PHILADELPHIA—With three wins in their first three regular-season games—Wednesday’s season-opening upset over the defending-champion Heat andFriday night’s road win over Washington—the Bulls’ opponent Saturday night, the 76ers, are the surprise of the NBA thus far.
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In fact, it would seem as if Philadelphia is doing the opposite of what many observers suspected they intended to do before the season even started. The Bulls, however, are not part of the crowd that believes the Sixers would try to tank, as evidenced by their 107-104 loss Saturday evening at the Wells Fargo Center.
“They’re playing free and easy. They’re very fast. You have to be ready for the speed and intensity of the game. They can turn you over and if they turn you over, they convert very quickly. They have a number of guys who can start the break for them. You have to get back and get set. They’re playing fast,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said of the Sixers. “You see a team that’s playing freely with a lot of confidence. They’re sharing the ball. They’re playing together. They’re making quick decisions. They’re getting the ball up the floor together. They’re playing very well defensively. They’re tied together. They’re using their speed and quickness. Those live-ball turnovers are tough to stop.”
Derrick Rose added: “They’re a hungry team, man. If you just look at the way that they play, they play an up-tempo type game. You’ve got guys that are on the team that’s really trying to make a mark in the league and young players that are just trying to get [playing] time.”
Carlos Boozer cited the lingering memory of the Bulls’ 2012 playoff loss to the 76ers—Rose tore his ACL in the opening game of the series—as one reason the Bulls weren’t caught sleeping against a foe with few expectations.
“Oh, we’re aware. They were a talented group last year and obviously, they beat us in the playoffs a couple years back; we were short-handed. But the talent has been there. They’ve been coached really well by Doug Collins in the past and they’re playing well this season. They have guys who have a chip on their shoulder and they had a big win against Miami, and they had a good road win [Friday] night,” he explained to CSNChicago.com. “It’s the NBA, man. You’ve got to play each night. The matchups will always be different, the challenges will always be different. Different teams have different strengths, different weaknesses. But at the end of the day, it’s the NBA. Everybody here can play, man. They’ve proven that over the course of the last two or three seasons. They’ve got a bunch of young talent, they’ve got a couple veterans who help them out and they’ve been coached well in the past, too. So they have good experience, playoff experience at that, too. So they’re a good team.”
Teammate Luol Deng concurred: “I think the mentality we have, we take every game serious. But also—not in a bad way or anything—the start of the season, everybody’s healthy, everybody’s excited. Just like our last game against the Knicks. It felt like a playoff game. Teams are playing defense, teams are locked in. You’re going to get that early.”
After first-year general manager Sam Hinkie traded their best player, All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday, on draft day back in June, and building an unspectacular roster consisting of mostly unheralded young players, the word around the league is that the Sixers are if not purposely trying to lose, not opposed to increasing their odds at landing a high pick in what’s regarded as a very strong potential 2014 NBA Draft class. Deng, who emphasized that he didn’t mean Philadelphia was utilizing the strategy, said he didn’t agree with it.
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“I mean, it happens. I haven’t been on a team where it happens, but I’ve heard about it. I don’t know exactly how to do it. But I’m not in that situation, so I’m not really worried about it,” he told CSNChicago.com. “I’d play every game to win. I think as a GM, it’s your job when you’re committed to the team. If you take over that job, it’s not your job to land the first draft pick or the second one. That’s how the season goes and then the lottery, and what happens, happens. But as a GM, as a leader, it’s my job to get the best players together and as a coach, it’s your job to do whatever it takes to make sure the team wins.”
Boozer, who also wouldn’t single out the Sixers as a team that was tanking, chimed in: “I don’t believe in that. For one thing, I think it’s unfair to the players who are out there busting their butt every day, number one, because we all care. We’re all trying to feed our families, win championships, win games and we have pride in what we do. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here. We wouldn’t have made it. So I believe in that, but at the same time, even if you do get a high draft pick, how long will it take them to develop? You don’t always get a Derrick Rose, that could be Rookie of the Year, MVP, an All-Star. So in my opinion, I think you’ve got to play for right now. If you get a draft pick, that’s great. But I would never tank because that’s unfair to the players you have on your roster.”
Rose, the 2008’s draft No. 1 overall pick, ended up back in his hometown due to sheer luck, not tanking, as the Bulls famously had a less than two percent chance of landing the top selection in the league’s draft lottery, after a season where they didn’t rank amongst the very worst NBA teams. For his part, the point guard took the diplomatic approach when asked his opinion about tanking.
“All I can do is just play. As a player you hear stuff, but I really don’t try to get into the management part,” he said. “Of course you hear rumors and stuff that go on in the league because I’m in the league, but I just try to stay away from it and worry about the Bulls right now.”
Regardless of what the Sixers’ actual plan is, heading into Saturday’s contest, the team has nothing to apologize for, given the effort of the players.
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“Without a doubt, and I think the city [feels good],” rookie head coach Brett Brown said. “I think everybody paints a picture, and you look at the roster and you can see why people think it’s an accurate one. But these guys aren’t paying attention that much, and neither is the coaching staff. We just try to have good days of practice that add up, that equal something. It’s translated into two early wins. We get it. But it doesn’t water down.
“We’re proud of our efforts. They do deserve it because of the work they’ve put in,” he continued. “You’d have to say that [the Sixers aren’t an easy win] right now. We’ve had two pretty good wins. I think the NBA is a league that makes you have to show up, and I say that to our guys all the time. You have to show up, it’s the NBA. That’s the human nature component that makes our league so difficult. You have 82 games where you have to back it up, and it’s physical backup, mental backup. You know, we had a nice win, human nature says you feel good about yourself, and so you have a tendency to justify maybe not being as fresh tonight. You can take a hit at home and I don’t think our guys are doing that. It’s about recognizing that and backing it up in the NBA.”
Based on Saturday's result, Brown's team is doing just that.