PHILADELPHIAWith injured center Joakim Noah on the bench in street clothes, the physically and emotionally weary Bulls put forth a game effort in Sundays Game 4 of their first-round playoff series with the 76ers, but simply didnt have enough left in the tank, leading to an 89-82 loss at the Wells Fargo Center. The effort was there and although the execution lacked at certain junctures, it became clear that despite giving it their all, the Bulls just didnt have the personnel or energy to move forward, meaning that Tuesdays Game 5 could mark the end of their 2011-12 campaign.
An aggressive Sixers squad beat the Bulls to the punch from the outset, relentlessly penetrating to the basket, getting out in transition and swarming their guests on defense. To make matters worse, Carlos Boozer (23 points, 11 rebounds), one of the visitors primary scoring options, picked up two quick fouls and was forced to sitprompting Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau to reinsert fill-in starting center Omer Asik, who was torched by Philadelphia counterpart Spencer Hawes (22 points, eight rebounds)which contributed to a double-digit hole.
Then, Bulls All-Star Luol Deng (11 points, five rebounds) took a hard spill while driving to the basket and got up clutching his already-injured left wrist, though he would battle through the pain and bounce back to have a solid opening period. Still, after a period of play, Chicago trailed, 24-15, not surprising considering their disadvantage on the glass and 28-percent shooting from the field.
Reserve Taj Gibson (14 points, 12 rebounds) sparked the Bulls in the second stanza, as his boundless energy, rebounding and overall productivityhe scored 10 consecutive points to bring the Bulls back within striking distancematched Philadelphias quickness and athleticism. Gibson and a modified Bench Mob, including swingman Ronnie Brewer, who didnt play a single minute in Fridays Game 3 loss, closed the gap with improved defensive intensity and an offense consisting mostly of Gibson scoring in a variety of fashions, from face-up dribble moves to tough interior finishes.
While the score remained close, it wasnt due to the Bulls offensive proficiency, and while it would dovetail well with the games statistics to call the contest a defensive battle, in reality, neither team was very capable of producing points, with notable exceptions being Boozer and Hawes. Despite starting wings Deng and Rip Hamilton playing limited minutes in the quarterDeng exited the period early in favor of sharpshooter Kyle Korver, while Hamilton didnt touch the floor at all after starting the gamethe visitors, after briefly taking a lead, were behind, 44-42, at the intermission, after a Hawes corner three-pointer just before the halftime buzzer.
Boozer got off to a strong start after the break and thanks to solid Bulls ball movementa hallmark of the team during the regular season when it was without All-Star Derrick Rose in the lineup to make playsthat included the starting perimeter trio of Deng, Hamilton and even C.J. Watson (17 points, four assists, six rebounds), in the midst of a miserable series shooting the ball, knocking down outside jumpers. However, behind the scoring of Hawes and the all-around contributions of the young backcourt of Jrue Holiday (20 points, eight rebounds, six assists) and Evan Turner, as well as All-Star swingman Andre Iguodala (14 points, 11 rebounds), the Sixers hung tough, making it a back-and-forth affair.
Boozer and Watson ended up shouldering Chicagos offensive load as the period waned on, but the frames emphasis was less on scoring than physical, hard-nosed play on both ends of the floor, as scoring was at a premium for either team. Philadelphia was unable to unleash its transition game, but heading into the final stanza, the Bulls were still behind, 64-63.
The ragged contest didnt get any prettier in the fourth quarter, reflected by the gritty approach of both squadsas well as the crowd, as one member of the audience ambled on to the court, screaming at a game official, which led to his ejection from the arenaone fighting for survival, the other to put its opponent on the ropes. Along with continued, if sporadic contributions from Boozer and Gibson, Watson, consistently described by Thibodeau as nicked up, fought through physical defense and mustered up some clutch buckets, as did opposing point guard Holiday, whose back-to-back dagger jumpers gave the Sixers a three-possession cushion, 80-73, with 3:34 to go.
Following a timeout, a Boozer traditional three-point play and a Watson jumper cut the deficit to two points, then after Hawes and Watson exchanged buckets, the Bulls had a chance to tie the game, but whistles remained silent when Boozer drew contact going to the basket, while on the other end, Holiday was fouled with 51.5 seconds left and knocked down a pair of free throws to make it 84-80 in Philadelphias favor. After a timeout, the Bulls turned over the ensuing inbounds pass and after the Sixers bled away the clock and knocked down clutch free throws, what could be the final game of the season looms Tuesday night at the United Center.