PHILADELPHIATired, coming off a late game, the second game of a back-to-back and on little sleepnone of these excuses mattered to the Bulls Wednesday night, as they dispatched a familiar foe, the 76ers, 96-89 at the Wells Fargo Center.
Like most Bulls wins, it wasnt pretty, but a combination of their vaunted defense stepping up at the right time, the surprising poise of rookie Marquis Teague (six points, four assists), All-Star Luol Deng (19 points, 12 rebounds) coming through in the clutch and simply a major display of heart and determination sealed the victory for the gritty group.
Behind the scoring of Joakim Noah (21 points) and the playmaking of Deng, the Bulls (12-9) got off to a quick start, a must as they were missing their starting backcourt, as Rip Hamilton, still recovering from a torn left plantar fascia, didnt make the trip to his home state and Kirk Hinrich was sidelined with a knee injury suffered in the previous evenings home loss to the Clippers.
The jump-shooting Sixers (12-10)still without offseason acquisition Andrew Bynum, the All-Star center expected to finally give them a low-post presencegot into the groove quickly thereafter, as the likes of point guard Jrue Holiday (26 points, nine assists), pushing for an All-Star bid in his fourth NBA season, sixth man Nick Young (10 points) and swingman Evan Turner (16 points), a Chicago native.
Nate Robinson (14 points), filling in for the injured Hinrich, made his presence as a scorer felt early, but the visitors had already dug themselves a hole, as Philadelphia got into transition for easy baskets, something their coach, former Bulls head man Doug Collins, said his team would try to do before the contest even started.
With Deng and Noah carrying the offensive load for the entire opening period, the Bulls trailed, 24-21, at the conclusion of the first quarter.
Taj Gibson (six points, seven rebounds) joined Noah and Deng as the Bulls catalysts at the outset of the second frame and as Teague ran the show in Robinsons stead, the Bulls overtook their hosts.
Teague, who has already played with poise in his limited minutes this season, gave a solid defensive effort, was assertive as a floor general and displayed the pure playmaking ability that, among other things, the Bulls have lacked on the young campaign.
As the first half waned on, the Sixers, propelled by Holiday and insiders Lavoy Allen (six rebounds) and Thaddeus Young (13 points), fought back and regained the advantage, making a back-and-forth affair for the remainder of the period.
While it wasnt exactly the grind-it-out contest that Collins said he feared before the game and in which the Bulls usually thrive, the guests certainly didnt appear to be worn downon the second night of a back-to-back, after a late game at home and arriving in Philadelphia in the wee hours of the morningthe Bulls were behind at the intermission, 44-41.
After the break, it was Marco Belinellis (16 points) turn to spark the Bulls offense-by-committee approach in the close-knit affair, but with Holiday continuing to use his size advantage at the point to score and the hosts enjoying an edge on the boards, the momentum wasnt with the visitors and the Sixers once again built a slim cushion.
Robinsons instant-offense game kept the Bulls within striking distance, but with Philadelphia both getting out in transition and keeping typical rebounding forces Noah and Carlos Boozer (five points) off the glass, the guests were definitively playing catch-up, even if the gap between the two teams wasnt huge.
The Bulls replacement backcourt of Belinelli and Robinson, as well as Noahwho has quickly become Public Enemy No. 1; after getting booed following his severe ankle injury in last springs playoffs, he feels the same way about the Philadelphia crowdwith a boost off the bench from the ever-active Gibson, produced enough points to even take the lead, though that mostly by virtue of their stingy defense.
The Bulls led, 69-66, heading into the final stanza.
A slow offensive start to the fourth quarter allowed the Sixers to briefly seize control of the game, but Deng, aided by the contributions of reserve Jimmy Butler (nine points), came alive as a scorer to again make the contest a back-and-forth affair.
While Holiday, flanked by the trio of both Youngs and Turner, continued to be effective, the home team was in for a battle down the stretch, as the two teams settled into a defensive showdown reminiscent of the first-round playoff series.
Eerily, Deng went down in a heap after being fouled in transitionthe arena went quiet until he got up and walked it off, unlike how they booed Noahand the All-Star resumed his role as closer, along with the teams vaunted defense coming up with big stops when it counted helped them gain late-game separation from the Sixers.
A Noah jumper with 1:19 remaining made it a three-possession game, 90-83, and while Philadelphia didnt give up hope of a last-gasp comeback, it was all academic from that point forward.