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Over time, no favorite

Celtics, Bulls have shown to be evenly matched

By Frank Dell'Apa
Globe Staff / May 2, 2009
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Though it seems a little early in the postseason for such extreme drama, there is a good reason for the tightness of the Celtics-Bulls playoff series. The Celtics' explanation is that the Bulls' talent is better than that of a seventh-seeded team. And by that logic, the Celtics without Kevin Garnett probably are not a true No. 2 seed.

In any case, this is the most even matchup in NBA playoff history, illustrated by the seven overtime sessions going into tonight's Game 7 at the Garden.

The Bulls certainly are performing at a much higher level than they were early in the regular season, when the Celtics beat them, 96-80 (Oct. 31) and 126-108 (Dec. 19), in Boston. The Bulls could not have been considered a playoff team then. In February, though, Chicago capitalized on the Sacramento Kings' fire sale, adding Brad Miller and John Salmons. That changed the team's dynamic.

The Celtics had a 62-20 regular-season record, but they might have overachieved to accomplish it. The Celtics fully deserved their second-place Eastern Conference finish, since they had to be extremely resourceful to compensate for the loss of several players to injury. But from Dec. 25-April 15, the Celtics compiled two more losses (18) than they did the entire 2007-08 regular season.

Early-round series are supposed to be mismatches, the higher-seeded team pacing itself, expending just enough energy to outdistance the pesky underdogs. And the Celtics have displayed a favorite's traits, at times.

The Celtics were clinical in their approach to Game 3, a 107-86 victory, and in mounting an 18-0 run over a five-minute stretch of the fourth quarter in their 128-127 triple-overtime loss in Game 6 Thursday. But they have had difficulty closing out games.

The Bulls, meanwhile, have played their role perfectly. They have hounded the Celtics with pressure defense and presented enough varied offensive threats to confuse the Celtics' defensive tactics.

Remarkably, Chicago has yet to win a game in regulation in this series. The Bulls have outscored the Celtics, 70-68, in seven overtime periods. Nor have the Bulls collapsed when they seem to be lost, though their recovery powers have been aided by the Celtics' split personality, the team playing like a second-seeded, 60-plus win group at times, then reverting to their 24-win identity of two seasons ago.

"While it's frustrating, so far it's one of the best series of basketball I've ever been a part of," said Celtics guard Ray Allen, who scored 51 points in Game 6.

The Celtics were in a similar position last season, failing to close out the Atlanta Hawks, who stayed in contention with 9-, 5-, and 3-point victories. The Celtics defeated the Hawks, 99-65, in Game 7.

"We were here last year, if you think about Atlanta," Allen said. "We've been fighting hard in this series and now we're getting back out there for a Game 7. This is very familiar territory."

But the Celtics outscored the Hawks by an average margin of 12 points in last year's series. Even though the series was in doubt until the final game, the Celtics seemed to be in a position of strength against Atlanta. But the Celtics have only occasionally performed like a confident, dominant team against Chicago.

"We're past historic," said Miller after Thursday's game. "It's a lot of fun. It's tiring, it's heartbreaking. I'm sure all the fans, after the fourth quarter and all the overtimes, wish they had another beer. It's been a battle.

"That's the joy of getting this one - it's on them now. They're the No. 2 seed, the defending champs. We are just going to get out there and play. We did our work and there is one game left now."

Globe correspondent Daniel I. Dorfman contributed to this report.

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