Loss leaves Bulls bloodied and bruised

BOSTON – His upper lip was swollen and cut, the blood gushing out of the corner of

Brad Miller’s

mouth and the Chicago Bulls' trainer reached inside and furiously sewed those stitches. Discombobulated, dizzy, his eyes rolling back, Miller was fighting to keep his mind on the magnitude of the moment.

“I shut my eyes,” Miller said, “and waited until he told me he was done.”

Two seconds left in overtime, two free throws, after the Boston Celtics met Miller with mayhem and malice at the rim.

Rajon Rondo

never bothered to swing for the ball with Miller on the move, just a hand to the face that crumpled him to the floor. Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro screamed for a flagrant foul, and Miller looked like a lost soul, wandering in a fog between the bench and the free-throw line, between consciousness and confusion.

“It was just another one of the many shots to the head that haven’t been called this whole series,” Miller grumbled.

Out of nowhere, these Bulls and Celtics are playing a playoff series for the ages and, now, groggy and glassy-eyed, Miller had a chance to push the defending champions to a second OT on Tuesday night at the Garden. The Celtics wouldn’t let

Ben Gordon

catch an inbounds pass to beat them with a jumper, so the ball found its way to Miller at the free-throw line extended. He faked once, lost his man and had a clear path to the basket for a dunk.

Rondo hit him at the rim with two seconds left, with

Kendrick Perkins

closing fast. “No layups,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said, and that “won the game for us.”

Miller is a career 80 percent free-throw shooter, but he never had a chance. Rondo has done everything for the Celtics, including the clocking of a 7-foot, 270-pound tractor out of Purdue.

“I don’t even know if they cleaned up all the blood around the basket,” Miller said.

Maybe it was a flagrant foul, Miller mused, but how could he tell. “I missed it,” he said. “I was getting a forearm shiver to the face.”

Miller missed his free throws, the Celtics survived Game 5 106-104, and now the Bulls return to the United Center fighting for a chance at a Game 7 with the defending NBA champions. No NBA series has ever gone to overtime in three games, and yet this Eastern Conference quarterfinal has set the record with possibly two games left until completion. Now, the Bulls have to get up, clean up the blood and come for the champs again.

Chicago had the Celtics beat, again, and let them go. Chicago had fouled out

Ray Allen

in regulation, had

Paul Pierce

playing with a frightened

Stephon Marbury

and a scattered

Tony Allen,

and Del Negro still refused to send another defender to save

John Salmons

from the damnation of Pierce’s step-back jumper in overtime.

Pierce hit another jumper at the end of regulation for overtime, three in the final 77 seconds of overtime and the Celtics spared themselves the slippery slope of a Game 6 in Chicago that could’ve ended the season. They aren’t playing great basketball, but they’ve had their moments of inspiration. The Bulls are young and hungry, hell-bent on restoring the reputation of a forlorn franchise.

Whatever happens the rest of the way, this series has gone a long way toward reclaiming credibility for these Bulls. Basketball executives John Paxson and Gar Forman remade this team at the trade deadline, and the Bulls will have a chance to contend again in the Eastern Conference. Boston won’t beat Chicago, as much as it’ll survive it. That’s what happened on Tuesday night. The Celtics survived, and truth be told, they’ll probably have to return home on Saturday for a Game 7 to do it again.

Rondo was remarkable – 28 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds – and he understood that he had a free shot on Miller on that final play. He’s 6-1, and no one calls a flagrant when a little man tries to decapitate a big one. Everyone on the Bulls believed it was a flagrant, but they knew they weren’t getting that call in Boston. They knew Rondo could’ve popped Miller’s head loose – never mind his teeth – and that would’ve been nothing but what it was: Two bloody, blurry-eyed free throws.

“There were arms coming from everywhere, and I knew they weren’t going for the ball,” Miller said. “I was just trying to get [the shot] up before they called some crap like ‘on the ground.’ ”

The Bulls aren’t done. Not even close. They’ve sent film to the league office on the Celtics’ physicality, Miller said, but those never go anywhere. That’s all right. This is good for the Bulls, good for the game. Another night, another epic. Pity poor Brad Miller. He had two free throws, two rims and two seconds left on Tuesday night when little Rajon Rondo had a free shot and pounded him upside that woozy head.

When it was over, Miller was drinking a bottle of water at his locker. He tipped the bottle to one side of his mouth, where there were no stitches, no blood. His knees were wrapped with ice. His eyes were glassy. There was no second overtime on Tuesday night at the Garden, but there’s still a chance for the Bulls to come back to Boston for Game 7, to take the champ’s best shot.

“We’ve got another game to play on Thursday,” Miller said. “Let’s strap it on and see what happens.”