The Rondo play was more complicated. Even before the game-winning foul, this was a surprise.
The Bulls were on the road, against the Boston Celtics, who generally play the NBA's most unified defense. Chicago, meanwhile, has a rookie coach who would contend in any NBA "least likely to diagram a killer game-winning play" contest. (When the Bulls had been needing big buckets in this series, mostly they had come from Ben Gordon or Derrick Rose creating on the fly.)
But coming out a timeout, down two in overtime with a mere 3.4 seconds left, the Bulls achieved something almost never seen in basketball: A wide-open crunch time layup, against a set defense. It happened because just about the whole Celtics defense stuck to Ben Gordon,
Let me pause a moment to tell you something David Thorpe taught us at Training Like a Pro: Don't go to the hoop underhanded. When you hold the ball palm up with your arm outstretched like a waiter holding a tray of drinks, the physics are bad. Any contact makes a miss likely, and you can't adjust your shot much side to side, up or down, or in any creative way as things develop.
If you flip that hand over, however, to a more normal shooting position, you can control the ball with one or two hands; finish with your choice of many layups, dunks, or floaters; lean right or left; and do a better job of finishing despite contact.
Brad Miller got some contact, all right, and sure enough missed his would-be game-tying bunny by a country mile.
But the replay clearly showed that Rajon Rondo -- the player who had abandoned Miller, who was setting a pick, to double Gordon -- recovered into the lane and smacked Miller right in the head from behind.
It was not, despite what many claimed afterward, a play on the ball.
Rondo had no play on the ball, which was a yard beyond his reach. So he hit what he could, and it worked beautifully.
Doc Rivers raved about the foul, and rightly so: If that's not going to be called a flagrant -- a common call for blows to the head that are not plays on the ball -- it's amazing. How else could a player who was well and truly beaten both prevent a wide-open layup, and reduce a player's likelihood of hitting his free throws?
As it was called a regular personal foul, Miller had to shoot the free throws himself, or be replaced by a Bull of Doc Rivers' choosing. Miller shot, and missed, while blinking again and again, apparently impaired by the fumes of the compound used to close the wounds in his mouth.
If it had been called a flagrant, Vinny Del Negro could have specified the shooter of his choice (in the playoffs, Ben Gordon, John Salmons, Derrick Rose and Tyrus Thomas are all over 80%), and the Bulls would have had the ball after the shots.
With a flagrant, the Bulls would have been favorites to win. Without a flagrant, a blow to the head of the guy shooting for the game is a savvy tactic.
I'm not suggesting it's an intentional Celtic strategy. But Brad Miller is awfully close in his comments to the Sun-Times:
''We got a lot of guys getting head shots this series,'' Miller said. ''There was blood on the floor. I don't know if they even cleaned it up. One tooth went into my lip. You have to ask them how many stitches they put in. Everybody has had to shake off these high hits. That's a good shot to take to the head. I didn't see it, but I felt it. Still no excuse.''
Not to read too much into unrelated plays by Howard and Rondo, but certainly today the ball's in the NBA's court. Having been so careful in recent years to make the game less about brutish defense, and more about offense and the beauty of the game, are these the new rules of engagement? Are heads fair game? And if so, as it works so well, can't we expect more of the same?
Seems likes everyone but the refs, Tim Legler, and idiotic Bostonians get it.