For much of the 2011-12 NBA season, the Bulls have been in the driver’s seat in the Eastern Conference. Despite injuries to just about every member of the team at some point this season, the Bulls were in 1st place pretty much from wire to wire. Coach Tom Thibodeau often talked about his team playing with an edge, and Joakim Noah has said that he loves how desperate the Bulls play, but realistically, the Bulls haven’t had any actual pressure. They have spent all season trying to manufacture motivation, to find reasons to play with that edge and find reasons to play desperate. On Tuesday night, for the first time in almost a year, the Bulls had to deal with some real desperation. One more loss to the Philadelphia 76ers means the Bulls become just the 5th team in league history to lose to an 8 seed in the 1st round of the playoffs. Chicago has set some lofty goals for itself this season, and all year, they have maintained the pursuit of a championship despite a myriad of injuries to major players. Entering the playoffs, the Bulls finally seemed at full strength with Rip Hamilton finding his rhythm and Derrick Rose returning from the latest of a plethora of ailments he suffered from. Fast forward to Tuesday, and D-Rose is done for the season and Noah is hobbled as well, and the Bulls are down 3 games to 1 and staring elimination in the face. It was time for the Bulls to dig deep. All season long, Luol Deng has said, “It’s not always going to be perfect, and it’s not always going to be pretty, but we’re going to play hard and we’re going to find a way.” For the first time in this series since Rose went down, the Chicago Bulls lived up to that mantra.
The Bulls took down the 76ers, 77-69, in a sloppy, physical, hard-fought playoff game in Chicago on Tuesday night. Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer led the charge at the offensive end, with 24 and 19 points, respectively. Carlos did most of his damage in the 3rd, with 12 points in the frame, and he also was huge in other areas with 13 rebounds and 6 assists. Luol scored the first 4 points of the game, but really made his presence felt in the 4th, when he connected on 3 triples and really helped keep the ‘Sixers at bay. “Boozer and Deng were great tonight,” commented 76ers coach Doug Collins. “Luol hit some really big 3’s at the end with the shot clock winding down.” It was the first time all series that Luol really asserted himself and went after some points at the offensive end. “I came out aggressive tonight to start the game,” mentioned Deng. “I had good looks at the 3’s, even though the shot clock was winding down, and I kept shooting the ball.” His strong shooting night carried the Bulls late, but it was defense that got Chicago back into this series.
Ronnie Brewer manhandled Evan Turner off the bench, and Omer Asik and Taj Gibson dominated in the paint all night as the Bulls held Philly to just 69 points, including a playoff franchise-record low 26 points in the first half. Gibson and Asik combined to block 7 shots, and changed countless others. “Our bigs did a good job of keeping their [Philly’s] guards in front of them,” explained Deng. “Their guards have been hurting us by getting in the paint and hitting those shots, and our bigs did a good job of making them take tough shots.” By the final buzzer, Philadelphia had shot a dismal 11-of-34 in the paint, and just 32% overall for the game. Andre Iguodala shot just 4-for-19, and point guard Jrue Holiday was 5-for-17 but led the team with 16 points. After going off for 20 or more in each of the games in Philly, center Spencer Hawes was held to 11 on Tuesday, but he did contribute a game-high 14 rebounds.
Just laying out the 76ers shooting numbers doesn’t tell the whole story of how the Bulls’ physical play really got under Philly’s skin, in Spencer Hawes’s case, literally. Hawes showed up at the postgame news conference with a cut that went most of the way up one of his cheeks. “It’s a physical series. If that’s how it’s going to go, we can play that brand of basketball,” commented Hawes in a noticeably restrained tone. The ‘Sixers weren’t exactly complaining, but they definitely took notice of how little room the Bulls were giving them to operate. “I have to read the memo on free movement again,” quipped Collins. “When you look at the Bulls players like Brewer, you see that they are big, strong guys. We can’t play out of character and go out and play smash-mouth basketball. That’s not what we do. If we do that, we fall into the trap that they want to put us in. You can’t let one game get you going in the wrong direction.” Despite the coach’s words, the 76ers are a very young team who just may let a little hotheadedness get the best of them. Evan Turner was noticeably frustrated by a couple of calls he didn’t get on drives to the basket, and as much as he tried to hide it, Hawes seemed to be seething too. The frustration with the officials didn’t end with the Philly bench. When asked about the free throw disparity in the game coach Thibodeau looked ready to say something that could affect his wallet before stopping and commenting that, “Some things are better left unsaid.”
Things did get a little heated late in the first half when it appeared that Taj Gibson elbowed Elton Brand in the chin during a scrum for a loose ball. The teams were sent to their respective benches to cool off and the two players were each issued a technical foul. “I love stuff like that,” gushed Bulls’ guard John Lucas. “It shows we’re competing out there. It didn’t get out of hand, nobody threw punches. It was just two teams that were fighting that didn’t want to lose. We needed that, absolutely.” Luol Deng got a slightly different benefit from the skirmish. When asked about the fight, Deng simply responded, “Honestly, I just came out of the game. I was a little tight, so I just sat down and tried to enjoy my time on the bench. I had two heat pads on and I was feeling great.” He got plenty of chuckles from press row with that explanation. After the technicals, the Bulls scored the final 4 points of the half to build up their biggest lead of the night at 9 points going into the break. Despite a couple of spots where Philly seemed poised to make a run, they never got it closer than 7 after the half.
For the first time in quite a while, the basketball gods, at least the branch of them that deal with injuries, are smiling on the Bulls and showing them some love. The Bulls got a big scare with two minutes left in the third when Taj Gibson came down clutching his ankle after contesting a Philly shot and committing a foul. After the way this team has suffered all season long with injuries, and with the devastating ones to Rose and Noah in the postseason, this just seemed like the last straw that could break this team’s spirit. “I was just screaming at him to get up and be in pain later,” mentioned Deng. Taj went to the locker room to be checked out by the trainer, but he returned in the 4th and seemed to be just fine. He didn’t seem to be favoring the ankle and made an instant impact when he returned. The Bulls had just watched their biggest lead of the night of 15 turn into 9 thanks to a Holiday 3 and Hawes 3-point play when Taj was reinserted with 6:43 to play. Gibson promptly hit a 15-foot jumper and moments later sank two free throws to push the lead back to 13. The ‘Sixers only threatened once more, but Iguodala missed a wide open 3 that would have cut the lead to 5 with 30 seconds left. “The only way they were taking me off this court was if I hurt it again,” exclaimed Taj. “I knew he was coming back, Taj is from Brooklyn,” joked Lucas. “When he was laying down, he was saying ‘I’m good, I’m good.’ When you tweak it, of course you’re going to feel something, but I knew he was coming back. It was huge.” Nothing has been said for sure, but I would assume Taj will be good to go for game 6.
Both teams are now looking at game 6 as a must-win if they would like to advance to the second round and face Boston or Atlanta. “I don’t want to come to a game 7,” stated Collins. The 76ers coach, much like his players, realized how difficult it would be to defeat the Bulls in Chicago after allowing them to regain their confidence. Philly’s real chance to advance comes on Thursday. “We still have the lead, and we’re going back to our home court,” mentioned Hawes. “Now we get our shot.” The ‘Sixers had better make good on that shot, because if they don’t, they’ll be watching round two from home. The Bulls hope to have Joakim Noah back on Thursday, and if he and Taj can play, the Bulls should be able to find a way to take care of business on the road. They likely would have won game 3 in Philly if not for Jo’s injury. If Noah can’t play, the Bulls might need the help of more refs like tonight. You know, the ones who keep the whistles in their pockets and let the physical play continue. If the teams are allowed to play like this again, it’s only a matter of time before the young 76ers start to lose their composure and play into that trap that Doug Collins is talking about. One thing is for sure. The Bulls will continue to play like a team that’s desperate. If Philly can’t match that desperation, they won’t be able to match the Bulls.