1986 (are three games better than seven?), 1988, and 1989.

So we ask ... was Boston-Chicago the greatest first round NBA series of all time? The pros and cons:


Magic Johnson said so -- should this argument be over? ‘It was the greatest first-round series, we got everything,’ he proclaimed on ESPN. ‘I’ve never seen a first round play to this high level of intensity and also of execution.’

The New York Times provides the stats and personnel: ‘The seven-game series featured seven overtimes in four games, and five games were decided by 3 points or less. All the while, the young point guards Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose blossomed, Ben Gordon and Ray Allen squared off in an old-school shootout, and Kendrick Perkins and Glen Davis of the Celtics and Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah of the Bulls made names for themselves.’

ESPN’s Gene Wojciechowski provides the color: ‘Seven games, seven overtime periods. Just one blowout. There were stitches, bloody towels, pain-killing injections, shoves, flagrants, technicals. More ice was used in this series than at a 3-for-1 Happy Hour.’

Gordon, while not exactly a neutral party, summed it up, ‘I definitely think it was one of the best series ever ... if it was any other round, it could easily be the best ever.’



Sports Illustrated’sIan Thomson points out, ‘Neither team is a threat to reach the NBA Finals. When Kobe and LeBron are exchanging baskets next month, is anyone going to be talking about Chicago and Boston?’

Why is that significant in evaluating the merits of a first-round series? Thomson continues, ‘When No. 8 Golden State knocked off No. 1 Dallas two years ago, the Mavericks were a healthy 67-win team favored to win the championship. Their absence from the ensuing rounds changed everything in the playoffs.’

Even Wojciechowski, after calling it ‘the best NBA first-round playoff series this side of ever,’ later acknowledges, ‘These aren’t the two best teams in the league. I’m not sure the Celtics are even the second-best team in the East.’

Nobody will be surprised when Orlando beats Boston, only to get clobbered by Cleveland. With Kevin Garnett injured and sitting on the bench, this classic first-round series might have come at the expense of an even better Eastern Conference final between the Celtics and Cavs. Ultimately, this entertaining slug-fest meant nothing.

If you want to find more examples of early series that mattered in the long run, check out Marc Stein’s premature-yet-prophetic column for ESPN about last year’s Suns-Spurs series. While that match-up didn’t turn into an epic, Stein writes one about all the great first-round matchups through 2007.


-- Adam Rose

Top photo: Chicago Bulls guard Lindsey Hunter and Boston Celtics guard Ray Allen embrace after Game 7. Credit: CJ Gunther / EPA.