PHILADELPHIA After a season like this, would you expect anything less?
Yes, the Bulls lost Game 6 of their first-round playoff series with the 76ers, 79-78, Thursday night at the Wells Fargo Center, but in the spirit of a campaign in which they continually battled through tremendous adversity, they did so with dignity and heart.
With 2.2 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, Sixers All-Star swingman Andre Iguodala stepped to the line after rebounding Bulls center Omer Asiks missed free throw and pushing it the length of the court, then getting fouled on a layup attempt and with the Bulls up by a point, calmly knocked down a pair of shots from the charity stripe.
It wasnt over yet, however, as Bulls point guard C.J. Watsons last-gasp heave hit the back of the rim at the buzzer, but fell short, concluding a grind-it-out battle between two similar teams.
For the second consecutive game, Luol Deng (19 points, 17 rebounds, two blocked shots) got off to a hot start, opening the games scoring and pouring in eight points in the first period while maintaining an aggressive offensive approach. Rip Hamilton (19 points, eight rebounds) also found his touch in the early going, but perhaps the most surprising moment of the first quarter was Asik (10 points, nine rebounds, two blocks) starting for the third consecutive game, though the injured Joakim Noah was available and dressed on the Bulls bench knocking down a deep jumper.
Philadelphia recovered, led by point guard Jrue Holiday, who drained a pair of three-pointers early, as well as Iguodala (game-high 20 points), whose biggest contribution might have been an inadvertent elbow to the side of Dengs face, drawing blood and causing his All-Star counterpart to temporarily exit the contest the small forward would return in the second period after receiving stitches and slowing down his scoring. Following a Lou Williams jumper in the waning seconds of the first quarter, the Sixers held a 24-22 lead.
Chicagos reserves led the charge early in the second stanza, as John Lucas IIIs scoring and Taj Gibsons (14 points, five rebounds, two blocks) energetic play on both ends, as well as more exploits from Asik fluidly catching a bullet pass and finishing with a dunk, plus the foul, then making the ensuing free throw to complete the traditional three-point play got them a slim cushion. But the Sixers stole the momentum right back, as a technical foul on Gibson, contributions from reserve forward Thaddeus Young, an afterthought in the series as of late, and the hot shooting of guards Holiday and Williams, the Sixth Man of the Year runner-up, bought them some separation.
In all, the hosts went on a 11-0 run, changing the tenor of the game and with it, igniting the home crowd, which came alive and turned the Wells Fargo Center into the hostile environment for road teams Philadelphia audiences have been notorious for over the years. The Bulls eventually quashed the spurt, mostly behind Gibson whose improbable triple off the glass to beat the shot clock would have been the second three-pointer of his career, was ruled to be after the buzzer during the break but the visitors still went into the intermission facing a 48-40 deficit.
The third quarter didnt start well for either squad, but while the Sixers werent exactly offensively proficient, they were better than the Bulls, who didnt record a second-half field goal until nearly five minutes into the period. Most of the visitors scoring struggles could be pinned squarely on Carlos Boozer (three points, 13 rebounds), as the power forward missed 10 of his first 11 shot attempts though, in fairness, he also corralled 13 rebounds during the same span and Philadelphias lead swelled to double digits, as the Sixers like Iguodala got into transition for thunderous fast-break finishes.
But despite the raucous crowd and all of the home teams momentum, the perimeter trio of Deng, Hamilton and Watson (10 assists), who made more of an impact with his playmaking than with his scoring, made the deficit manageable again, aided by the Sixers poor shot selection and general inability to score.
During the 16-4 Bulls run, Deng, taking the role of go-to scorer for the second straight contest, and Hamilton, playing a sidekick role, scored off jumpers, drives, on offensive rebounds and in transition, and with Chicagos stout defense backing them, the game was tied at 63 apiece heading into the final stanza.
The Bulls scored the first four points of the fourth quarter to make it a 20-4 extended run, but it was their defense an incredible stand led by the shot-blocking of Asik and Gibson denied the Sixers a bucket on four point-blank chances during a single possession that was most crucial. Philadelphia didnt fade away, however, and with the crowd on its feet and just under the midway mark in the quarter, Iguodala knocked down a three-pointer to tie the contest at 70.
A long ball from Williams with just over four minutes remaining regained the lead for the Sixers, but it was short-lived, as a Deng layup off a well-drawn inbounds play out of a timeout gave the Bulls a 74-73 advantage, which the Bulls maintainedvia multiple offensive reboundsinto the games stretch run and then extended to a three-point spread after Gibson made a pair of foul shots with 2:03 left.
After seemingly going an eternity without scoring, Philadelphia cut it to a one-point deficit with 43.9 seconds to go, as center Spencer Hawes finished a reverse layup in traffic, but following a timeout, a dunk by Asik, not exactly renowned for having a great set of hands, made it 78-75 in the Bulls favor with 25.8 seconds remaining.
On the ensuing possession, Young scored on a driving layup with 12 seconds on the clock and the Bulls pushed the ball before it again ended up in Asiks hands, and the center was fouled with seven seconds left. The woeful free-throw shooter missed both of his attempts and Iguodala corralled the second shot, drove the ball the distance of the court and was fouled with 2.2 seconds left, setting up the dramatic conclusion.