Bulls fall behind 76ers 2-1 in playoff opening series


May 5

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The Bulls’ championship hopes for this season likely ended last Sunday when Derrick Rose suffered that torn anterior cruciate ligament late in the Bulls Game 1 playoff victory over the Philadelphia 76ers.

But there seemed hope against the 76ers and possibly in the conference semifinals. Though that seems all but gone now with Joakim Noah sustaining a severe ankle sprain late in Friday’s 79-74 Bulls loss that left them trailing the 76ers 2-1 in this series with Game 4 noon Sunday.

“Next man up, next man up. That’s the way it is,” said General Patton, err, I mean Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, frankly, saying what he had to say in the wake of the Bulls losing a 14-point fourth quarter lead and the game. “We’ve got more than enough to win with. On the road you have you have to play 48 minutes. Going into the last two minutes, the game is right there to be had. We’ve got to find a way to win. You have to do it for 48 minutes, and to me, that’s playoff basketball. It’s going to be will, fight, determination, discipline, those loose balls right at the end there. You can’t give a team three shots at it (Evan Turner with the play of the game with 1:24 left). You have to give them one shot and you have to finish your defense. You got to run. You got to get easy baskets. I think understanding the importance, how the game is different, in the fourth quarter. We have to respond better. The intensity is different in the fourth quarter.

“The thing is, injuries are a part of the game,” Thibodeau continued. “You have to have a mental toughness to get past all of that. We’ve had injuries all year and you just deal with it. If you look, you can find something every night, every game. Shorthanded, regular season back-to-back, early start, late start, whatever it is, or you can find a way to win. That’s what you need. You need guys who that have great will to win, and no matter what the circumstances are will find a way to win.”

The Bulls didn’t say, though X-rays were reported to be negative on Noah’s ankle. He actually went back into the game for about two minutes in the fourth quarter, hobbling badly.

I’d be surprised to see Noah again in this series no matter how long it lasts. I know he’s an amazingly tough guy and dedicated to his teammates. It’s why he begged to return to the game after suffering such a bad ankle injury, at least by the looks at it. It was one of those—and I’m not saying it’s as bad—injuries you can’t bear watching the replay the way it bent when Noah stepped on Andre Iguodala’s foot after his one man full court fast break. I thought Joe Theismann in that Monday Night Football game

Noah, after being down for a considerable time with even some 76ers fans (fanatics? Idiots?) cheering, stayed in the game to shoot his free throws for a Bulls 47-42 lead with 7:57 left in the third quarter.

Noah would stay in at that point for another minute or so and then go to the trainer’s room. The Bulls reported he was questionable to return. But then Noah did return in the fourth quarter and was so obviously hurt and ineffective Thibodeau did take him back out. Though during that sequence the 76ers got a pair of offensive rebounds and baskets as they went from trailing 67-56 to 69-60 when Noah went out for good.

“He wanted to give it a shot and you could see he couldn’t move,” said Thibodeau. “That’s the way it is. Just got to get ready for the next one. First he’s got to be cleared by Fred (Tedeschi, trainer). He felt like he could go. Once we saw he was having a hard time moving that was it.”

The appropriateness of bringing Noah back will be debated, though the Bulls didn’t lose the game there. They still were ahead by nine with about eight minutes left. But the Bulls missed 10 consecutive field goals in the fourth quarter stretch and were outscored 15-2 after Noah went out as the 76ers went ahead 75-71 with the 76ers repeatedly getting second shots and Spencer Hawes’ unlikely jump shot heroics on the way to a team high 21 points.

John Lucas III hit a three pointer with 49 seconds left to bring the Bulls within 75-74.

But then Turner made that playoff classic play, driving, getting blocked by Luol Deng, picking up the ball, getting stripped and getting it again and going up and getting fouled. Turner, who had 16 points and nine rebounds, made two free throws for a 77-74 76ers lead with 20.1 seconds left.

Deng then bricked a three from the left wing. The 76ers rebounded, the Bulls had to foul, Jrue Holiday made two free throws and suddenly the Bulls were in what seemed like the unlikeliest danger a week ago of being the fifth No. 1 seed in NBA history to lose to a No. 8 seeded team.

“Wow. What an incredible win for our guys,” enthused 76ers coach Doug Collins. “Shoot 34 percent. One for 14 from three (How do the Bulls lose that game?). Just looked like we were just not going to be able to find a way to score. Then our guys, I talked about it, you get into a series and it becomes about the will to win, the 50/50 balls, all those little things. We had some tremendous performances tonight. I was really very, very proud of Spencer. Spencer had a horrible start to the third quarter, missed two or three layups. Took him out, tried to calm him down a little bit. He hit some huge shots for us in the second half. Lou [Williams] had some big baskets when we needed him.. Dre [Andre Iguodala] is out there really playing on one foot right now, and the job he’s doing either chasing Rip Hamilton.

“But I honestly believe that the singular biggest play of the year for us was Evan Turner, the play he made under the basket,” said Collins. “Evan just fought, fought, fought, got fouled and made those two free throws. I thought that was the singular best play for us of the season that he made. Our defense clamped down. I thought fatigue was a factor for them. I kept talking to our guys. They were depleted. Noah went out and obviously they have no Derrick Rose.”

And that is the story for the Bulls.

They now are without their best scorer and their best rebounder and defender, their best perimeter defender and their best interior defender, their best interior big man playmaker and their best perimeter playmaker. Yes, to lose the league MVP is devastating. But then to lose—and I cannot see how Noah leaving the arena on crutches can play anytime soon—the other toughest guy on the team, well, how are you supposed to win then?

I know they will try, and they are not a team that quits.

“We’ve got to get one here,” said Kyle Korver. “We didn’t get it tonight. We’ve got to get it Sunday. Then we go home tied 2-2. We’ll have home court again. So that’s our focus. We can do it. We’ve said all year we have the deepest team in the league. We’ll see where Jo’s at Sunday.

“It’s tough (without Jo and Derrick),” Korver conceded. “I thought Omer (Asik) played great.”

Korver then paused, considering perhaps where the Bulls were a week ago and where they are now. Then he sighed a long sigh.

“That’s just the way our year’s been, man,” he finally said.

It has been the most disheartening season for a team with the best record in the league.

And the fourth quarter was, to me, less failing to get the loose balls and hustle than the effects of the loss of the team’s two most important players.

Yes, the Bulls have depth, but not players who are supposed to have major roles down the stretch and playing big minutes in tough playoff games. The Bulls are in a tug-of-war series with a tough 76ers team. And in the last seconds they go with Lucas, Asik, Richard Hamilton playing his most minutes of the season and so tired he had to be lifted for a few minutes, Deng and Carlos Boozer.

Boozer played well, at least to start, and led the Bulls with 18 points and 10 rebounds.

Thibodeau usually likes to finish with Taj Gibson in this kind of defensive game. But because Asik was out there, a big man who doesn’t score, he went with Boozer for scoring. So Gibson played just the first four minutes of the fourth quarter. Lucas, a minor league refugee guard, plays the entire fourth quarter. C.J. Watson had played poorly, zero for four and zero points in 20 minutes, and Thibodeau left him out. Thibodeau said Watson was suffering from various injuries from earlier in the season with his elbow and ankle. But not using Mike James much, Thibodeau apparently decided he couldn’t in such a situation.

Which becomes the issue. Now you have reserves playing minutes in circumstances they are unaccustomed to playing and being stretched time they often don’t play. So Hamilton comes up short late on a pair of big free throws. Asik, too, missed a pair as the Bulls were a poor 14 of 23 from the line.

Lucas took his share of off balance shots, but also, as he does, tended to dribble too much, then giving the ball to players late in the clock where they had to force up shots or in spots that weren’t great with Boozer shooting some late long jump shots.

Yes, Lucas will make a big shot because, to his credit, he doesn’t fear the moment. But given he’s never been a playmaking guard in his life how can he become on down the stretch in a playoff game?

“Every loss is a tough loss,” said Lucas. “We had that game. We gave that game away. We’ve got to make sure we don’t repeat the same mistakes. We had the game right where we wanted. We had them playing our tempo. We were playing excellent half court defense. We took away their transition, took away their fast break. It’s just tough when you don’t pull the victory.”

Lucas was right about that. It was the Bulls game, and you got the sense the 76ers were about to give up and in their minds say they’d get them Sunday.

It was, statistically, a shocking game to lose. The 76ers shot 34.2 percent and one of 14 on threes, the only one a bail out heave from Hawes. The Bulls outrebounded them 49-43, had 22 assists to 13 for the 76ers and had 17 fast break points to 10 for Philadelphia.

You know, the operation was a success and the patient died.

Boozer answered the call with five of six first quarter shooting as the Bulls led 20-19. The 76ers are such bad perimeter shooters you would think of playing zone at times against them. But Thibodeau feels that compromises your rebounding too much, and, anyway, the Bulls had this game.

The Bulls trailed 40-39 at halftime in what was becoming a grueling game of missed shots and tough defense. The Bulls’ defense was really good as the 76ers constantly were forcing shots late in the shot clock. Thibodeau rode Boozer longer than he usually does early in the game as well as Hamilton as he sensed scoring would be difficult without Rose and the way the more athletic 76ers were attacking the Bulls’ guards without Rose.

Then the Bulls got their separation with a suffocating third quarter. The 76ers shot four of 21 and the Bulls pounded the boards. And who knew it would be such a harbinger of ill fortune as Noah was hurt and then Boozer drew a fourth foul on what could have been a layup score for a 56-47 lead. Still, the Bulls went into the fourth quarter leading 60-51.

“We played a great defensive game until the fourth quarter,” said Korver. “We say all the time the fourth quarter is not like any other quarter. You’ve got to pick it up a level and we just didn’t do it.”

Gibson, though, opened it with a 17 footer, and then when Hamilton hit a three from on top with 10:16 left, the Bulls led 67-53 and the home crowd was mumbling some ugly things.

Noah then came back into the game, and it was painful to watch him hobble around for those two awful minutes. So I cannot imagine how he felt.

“He’s gutsy, man,” said Boozer. “He sprained it real good. Hit the two free throws, came back. What else can you say? He’s a warrior, man. Tough injury. I don’t know how he’ll be ready or not ready for Sunday. We’ll wait and see how the treatment goes tomorrow and how the treatment goes early Sunday. It’s a quick turnaround, early game. Obviously not having Joakim out there affects us in a huge way. He’s a monster, monster on defense, been playing great offensively as well, and obviously it definitely affected us in the second half and down the stretch. But what a warrior. A warrior for trying to go out there and play for us.”

Then the collapse came as the Bulls players seemed worn out, the shots were coming well short and awry and no one was getting out to Hawes, who finally was making some shots. Hawes, really, had been awful. But the Bulls were so concentrating on closing the lane he kept releasing a few feet out and no one could get to him.

“We were down by one at the half to a nice lead at the end of the third quarter,” noted Boozer. “They did a great job in the fourth quarter. I think that we got good shots and then we missed some good shots. Then there were other moments that we had a tough time getting into our sets, and that’s because their defense was good. I give them a lot of credit for that. They did a great job of helping on D in that fourth quarter, and we gotta do a better job in the fourth. Their guards got in the paint, got to the free throw line. They got some loose balls that we didn’t get to, like I said earlier, and that’s something we have to correct. Our fourth quarter has to be our best quarter, and tonight it wasn’t.”

The 76ers constantly attacked the smaller Lucas, and Asik going to help also left Hawes open on those plays. The 76ers had the Bulls defenders scrambling. So you say play Gibson. But no one is scoring for the Bulls. Boozer had been one of the few. Hamilton, also, but he was now fairly gassed with playing a season high 42 minutes.

“We we’re struggling to score and we hit a point where Rip needed a blow,” said Thibodeau. “Even though Rip didn’t shoot a good percentage (four of 15 and 17 points), I thought he played really well. His play making, he did a lot of good things out there. But he needed a blow, so you are taking a primary scorer out. Not only a primary scorer, but a guy who commands two people on the ball. That makes it difficult. That’s the way it is, and we still have to find other ways to score.”

Deng was just two of seven for five points. Several times as the 76ers overplayed Deng to his right hand to force him left, Deng circled back to his right to shoot like a tennis player running away from his backhand.

Deng wouldn’t say, but it did seem like his torn left wrist ligament was giving him trouble again.

Talk about your Spirit of ’76 bandaged warriors.

“Everyone has got to play to their strengths,” said Thibodeau. “They’re not here by accident. It’s going to be a quick turnaround here. We can’t feel sorry for ourselves. Sunday when that ball goes up we’ve got to be ready to go. We’ve got to be ready. That’s our job. Can’t feel sorry for ourselves. “

I do feel a little sorry for what’s going on, though.

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