CHICAGO – They had played six games and seven overtimes, had given the NBA playoffs an unexpected first-round spark, created heroes and villains, endured flagrant fouls and shoves to the face.
Now that the latest installment was over, they got Joakim Noah, the 7-foot free spirit with the Sideshow Bob haircut, and asked him a question over the public address system.
The United Center was still rocking, but it suddenly went silent except for the ringing in everyone's ears. In search of some unlikely genius to sum up the craziest series anyone had ever seen, who better to turn to than this son of a tennis star and an artist from near Greenwich Village that no one can make sense of anyway.
He'd just made the least-expected play of a series full of them, an open-court steal and driving dunk that both fouled out Paul Pierce and gave Chicago a lead it wouldn't relinquish. It ended Bulls 128, Celtics 127 in a triple-overtime Game 6 classic.
Noah's thoughts on this series? Hell, it might be like Forrest Gump breaking down Vietnam.
So the big guy first looked for his mother in the crowd, then leaned into the radio host to hear the question and then paused to consider some words. Finally he just sat on the scorer's table and settled on howling into the microphone. It was a primal scream. The place went nuts.
"I don't even know what just happened, man," he'd say later and, for once, Joakim Noah was speaking in perfect clarity.
Back to Boston for Game 7 – just like the Basketball Gods (Michael Jordan? Larry Bird?) preordained it. You might as well get ready for an overtime or three, because a series this great, with performances this grand, wasn't meant for regulation time.
There was no other way to conclude what is perhaps the finest non-Finals series in NBA history. Thursday was another masterpiece of endearing endurance, a game with literally everything.
Consider Rajon Rondo, who nearly was thrown out of the game for taking Kirk Hinrich by the arm and wiping him into the scorer's table. He then proceeded to play 57 minutes and dish 19 assists without a turnover.
Many of them went to Ray Allen, who amassed 51 points in a performance so outrageous that every time he pulled up for that rapid-fire release of a jumper, Bulls fans would scream in terror like they were watching a car wreck about to happen.
And, yet, the Celtics lost.
The Bulls never folded and they had ample opportunity. The Celtics are more experienced, more polished and better coached. They have two megastars to make the lonely moment plays where the Bulls rely on a panoply of players – a Brad Miller 3 here, a Derrick Rose drive there, a John Salmons dagger when you least expect it.
Yet, every time the defending champions were about to put it away, dust off these upstart kids and move onto more serious business, the Bulls rose and then fumbled and then rose again.
"It looked good for us, it didn't look good for us, it looked good for us," coach Vinny Del Negro said, and he could've added a few more to the example.
If nothing else Chicago showed resolve, the third overtime a display of the guts needed for glory. They had kicked away the second OT by letting Allen loose for another game-tying 3 and then booting the final possession without anything close to a shot.
They returned to the bench with hung heads in front of a sagging, exhausted, exasperated crowd. This is the emotion of the playoffs and this is what Chicago had to master.
"They make a shot it takes your breath away," said Salmons, who had 35 points. "You make a shot and it's the best feeling in the world."
It ended with Noah reading the Celtics' play, leaving his man to make the steal and then heading for pay dirt without a moment of hesitation. It was a sight to see, a guy too tall to try what he was trying, hair flapping in the wind, no thought of passing or slowing down or doing anything but thundering down a dunk.
"It happened," he said.
When he was fouled by Pierce, sending the star out of the game, the Celtics were about out of players. Boston's final two possessions featured Rondo and Allen and a combination of Mikki Moore, Brian Scalabrine, Eddie House and Stephon Marbury (which isn't exactly reminding anyone Bird-McHale-Parish).
And it still took a brilliant defensive play by Rose – a block of Rondo, Chicago's most hated man – to seal it up.
"You got to love it," Rose said.
Saturday should be more to love, the ultimate conclusion, unless David Stern wants to make this a best of nine just for TV ratings.
Afterward, everyone was talking about fatigue, although the older Celtics seemed to do most of the talking. Doc Rivers tried to minimize it: "My son played five AAU games last Saturday."
His son Austin, 16, is closer in age to the Bulls, though. Rose, 20, said he felt fine. Noah, 24, declared he could play Game 7 immediately, and came out of the shower without a hint of irony, singing Daft Punk's "One More Time."
The first order of business for both teams is hoping the NBA doesn't decide to punish Rondo and/or Hinrich for their first-quarter altercation. Rondo received a flagrant foul for whipping Hinrich into the scorer's table, but it easily could've been a flagrant 2, which would've resulted in ejection.
Hinrich, meanwhile, received just a technical for going back at Rondo, shoving and trying to square off and fight.
"All flagrants and technicals are reviewed," NBA spokesman Tim Frank told Yahoo! Sports, which means anything is possible.
The best course would be nothing. While what Rondo did and the manner Hinrich responded might technically merit punishment, discipline would ruin the entire operation. This has been a glorious series and it certainly doesn't need to end without one or two of its biggest contributors.
We've been given six games like no one has ever seen before; it's no time to ruin the finale.
"It's playoff basketball," Hinrich shrugged.
It's actually better than that.
- Joakim Noah