Don’t Count Out The Bulls Just Yet

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Postpone the Bull’s season obituary for now: Chicago lives on to fight another day. The 76ers failed to wrap up the series last night, a win that would’ve ensured their status as only the 5th 8-seed to defeat a number 1 seed in NBA history.

In their previous 3 games the Bulls failed to do something they achieved consistently during the regular season: winning without Derrick Rose. Chicago went 18-10 during the regular season without last year’s MVP, but lost 3 straight games after his deflating ACL tear in Game 1. But last night, with their season on the line, Thibodeau’s men gutted out a characteristically gritty 77-69 victory. The series goes back to Philly for Game 6 on Thursday.

It wasn’t flashy, it wasn’t pretty, but it was a win.

Defense on Top

In-fact, calling the game ugly would be too complimentary. The two teams combined for a meager 61 points by halftime. The 76ers managed only 26 of those in 24 minutes of basketball. It looked more like an NFL score, rather than something resembling the NBA

In keeping with the theme of the series, great defense led the way. That was followed closely by a lot of stagnant offense. The Bulls interior defenders, Taj Gibson in particular (rolled ankle and all), did a fantastic job of keeping the paint off limits to the Sixers. The Bull’s perimeter defenders also stifled Philly’s backcourt, restricting their dangerous transition game and forcing them into low percentage jumpers.

Whatever fluid offense there was came from the Bulls. Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer saved their best performances of the series for when it mattered most. They combined for over 40 points and shot 50% from the field. After badly underachieving through the first 4 games, it was a response that Chicago desperately needed from two of their veteran guys.

…But hold on a minute.

We weren’t supposed to be talking about this Bulls team ‘desperately’ needing anything in a first-round series this year. Game 5 was not supposed to be do-or-die for them. This was meant to be the game that the Bulls, not the Sixers, went into up 3-1—ready to comfortably close out the series and await their next opponent.

Nothing has been comfortable for the Bulls in this series.

A Mismatch on Paper

Actually, forget about the Bulls winning in 5. Before this series began, many had the Bulls sweeping the 76ers, and there were rational reasons behind those predictions.

The Bulls finished the year tied for the NBA’s best record, at 50-16 (holding the tiebreaker after beating the Spurs). They were one of the top defensive teams in the league, and the best rebounding team. Aside from the impressive numbers, Chicago had managed all this while dealing with a heap of injuries. As mentioned, Rose missed over a third of the season, while Deng and Rip Hamilton were absent for large chunks.

In contrast, Philly started the year well, but faded drastically down the stretch. The 76ers found themselves scratching and clawing during the last month of the season to grab the 8th seed. Although defensively solid, the 76ers were anemic on offense throughout the year. Their 4th quarter offense was especially dire. In a game against the Raptors at the beginning of April, Philly scored 7 points in the final quarter. 7 points!

How could anyone reasonably expect a team that struggled to generate offense, especially against top defenses, to beat one of the elite teams in the NBA? An elite team that was number 1 in the league in restricting their opponents field-goal percentage—an elite team that possessed one of the top 5 players in the league and could still play great without him. It just wasn’t happening.

Well, actually, it’s very close to happening.

The Importance of Rose

In my series preview, I wrote that Philly would have to rely on Rose’s apparent fragile health to stand the slightest chance of winning the series. Almost on cue, with the city of Chicago looking on in collective horror, Rose went down at the end of Game 1. The series dynamic had changed. The 76ers had that slight chance.

During the regular season, of course, the Bulls played solid ball without Rose. C.J. Watson and John Lucas III both deputized adequately at point guard, and the rest of the starters helped fill the void on offense. The Bulls had beaten elite teams like Boston and Miami without their best player, and the 76ers were far from an elite team.

The playoffs and the regular season are two very different animals, however. Teams have more time to focus in on opposition weaknesses. Games slow down, defense becomes tighter, and genuine closers like Rose become invaluable.

Thibodeau has stated on more than one occasion, since Game 1, that his team still has “enough to win with”. Maybe so in theory, but Rose’s absence has hurt his team in actuality. Chicago possesses some nice offensive pieces, players that can score coming off screens, and in the low post, but Rose is their only natural shot-creator. He can get his shot off from anywhere on the court, and his penetration in the paint opens up space for his teammates.

As well as being a great facilitator himself, Rose’s dynamic play drastically affects whoever is guarding him on the other team. Just ask Jrue Holiday. His offensive numbers ballooned when he didn’t have to exhaust himself guarding Rose.

It also hasn’t helped Chicago’s cause that their other supposed stars, up until last night, have been mediocre. Deng, a first time all-star this year, hasn’t done enough to justify that accolade in this series. The Bulls need consistent scoring from him, especially down the stretch, to win games in these playoffs.

By the same measure, Carlos Boozer has been blowing hot and cold all year. Boozer has yet to win over Bulls fans and justify his big contract. His usual uninspiring 15 and 8 stat lines just won’t cut it.

Game 5 was a good start for both guys.

A Missed Opportunity

Of course, a huge amount of credit must go to the 76ers for the way they’ve bounced back since Game 1 and taken advantage of Chicago’s injuries. Part of the reason that Deng has been so ineffective is down to the play of Andre Iguodala. One of the league’s premiere lock-down perimeter defenders, Iggy has down a great job shutting down the Bulls’ wing players.

Holiday and Evan Turner have hit big shots, especially in that crucial Game 2, while Spencer Hawes has become a reliable weapon on the pick and pop. Doug Collins, criticized for over-coaching at times, has done a good job settling his guys down after Game 1 and getting them to play focused, disciplined basketball.

And yet, it feels as though the 76ers have let the Bulls off the hook. Collins, after Game 4, stressed the importance of treating Game 5 like it was their last, and not relying on winning Game 6 at home. His assistant, Michael Curry, talked about his 2003 Orlando Magic team who were also up 3-1, but let Game 5 slip away and lost to Detroit in 7.

Despite playing well in this series, Philadelphia just isn’t a good enough team to let games slide by, hoping that they can suddenly turn it on again after a stinker. They aren’t the Miami Heat. They’ve gone on extended slumps before. The Sixers needed an unbelievable 3rd quarter to win Game 2, while Games 3 and 4 could’ve gone either way. Tonight was the perfect time to put their foot on the Bulls’ throat and finish them off. Instead, Chicago has regained some lost belief and momentum.

It needs to be stressed, however, that the odds are still firmly with the 76ers. Of the 186 teams that have gone down 3-1 in playoff history, only 8 have come back to win the series. But results don’t always go according to the odds. If that were the case then the Sixers wouldn’t be leading this series to begin with.

The Bulls are more than capable of winning another two games and becoming that 9th team, especially if they can get Joachim Noah back for Game 6. They’ll need the likes of Boozer and Deng to come up big again, and some more all-world defense, but I wouldn’t write them off just yet.

The 76ers may still rue letting a wounded Chicago team stumble off the ropes.

 
 

Zach Salzmann is an avid follower of the NBA. When he is not watching basketball, much to the annoyance of his girlfriend, he is watching something else sports-related.

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