- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 22, 2009

It was playoff basketball at its best, the back-and-forth affair between the Celtics and Bulls on Monday night.

It was everything March Madness is, only more compelling because of the high skill level of the principals.

It was not about a team losing the game, as is so often the case in the NCAA tournament. This was about a team refusing to acquiesce to its crippled state and making one play after another in the waning minutes.

This was about Ray Allen receiving one last look at the basket, with 7-foot Joakim Noah in his face, and dropping a 3-pointer on the Bulls as time expired.

Game over, Celtics by three points.

If not for the clock running out, you had every reason to believe that Ben Gordon would have tied it up and sent the game into overtime.

Gordon scored his team’s last 12 points, hitting one unlikely shot after another, with everyone in the arena knowing he was going to shoot.

Gordon was in the so-called shooter’s zone, that magical place where a career’s worth of practice manifests itself in a stretch of sweet perfection.

What’s not to like in that moment - that the NBA is a business and the NCAA is a charity operation bent on saving the polar bear?

One of the oft-heard criticisms of the NBA playoffs is its predictable nature. The better team usually prevails because of the best-of-seven format. There is no George Mason in the NBA playoffs, no Davidson, no loveable underdog.

The counter to the criticism is this: Isn’t there something to be said for an event that thoroughly tests the eventual champion?

The single-elimination drama of the NCAA tournament is both its beauty and bane. It is a scintillating time until your favorite team is sent home by a vastly inferior opponent.

This is not to say there are no surprises in the NBA playoffs. The Bulls qualify as one.

They were an afterthought most of the season until they pulled a trade in February that secured small forward John Salmons, Derrick Rose performed at a level that belied his rookie status and Tyrus Thomas emerged as a force on defense.

Gordon, too, became one of the game’s most improbable big-shot makers. He is generously listed as 6-3, is not inclined to attack the basket and has had a tendency in his career to be a black hole.

He is a rarity, a 3-point specialist with a midrange game. Although nearly one-third of his field goal attempts came from the 3-point line this season, he led the team in scoring at 20.7.

The Bulls became relevant late in the regular season after winning 12 of their last 16 games to earn the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. Even without Kevin Garnett, the Celtics were expected to dispatch the Bulls in quick fashion.

That pre-series view is dead now after the Bulls earned a split in the first two games in Boston and looked to be the deeper, more athletic and accomplished team.

The Bulls are no beneficiary of the on-any-given-game dynamic of March Madness. No, they will not reach the NBA Finals. They might not even get past the self-doubting Celtics.

But that is not really the point with the Bulls. Their point is to grow while sowing the seeds of hope in the seasons ahead.

Rose is destined to be an All-Star, Noah is a high-energy bruiser, Thomas finally is exploiting his athletic gifts, Salmons is proving to be a find, and Gordon is a shooter with no conscience. And this is not to forget the capable Luol Deng, who has not played since Feb. 28 because of a stress fracture in his right tibia.

The building of a worthy NBA team is played out in four- or five-year increments, the process considerably shorter in college.

Both have their postseason moments that sweep you away.

The NBA had one in Boston on Monday night.

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