Bulls’ season ends with 79-78 loss to 76ers


May 10

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Maybe this star crossed Bulls season, played so much without its stars, could not have ended any other way Thursday than with the Bulls letting a three-point lead with 25.8 seconds left disintegrate in a maze of missed opportunities, questionable circumstances and numbing decisions.

The result was a stunning 79-78 Philadelphia 76ers win with Andre Iguodala, a 45 percent fourth quarter free throw shooter this season, converting two with 2.2 seconds left and the Bulls out of timeouts. C.J. Watson’s half court heave bounced away, and the game, and this Bulls season with so much hope and promise was over in the first round of the NBA playoffs.

Luol Deng

“Tough loss,” said Luol Deng, who was terrific with 19 points and 17 rebounds with most of his time out of the game taking stitches after an elbow to the face. “We fought hard for the game. It came down to the last few minutes. Some calls, got to look at again and see what happened. Played as hard as we can.

“Derrick going out, everyone counted us out,” said Deng. “We came here, we were up and then Jo (Noah) gets hurt, and then Taj (Gibson, with 14 points in 29 minutes Thursday) playing hurt tonight. My wrist, playing with the torn ligament. I’ve never done anything like that, playing almost all season with one arm. Our spirit was amazing. Every time someone went down, we just looked at each other in the locker room and felt we’d get it done and went out and fought every night.

“I really love everyone in the locker room,” said Deng. “I love the coaching staff. It was more than basketball. You don’t have the best record in the NBA without being such a close group. It felt like everything that wasn’t supposed to happen happened, really. You never go into the season thinking I’m going to have a torn ligament, Derrick is going to have ACL, Jo is going to have his ankle, C.J. with the elbow earlier. So many things you never think about. You can’t prepare for stuff like that. But every time something happened we kept making up for it.

“We really made people believe when Derrick was hurt earlier in the season. Everyone stepped up and we got the best record because we kept fighting no matter what we had,” said Deng. “Whatever you want to say at the end of the day whether it caught up to us or not, Philly was a better team in this series and they beat us.”

It sure looked like it as the 76ers took a 48-40 halftime lead, a late three pointer by Gibson reversed during halftime as coming too late and turning out big in the end. The 76ers, led by Iguodala with 20 points, looked like the home court would carry them as they surged out to a 59-47 lead with 5:03 left in the third quarter.

C.J. Watson

But Watson, who later would be involved in the big late sequence of the game, hit a three out of the timeout and it seemed to energize the Bulls. Deng got a steal he turned into a three point play with a fast break and the Bulls worked themselves back into a 63-63 game at the end of three.

More than the score, it was a testament to undermanned effort with Rose and Noah out, Gibson limping from his sprained ankle and coach Tom Thibodeau riding Deng, Omer Asik, Richard Hamilton (19 points) and Watson virtually the entire second half as all played 24 minutes or just below. Only Carlos Boozer among the starters was out after a poor first half and one of 11 for three points and 13 rebounds for the game.

Even still, the Bulls were dominating the 76ers on the backboards and in second chance points, an amazing 29-5 edge in second chance points with Deng and Hamilton repeatedly following their own misses and the Bulls with an overall 56-33 edge in rebounding.

“I don’t know how we won that game,” 76ers coach Doug Collins said afterward as his team scored 31 points in the second half on 31.7 percent shooting. And there was one of their poorest late game free throw shooters on the line with 2.2 seconds left and the Bulls leading 78-77.

One 76er said he was hoping Iguodala would make one to send the game to overtime.

“I don’t know how you could write a better script that Andre Iguodala getting a rebound, driving the length of the floor. Struggled all year at the foul line,” Collins noted, “and stepped up and made two free throws to win a playoff series and get to the second round for the first time.”

Though the Bulls felt it shouldn’t have come to that in so many ways.

Tom Thibodeau

“From my viewpoint, it looked like Omer had the ball,” said Thibodeau of the block attempt with Iguodala racing to the basket with no timeouts. “I don’t want to put it on the officials. We didn’t do what we should’ve done, which was close out the game.”

And much discussed will be a Watson brain freeze in the closing seconds that might have sent the Bulls back home to a seventh game.

The 76ers had taken a 73-72 lead with 4:01 left on a Lou Williams three after the Bulls seemed in control earlier in the fourth quarter. But scoring remained so difficult with Rose and Noah out.

The Bulls had a huge possession emblematic of this game and much of the series after taking a 74-73 lead on a Deng score. Hamilton missed and four offensive rebounds later in the same possession Gibson finally was fouled and made two for a 76-73 Bulls lead with 2:03 left.

It wasn’t clear if the 76ers could score again. They finally got a reverse from Spencer Hawes with 43.8 seconds left to trail by one. The Bulls then took their last timeout and came out with a great pick and roll with Omer Asik rolling in for a big time dunk and 78-75 lead with 25.8 seconds left.

The 76ers took their final timeout and got Thaddeus Young driving inside for a score to bring the 76ers within one, but with just 12.8 seconds left.

It should have been foul shooting the rest of the way.

But Watson made the apparent mistake that will go down in franchise infamy.

The 76ers were trying initially to knock the ball away with fans screaming for a foul as time was wasting. With no call, Watson saw Asik streaking ahead as the big man continued to run the court like no one else. Too good this time as Watson threw ahead to him, the poorest free throw shooter on the team.

Hawes fouled him hard, which could have been considered a flagrant, though there seemed no apparent intent. Should Watson have just pulled up to be fouled? After all, he was shooting 75 percent in this series and 80.8 percent on the season.

“Those plays are tough,” said Thibodeau. “The play in the backcourt where I thought they were trying to take the foul, I have to get more clarity on what a flagrant foul is because I don’t understand that. Sometimes that’s the way it goes. Free throw, rebound, dribble the length of the floor.”

As for Watson, he said he saw two points with Asik, who had been playing brilliantly and was off the floor when the 76ers made their biggest run of the game. Teammates said Asik was in tears afterward about the missed free throws, though they said to a player they’d have lost badly without him. He had 10 points and nine rebounds.

“We didn’t expect to lose this game,” said Watson. “We came out very aggressively. We got down, came back, kept fighting and were in position to win the game.

“I did (think I had him for a dunk),” Watson said of the pass to Asik. “That’s what I thought. He was finishing the whole night. I put him in a bad position. Spencer Hawes came up close enough to where I felt I could pass it to Omer and he could dunk it. I thought it was a questionable call and it could have been a flagrant. I didn’t think about pulling up. I thought, ‘Two on one. Going to the basket. Getting Spencer Hawes to commit an dump it off to O.’

“We had this game,” said Watson. “It was winnable. A couple of questionable calls down the stretch. It’s a tough way to go out. It was a good season. We had injuries the whole season. We kept fighting through, playing hard. The next man always stepped up and that’s all we can ask for. I was just trying to get to the basket. I thought (Asik) had a clear dunk. I think O’s fine. If anything it’s on me. Not O. I put him a bad position, but I thought he had a clear dunk.”

But he didn’t.

Asik missed both free throws, and then perhaps because of fatigue or brain lock, no one got back. Iguodala got the rebound and headed down court with only Asik chasing and making what seemed like a pretty good play on the ball.

But it would not go the Bulls way, just like about all of this seemingly cursed 2011-12 season.

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