PHILADELPHIABizarre, ugly and painful are just some of the words that could be used to sum up the Bulls 79-74 Game 3 loss to the 76ers in their first-round playoff series Friday night.
As opposed to Game 2s third-quarter collapse, the Bulls downfall took place in the fourth period this time aroundthe Sixers used a 19-4 run to take control of the defensive struggleand coupled with center Joakim Noahs left-ankle injury, a season full of promise, now looks to be on the brink of ending, as the top overall seed in the playoffs now faces a 2-1 series deficit with Game 4 in a hostile environment looming, the teams superstar not in uniform and now, the heart and soul of the squad also ailing.
In an emotionally charged playoff environment, the Bulls kept pace early, led by the much-maligned Carlos Boozer, who mixed his usual feathery mid-range touch with aggressiveness and brute strength on the interior.
The Sixers, buoyed by their raucous home crowd, got varied contributions, but while the duo center Spencer Hawes and point guard Jrue Holiday were the offensive headliners at the outset, their determined overall approach set the tone.
A much more defensive battle than the series first two games ensued, as each possession was a grindBulls head coach Tom Thibodeau employed full-court pressure after turnovers and fouls in the backcourt on Philadelphia side out-of-bounds passes, utilizing center Joakim Noahs agilitythroughout the opening period, though the Sixers got a boost from instant-offense sixth man Lou Williams off the bench.
At the conclusion of the first quarter, the Bulls led, 20-19, following John Lucas IIIs buzzer-beater.
Thibodeau rode his starters through the outset of the second quarteronly Lucas, who replaced starting point guard C.J. Watson toward the end of the previous frameand it worked, as Noah joined Boozer in being an interior force by playing with his trademark energy, Rip Hamilton got to the free-throw line and Luol Deng, while he wasnt an effective scorer, played his typically high level of defense and crashed the boards proficiently.
The fact that Thibodeau altered his rotation, evidenced by backup swingman Ronnie Brewer not seeing any minutes and rookie Jimmy Butler receiving playing time, exemplified the significance of the pivotal matchup.
While Lucas scoring was a boon for the visitors, Chicagos offense also struggled with turnovers and though second-year Sixers wing Evan Turner, a Chicago native, was effective against a set defense, the Bulls managed to keep their hosts out of transition and dominated the glass.
Still, they couldnt obtain much breathing room and what was a slim cushion evaporated as the period waned on, due to one of their periodic offensive droughtsthey went approximately six minutes without making a field goaland at the intermission, Philadelphia held a 40-39 advantage.
After the break, the Bulls took advantage of a sloppy Sixers beginning to the second half and drew first blood, going on a 6-0 run to regain the lead.
Then, however, disaster struck, as Noah, while pushing the ball in transition, severely turned his left ankle after stepping on Philadelphia All-Star swingman Andre Iguodalas foot with 7:57 left in the period.
Noah immediately went to the ground in pain, clutching at his ankle and while he hobbled off under his own power and returned to shoot the ensuing free throws after a timeout, he was clearly laboring and came out of the game with 6:46 to go.
However, thanks to Boozers aggressive offensebefore he, along with a struggling Deng, picked up a fourth foul apiece; Boozers replacement, Taj Gibson, threw his own scare into Chicago after going down clutching his knee, but he eventually got up and joined his teammates on the other end of the floor, apparently suffering no significant consequencesand Philadelphias inept shooting, the Bulls lead actually ballooned, giving them a 60-51 edge heading into the final stanza.
Hamilton, playing his first fourth-quarter minutes of the series in the city closest to his hometown, continued his fine all-around play and carried the Bulls offense as both a scorer and playmaker, while Gibson recovered enough to dominate the offensive boards, leading to multiple second-chance opportunities for the visitors.
Remarkably, Noah also made a brief return to the game and even knocked down his patented Tornado jumper, but limping even more than before his trip to the locker room, he soon exited the contest for good after a two-minute, six-second comeback.
With their rowdy fans behind them, the Sixers sped up the tempo in a spirited comeback attempt, which was mostly held off by Boozer, who played with the force fans have desired since his arrival in Chicago, but Philadelphia center Spencer Hawes, after struggling throughout much of the game, came alive to bring the hosts back as part of 19-4 run, giving the home team a 72-71 lead with 2:11 to play.
A badly-missed Boozer jumper with just over a minute left, followed by a Holiday offensive rebound on the subsequent possessionhe was fouled on the play and split a pair of foul shots with 49 seconds left, giving Philadelphia a four-point leadappeared to seal the deal.
But the Bulls revived the never-say-die spirit that carried them all season long and Lucas nailed a three-pointer on the next trip to make it a one-point game, after which Turner made a pair of free throws to make it 77-74 with 20.1 seconds on the clock.
After a timeout, Deng air-balled a game-tying three-point attempt with 16.9 seconds remaining and Holiday drained two shots from the charity stripe to provide the final score.