The Bulls never have won a playoff series from the Boston Celtics, zero for four times and 3-14 in games. But they have been played some of the greatest playoff—and most famous—playoff series in NBA history.
It was in Game 2 in the 1986 first round against a Celtics team that many in Boston regard as even their best team ever that Michael Jordan scored a playoff record 63 points, essentially the career coming out party for the player many regard as the greatest ever. And doing so against the Larry Bird-Kevin McHale-Robert Parish Big Three that rolled to the title 11-1 through the East and then through the twin seven footers of Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson. Bird famously said it was “God disguised as Michael Jordan.” Then in 2009, the Bulls and Celtics played arguably the most exciting first round playoff series ever, seven games with four overtime games, seven overtime periods with a triple overtime and double overtime game. Neither team was a championship contender with Derrick Rose a rookie and Kevin Garnett injured for the defending champions. But the memories from that series remain indelible, like Joakim Noah’s steal and full court dash to wrap up the triple overtime game, Ben Gordon and Ray Allen playing the most elevated game of HORSE ever during an NBA playoff game, Rajon Rondo’s takedown of Brad Miller, Kirk Hinrich going after Rondo, Rose breaking Kareem’s rookie playoff scoring mark. And then Brian Scalabrine playing a pivotal role in the Boston Game 7 win. So it wasn’t all aesthetically pleasing.
Here’s a look at the playoff history between the Bulls and Celtics.
1981 Eastern Conference semifinals.
The Bulls didn’t have much chance with the great Celtics run basically beginning with the first year of Bird playing with McHale and Parish. It would be Red Auerbach’s last great miracle to acquire the two to join Bird and they were headed to the NBA championship. That was a team Chicago could have loved, coach Jerry Sloan putting his mark on his team with a 15-game improvement and a first round sweep (best of three then) over the favored Knicks with Bill Cartwright and what could have been a Hall of Fame backcourt with Ray Williams and Michael Ray Richardson. The clincher in Chicago was a classic with the Bulls winning in overtime as Reggie Theus had 37 points and Artis Gilmore 25. The Bulls didn’t have much left and were swept 4-0 by that great Boston team even more famous for Cedric Maxwell’s towel waving in the Finals. Games 3 and 4 back in Chicago were close in the fourth quarter, but Boston pulled away each time with its patterned and disciplined play. The Bulls future looked bright, but poor ownership decisions letting players go with the dawn of free agency and then soon firing Sloan led to a collapse. And the No. 3 pick in the 1984 draft.
1986 Eastern Conference First Round.
It was Game 2 and perhaps the Greatest Game Ever Played. “I think he’s God disguised as Michael Jordan,” Bird said after the Game 2 double overtime Boston win. “I couldn’t believe anybody could do that against the Boston Celtics.” And it was Jordan who had missed most of that, his second season, with a broken foot. Here’s a story on that game from Bulls.com in 2011.
That series came at the close of a difficult season after Jordan broke his foot in the third game in Golden State. For years afterward, Jordan would have a phobia about playing there and had most of his poorest games against the Warriors throughout the 1980s. After Jordan’s brilliant rookie season, life looked great for the Bulls. They won their first two games of the season and were about to win the third when Jordan was injured. He left depressed to rehab in North Carolina as the Bulls played a mish mash of mismatched kids and veterans; even George Gervin in his final NBA season. The Bulls and Jordan disagreed about his return, about whether it could cause a permanent injury. Jordan was hearing none of it and demanded to play. The Bulls set a minutes playing time limit that caught coach Stan Albeck in the middle and eventually led to his dismissal. The limit was lifted for the playoffs and Jordan was back as the Bulls backed in with a 30-52 record, winning four of their last six. Jordan was leading scorer in all six games even with limited playing time. So then came the Celtics and Jordan was ready. Well, he did have fresh legs as in that era no one rested. Bird played every game that season and Parish missed one game. The Bulls took an eight-point lead in the first quarter of Game 1 before the Celtics dominated the rest of the way. Jordan scored 49 points, but the amazing Celtics’ starting five had 115 of their 123 points with just Jerry Sichting scoring off the bench. But Jordan was just warming up. In Game 2 on the way to scoring his 63 points against every Celtics defense and defender, Jordan made two free throws to tie the game in regulation, shooting a three. But back then you got two free throws for a three. A shot was a shot. The Bulls led by four in the first overtime and Jordan had a chance for the winner at the end, but missed from the left elbow. “I kept talking to myself throughout the game, saying, ‘Please let us win.’ I wanted it real bad. I can’t believe I missed that last shot,” Jordan would say afterward. Boston players later said they’d look the other way as coach K.C. Jones scanned the bench for new defenders against Jordan. The Celtics eased ahead to win in the second overtime. The Celtics’ four-point final margin was their biggest lead of the game. Jordan had little left for Game 3 back in Chicago as the Celtics led by double digits almost the whole way. Jordan had “just” 19 points and missed a triple double by one assist. John Paxson playing off the bench behind Kyle Macy led the Bulls with 23 points.
1987 Eastern Conference First Round.
The Bulls were just a warmup for the defending champion Celtics before two of the great playoff series, both seven game Boston wins over the Bucks and then the coming Pistons. That Detroit/Boston series was famous for Bird’s steal on the Isiah Thomas inbounds pass to save the series and Thomas’ ill-conceived racial comments about Bird, which was sort of a cover for Dennis Rodman at the time. The Bulls were the appetizer for Boston, though not taken for granted after what they saw Jordan do against them the previous season. Now Jordan was unleashed. Doug Collins replaced Albeck and Jordan went Wilt, averaging more than 37 points that season. Jordan closed the season scoring at least 50 points in three of the last four games and 61 against Dominique Wilkins and Atlanta. Not that it was a surprise as Jordan had 50 in New York to win the opener. He had a run that season of nine straight games scoring at least 40, was stopped and then scored 41 the next two games. He had seven games of at least 50 points and two more in the 60s. But the Bulls were an eighth seed again at 40-42 and didn’t have enough for the deep and well rounded Celtics as the Bulls still were starting Dave Corzine, Gene Banks, Paxson and Charles Oakley with Jordan. Sedale Threatt was sixth man. Jordan averaged 35.7 points, seven rebounds and six assists in the three playoff games, all Boston wins. All five Boston starters averaged at least 16 points with Bird 26 points and averaging 45 minutes per game. The Celtics closed out the sweep in Chicago by coming from behind in the fourth quarter and outscoring the Bulls by 16 to pull away for a double digit win. Boston would go on to lose to the Lakers in the Finals to effectively end the great Celtics/Lakers 80s rivalry.
2009 Eastern Conference First Round.
The 41-41 Bulls stunned the defending champions in Game 1 as Rose broke Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s rookie playoff scoring record with 36 points. Tyrus Thomas’ big shots, three jumpers, in overtime enabled the Bulls to take a 1-0 series lead. Paul Pierce missed a free throw that could have won the game with 2.6 seconds left in regulation. It gave the Bulls life and put the scare of a lifetime into the Celtics in what became one of the great dramas of playoff lore. Some have since called it the greatest series ever played, though because neither team advanced far it became an NBA footnote. Ben Gordon with 42 points and Ray Allen with 30 and the winning three pointer with two seconds left shot it out down the stretch in Game 2 as Gordon scored the Bulls’ last 12 points in the last four minutes of the game. Still, the Bulls were going home even. But the remaining Big Three of Pierce, Allen and Rondo put the Bulls away early in Game 3 with a 22-point halftime lead. Now the fun was really beginning. Pierce, Rondo and Allen all scored at least 25 points in Game 4. But the Bulls had seven players in double figures with Gordon, Rose and John Salmons all with at least 20. Gordon made a three—yes, he was Ben Jordan then—to send the game into double overtime with 9.8 seconds left. Allen had made a three with 9.8 left in regulation to go to the first overtime. Salmons was crucial for the Bulls winning in a second overtime. Back to Boston tied 2-2. The Celtics won 106-104 in one overtime in the most controversial game of the series. Rondo led the Celtics with 28 points, but became Bulls Enemy No. 1 with a brutal flagrant foul that should have earned a suspension on Brad Miller with two seconds left in overtime. Pierce had made a shot for what would be the winner with 3.4 seconds left in overtime. His jumper with 10.5 seconds in regulation led to overtime. The Celtics rushed to defend Gordon, leaving Miller a wide open lane. Rondo came flying over and basked Miller from behind. Miller was bleeding and badly shaken. He shot the free throws and missed with the two seconds left in the overtime. And then it got even more memorable with the triple overtime classic back in the United Center. Allen had 51 points for Boston while Salmons had 35 and Rose 28. Miller recovered for 23 points, but it was Noah with the big steal from Pierce to clinch it in the third overtime. Miller’s score on a Hinrich pass tied it in regulation. Salmons tied it with 23 seconds left in the first overtime and then Pierce missed at the buzzer. Allen’s three with 7.6 seconds left tied in the second overtime and then it was Noah stripping the ball from Pierce and finishing the three-point play with 35 seconds left for the coup. Rose’s jumpers earlier in the third overtime had carried the Bulls. But again the Bulls were empty for Game 7 despite Gordon’s 33 points. A 29-11 Boston second quarter with Scalabrine and Eddie House hitting big shots proved the end of the series no one wanted to see end.