This post continues the multi-part tale “What If…the Chicago Bulls had defeated the Boston Celtics in the first round of the 2009 NBA Playoffs.”
Following the Bulls’ 123-95 Game 1loss to the Magic, Vinny Del Negro decided that what his team really needed — rather than, say, key coaching adjustments –was some rest and relaxation, so he canceled practice and scheduled an Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon-style beach party at nearby Daytona Beach. But, remembering the debacle that was his “mandatory” Super Bowl party, Vinny made attendance optional. Consequently, the only two players who actually showed up were Linton Johnson, Aaron Gray and Jerome James…who hadn’t even been seen in months. Suffice to say, it wasn’t exactly the team-bonding experience that Vinny had hoped for. And even though Vinny spent half the afternoon re-applying sunscreen to Gray’s ghostly (and ghastly) pale skin, Aaron was very badly burned. Even worse, it wasn’t one of those uniform, all-over burns. Rather, it was one of those splotchy burns where the body gets dotted with random, painful red spots. Bad times.
The Bulls weren’t the only team in this series dealing with a little internal drama. Despite the fact that Stan Van Gundy did everything he could do to calm his superstar center’s nerves, Dwight Howard insisted that the refs were making unfair calls against him based on the Samuel Dalembert incident. Therefore, shortly before tipoff, Dwight donned a huge, bushy fake mustache and said he would go by the alias “Swingy McElbowstein” for the remainder of the series, and maybe even for the rest of the playoffs, assuming that the Magic were able to move on.
David Stern, who had sent a robot duplicate to attend the game, was not amused by Howard’s circus act, and neither, it seemed, were the refs, who sent “Swingy” to the bench with two quick first-quarter fouls for the second straight game. With the Defensive Player of the Year oiling his fake ‘stache on the sidelines, Chicago attacked the basket relentlessly. Derrick Rose and Ben Gordon combined for seven layups and six free throw attempts in the first quarter alone. The score after 12 minutes: Bulls 29, Orlando 22.
The second quarter was all Chicago, as Gordon started combusting from outside, knocking down four threes and a long two (video review showed his foot was on the line). There were several comical moments, like a near fight between Orlando’s backup center Marcin Gortat and Gray, who was in the game for his obligatory two-fouls-in-two-minutes stint. (Apparently Gortat raked his fingernails across one of Gray’s burn spots and it set the big man off.) Joakim Noah also got a few guffaws out of his teammates by doing an impromptu and slightly modified version of the Mexican Hat Dance every time Gordon nailed a three-pointer, but his antics incited the crowd and eventually the officials, who put an end to Jo’s prancing with a well-deserved technical. The half ended Bulls 58, Magic 40.
The third quarter was an unmitigated disaster. Gordon started dribbling the hell out of the ball and chucking up bad shots, Rose started playing too tentatively and Tyrus Thomas turned the ball over on three straight possessions as Orlando opened the period with a 13-0 run. Vinny immediately countered by subbing in Kirk Hinrich (for Gordon) and Brad Miller (for Thomas) and going zone. The result was a flurry of threes for the Magic (two for Hedo Turkoglu and one each for Rashard Lewis and J.J. Redick), and Orlando’s run was eventually extended to 25-5. It got so ugly that, during a dead ball situation, a frustrated Miller tore off Howard’s fake mustache and the two men had to be separated. Del Negro even run onto the court, tripped over Noah’s feet and had to catch himself on Howard’s legs, which conjured memories of how Jeff Van Gundy was once dragged around the court while hanging onto Alonzo Mourning’s ankles. The end-of-quarter score: Orlando 75, Chicago 73.
Despite the chippiness of the game and the loss of their double-digit lead, the Bulls didn’t back down. Noah did an excellent job of containing “Swingy” (who would finish a 14 points and only 9 boards) while grabbing a game-high 15 rebounds himself. But it was Rose who took over early in the period, hitting three straight midrange jumpers and driving in for a layup and the foul to rebuild Chicago’s lead to seven (86-79). The Magic countered with a three from Mickael Pietrus, a fastbreak slam by Howard and a putback by Turkoglu. From that point it was back and forth the rest of the way, and the Magic were up 102-101 with 18 seconds to go when Noah wrested the lead back for the Bulls by hitting an out-of-nowhere 14-foot jumper — his first outside shot of the playoffs.
Orlando had the last shot, and the isolated Turkoglu against Noah 27 feet from the basket. Even though Vinny had instructed Joakim to deny penetration first and foremost, Noah suspected that Hedo was going to try for a step-back three-pointer right before the buzzer. With time running down, Noah feinted as though he was going to give Turkoglu space and then, anticipating the step-back move, jumped out and challenged the shot, getting a piece of it on its way up. John Salmons controlled the rebound and then threw it into the air as the buzzer sounded.
Player notes: Gordon led the team in scoring with 29 points (11-for-26), while Rose took team honors in assists (9), steals (3) and turnovers (6). Noah scored 11 points (5-for-6 from the field, 1-for-2 from the line) to go along with his 15 boards. Salmons had a nice all-around game (18 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals). Despite being yanked in and out of the game at random, Tyrus came withing a stone’s throw of a double-double (9 points, 8 rebounds), plus he had a game-high 4 blocked shots. Hinrich and Miller combined for 25 points off the bench. Kirk also added 6 assists, and Miller grabbed 7 rebounds (4 on the offensive end).