"Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man." - The Dude
This past April, the basketball world fell in love with a sexy new babe called Bulls-Celtics First Round 2009. It had 5 nail-biting games featuring seven over-time periods. People quickly dubbed it the GREATEST FIRST ROUND SERIES EVER, with some even arguing that it may be the GREATEST SERIES EVER! Well, personally, I thought it was a tad overrated. For my money, the greatest first round series is the Nets-Pacers series from 2002. Crazy? Maybe. But here's my case:
1 vs. 8 is more thrilling than 2 vs. 7
I think this goes without saying. It is more interesting to see the favorite struggling against the underdog, rather than the second favorite struggling against the second underdog.
In addition, a close 1 vs. 8 series is such a rare gem compared to a 2 vs. 7 series. Since the NBA adopted the 16-team format in 1984, the one seeds have swept the eight seed 23 times, they have gone to game 5/7 9 times, and the eight seed has beaten the one seed 3 times. A two seed has swept the seven seed 15 times, they have gone to game 5/7 17 times, and there have been 4 upsets. So a series like the Bulls-Celtics is almost twice as likely as a series like the Nets-Pacers.
Furthermore, it is worth mentioning that Kevin Garnett being injured makes Boston slightly worse than their record would indicate, and the John Salmons mid-season trade makes Chicago slightly better than their record would indicate. It just felt like you were watching a 3 vs. 6 or 4 vs. 5 series.
5 > 7
That's not a math error or a typo. Call me old school, but I love a 5 game series. The games just mean more (1.4 times more to be precise). There was no dramatic or aesthetic reason for expanding the first round to 7 games, anyway. It was all done as a money grab. Can't say I fault them, but it does hurt the drama, as a team can more easily recover from a loss.
Ok, the Celtics-Bulls have a long rivalry and have accounted for a bunch of championships, so I'll give them the nod. But, let's not underrate the ABA rivals meeting up in the playoffs for the first time! And as all basketball fans know, everything associated with the ABA is 30% funkier.
We all know that the underdogs have nothing to lose. What does the favorite have to lose?
Celtics: A franchise with the most NBA championships, including one the previous year. Their best player is injured, and due to that, they are not expected to win it this year. A loss in this series would be sad, but all those guys have rings to console them.
Nets: A laughing stock franchise that won 50 games for the first time in their nearly 30-year NBA history. Jason Kidd led the team to double their win total from the previous season, and is considered an MVP candidate. They need to win this series to prove that they are for real. A loss in this series would make a mockery of their best season. Also, I probably would've killed myself.
I'd say the Net get the advantage here.
The Main Players
Celtics-Bulls: On the Celtics side, two aging stars, one rising point guard, a bunch of nice role players, and Stephon Marbury. On the Bulls side, several young players and one star point guard. To date: there are 4 All-Stars with 21 appearances. Overall, I'd say Rajon Rondo, Ben Gordon, and Derrick Rose were the clear break-out stars, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce were clutch as usual, and I'd give Joakim Noah an honorable mention. Time will tell on what the young players make of their careers.
Nets-Pacers: For the Pacers, you had a bunch of great players. Jermaine O'Neal was young and fresh off winning the Most Improved Award. Ron Artest and Brad Miller had just joined the Pacers in a mid-season trade. How familiar does that sound? Ron had not gone crazy yet, and Brad Miller could still move. And, of course, Uncle Reggie was there, in what was his last great playoff series (I consider the Tayshaun Prince block as the dagger in Uncle Reggie's clutchness). The Nets had the rising Kenyon Martin and Richard Jefferson, as well as the runner up for MVP - a guy named Jason Kidd. To date: there are 6 All-Stars with 24 appearances.
Personally, I think that the 2002 Pacers, who went on to win 48 games and 61 games the next two seasons, could have beat either the Celtics or Bulls this year. They would've been crushed at point guard (Tinsley vs. Rondo/Rose), but they are clearly dominant at the big positions with a young Jermaine O'Neal, Brad Miller, and Ron-Ron.
Doc Rivers. Isiah Thomas. Vinnie Del Negro. Byron Scott. That's like a murderer's row of coaching incompetence. Let's move on.
Ah, here we go. The moment everyone's been waiting for. Both series had stinker games - Game 4 in 2002, Game 3 in 2009. The Nets-Pacers had 3 very exciting games - Games 1, 3, and 5 (60% of the series). However, the Celts-Bulls had 5 - Games 1, 2, 4, 5, and 6 (71% of the series).
To me, those Celts-Bulls games felt too "college-y". Too many long shots, too many poorly designed plays, too many dumb coaching decisions (such as not fouling at the end of the game while up 3). Also, there were no legit buzzer beaters. Sure, there were clutch shots, but nothing beats seeing that ball go through the net with 0.0 on the clock. There were bad calls by the officials throughout, and Rondo's hacker-y was more annoying to watch than fun.
But most importantly: the memorability of the final game is more important than all previous games. The Bulls-Celtics ended with a close, but ultimately unsatisfying conclusion. No buzzer beaters, no overtime. The Nets-Pacers Game 5, however, is an instant classic. (No exaggeration: it has been rerun a bunch of times on ESPN Classic and NBATV). It is the only NBA game EVER to end each quarter tied! Think about how unreal that is, just for a moment. Ok, now to continue: Two overtimes, including a classic Reggie shot at the end of regulation. This was before replay, so the call was wrong - but still, no drama was lost as refs looked over at a small TV for five minute. Furthermore, Reggie had a clutch dunk in the first overtime, too. I was at this game, and it is by far the best sporting event I've seen in person.
But, ultimately, I can't convince you with words alone. You'll have to see for yourself:
Nets-Pacers Game 5 OT Part 1
Nets-Pacers Game 5 OT Part 2 (The Reggie Dunk)
Nets-Pacers Game 5 2OT Part 1
Nets-Pacers Game 5 2OT Part 2
Nets-Pacers Game 5 2OT Part 3
Anyway, that's my case, take it or leave it. If anybody agrees that the Celts-Bulls is overrated, and would like to nominate their own best first round series, post your comments below!