Even without Derrick Rose (torn ACL) and Joakim Noah (sprained ankle), the Bulls had enough to win yesterday.
But they didn’t.
The defense did its job, for the most part, limiting the Sixers to 39 percent shooting from the field and forcing them to miss 14 of their 19 three-point attempts. Of course, two of Philly’s five three-point conversions were knocked down in cold-blooded fashion by a previously ice-cold Jrue Holiday during back-to-back crunch time possessions that turned a one-point Bulls deficit into a seven-point hole with 3:33 left in the game.
Chicago’s D also failed to contain Spencer Hawes, who scored 22 points on only 11 shots to go with 8 rebounds and 3 blocks. Had the Bulls held Hawes to his average of 9.6 PPG, they might have won.
The Bulls also might have won if they’d managed to defend without fouling. Philly enjoyed a 31-14 disparity in free throw attempts that made a pretty sizable difference in a seven-point loss.
Said Carlos Boozer: “It’s crazy. I thought we were driving. I thought Luol [Deng] was driving almost every time he got the ball. He was getting contact on a lot of his shots. I thought C.J. [Watson] was driving the ball. There was one play at the end of the game [when] he got hit right in the face. I saw the whole play and he didn’t get that call.”
Nobody caught a stronger whiff of home cooking than Boozer, who didn’t earn a whistle while (as the replays confirmed) being clearly fouled on a dunk attempt with 1:10 to go. On the other end, Holiday was awarded two free throws after minimal contact, converting both to put the Sixers up 84-80 with 51 seconds to go.
Said Boozer: “It was a great pocket pass by C.J. [Watson]. I was trying to go to the hole strong. Obviously, I wanted to get a layup or a dunk. Thought I had some contact, I thought I got fouled to be quite frank about it, but [considering] the fouls they were calling on the other side, I thought that call could have been made. They didn’t call it and we just kept playing on.”
Added Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau: “It was a key sequence. It kind of went against us.”
No excuses though.
Said Boozer: “Listen, we’re not going to sit here and blame the referees for our loss. It was our fault we lost the game. We gave up 25 points in the fourth quarter. There were too many points in the fourth quarter. We didn’t lose the game because of the refs, but the [31-14 free throw] discrepancy was huge. And I thought we were being pretty aggressive, we got in the penalty early, but we didn’t get as many free throws as they did. That’s tough, but at the same time that’s not why we lost. We lost because we didn’t contain their guards in the fourth quarter.”
Other reasons the Bulls lost:
Rebounding. The Bulls only won the rebounding battle by two boards (48-46) and had a 12-11 deficit in offensive rebounds. That’s where Noah’s absence was most telling.
Points off turnovers. The Bulls gave up 24 points off 14 turnovers, versus 18 and 9 for the Sixers.
Too many jumpers. Chicago attempted 40 shots from 16 feet and beyond versus only 21 at the rim. Of course, as Boozer noted, the Bulls’ aggressive drives weren’t being rewarded by many foul calls, which might explain why they converted only 11 of their 21 attempts (52.7 percent) at the hoop.
Continuing fourth quarter woes. The Bulls were outscored 25-19 in the final 12 minutes. According to Team Rankings, the Bulls led the league in average fourth quarter margin (+2.1) during the regular season while Philly ranked 20th (-0.2). Yet here’s how fourth quarter scoring has gone in this series:
So the Bulls are -24 in the fourth quarter over four games.
Now, in Game 1, the Bulls were up by 20 points with just over four minutes to go before letting up. So it’s been Games 2-4 where the fourth quarter scoring discrepancy has been a big issue. Not coincidentally, those are the games Rose has missed after tearing his ACL in Game 1.
The Bulls aren’t just missing Rose on clutch shots either. They miss his ability to draw Philly’s defenders and create shots for his teammates. Without somebody to break down the Sixers’ defense, open looks have been nearly impossible to find in the fourth quarter. Everything is a mighty struggle…and the Bulls have been succumbing late when they used to regularly outperform other teams.
So what’s the answer?
Said Thibs: “We have to start better and we have to finish better. The challenge is in the playoffs 48 minutes, that’s what we have to do. In the end, it comes down to will to make the play. Whatever’s necessary. Whether it’s three stops in a row, three scores in a row, whatever you may need, that’s what you have to get done. And I think that comes down to your mental toughness, your physical toughness, and the one thing about our team [is] I think we have great character. And I think the fight will be there.”
Oh, the fight will be there, no doubt. But will it matter?
Look, losing Rose and Noah has critically weakened the Bulls. Take away an MVP-type player in addition to a team’s best defender/rebounder/energizer, and that team is going to be at a disadvantage. Toss in lingering injuries (to Deng’s wrist) and the constant mental fatigue to play at 100 percent every night, and you have to wonder how much the Bulls really have in the tank. And the Sixers are like sharks who smell blood in the water.
Will Tuesday night be this team’s last stand?