The first 24 minutes went pretty well.
The Bulls came out fired up. Led by as many as 10 points. Were up 55-47 at the half.
But I was worried anyway.
What worried me wasn’t just that the 76ers were hanging around in the face of an energized onslaught by the Bulls. It was that they were faster to a two loose balls in the first quarter.
There are certain elements of the game I use to measure which team wants the game more. Rebounding. Defense. Points in the paint. And who comes up with those 50/50 balls. It’s not all that scientific, but it usually works.
See, rebounding isn’t just about height and body position, it’s also about sheer desire and the will to take the basketball away from the other guys. Ditto for defense. Points in the paint usually indicate which team was aggressively attacking the hoop. And beating opponents to loose balls is all focus and effort.
So with 10:33 left in the second quarter when the Sixers out-hustled the Bulls to a loose ball and converted it into an Andrea Iguodala dunk at the other end of the court, it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I knew that, with the specter of Rose’s injury haunting the United Center, nothing less than an all-out effort was going to allow the Bulls to win the game. Letting Philly recover a 50/50 ball and get a dunk off it was a bad sign.
So how about those other indicators of who wants it more?
The Sixers won the rebounding battle 38-32 and limited the Bulls to only 10 offensive boards.
Philly also shredded the vaunted Chicago D with a 36-point third quarter explosion (more on that below) and would go on to shoot 59 percent for the game and finish with an Offensive Efficiency of 123.9.
The Sixers also owned the paint. They racked up 25 fast break points and outscored the Bulls 52-32 in the colored rectangle. They shot 18-for-25 (72 percent) at the rim…a number that included six dunks and 12 layups. Furthermore, they were 4-for-5 (80 percent) from 3-9 feet and 9-for-12 (75 percent) from 10-15 feet. Mind you, this is a team that (as I pointed out in my series preview) usually lives and dies on long two-pointers. But last night they got whatever they wanted from wherever they wanted it against a Bulls defense that seemed a step slow most of the night.
As Joakim Noah put it: “It was a disappointing effort overall. We didn’t play well defensively, we didn’t play well offensively. We got our (butts) kicked.”
Of course, Noah (21 points, 10-for-11, 8 rebounds, 5 assists) was the only Bulls starter who came to play last night. The other four members of the starting lineup combined to shoot 15-for-43. Rip Hamilton (-16), Luol Deng (-15) and C.J. Watson (-13) were particularly bad, and Carlos Boozer had a meaningless single-single (9 points, 5 boards).
Outside of John Lucas, who scored 15 points on 7-for-12 shooting, the Bench Mob wasn’t a factor either.
Said Deng: “We gotta play better defense. Offense is not who we are. We’ve got to take pride in our defense and step it up. We got a lot of different guys who can score, but this is the playoffs. Defensively we’ve got to be better. You’ve got to take the challenge, each individual.”
He’s not wrong. Not many teams light these Bulls up for nearly 60 percent shooting. In fact…nobody does. Here’s what ESPN Stats and Information had to say on the subject:
Philadelphia shot 59 percent from the field, the highest percentage the Bulls have allowed in a regular or postseason game since Tom Thibodeau took over in 2010-11. The last time Chicago allowed an opponent to shoot better than 59 percent in the playoffs came back on April 29, 1998, when the Michael Jordan-led Bulls won despite allowing the Nets to shoot 60 percent.
And there you have it. We witnessed what may have been the worst defensive performance in the Thibodeau era.
And as for that horrific third quarter, well, here’s more form ESPN Stats and Information:
The Sixers ran the Bulls off the court in the third quarter, outscoring them 36-14, including 11-0 on fast-break points. Philly also shot 68.2 percent from the field (to the Bulls’ 25 percent) and outrebounded them 14-5. The 22-point margin is the most the 76ers have outscored an opponent by in any playoff quarter in the last 15 seasons.
It was a disgrace how easily some of the Sixers were scoring. Jrue Holiday scored a postseason career-high 26 points on 11-for-15 from the field. Lou Williams added 20 on 8-for-13 shooting. And Evan Turner was 8-for-15 for his 19 points.
For some perspective, Dwyane Wade averaged 46 percent shooting in four games against the Bulls this season. Ditto for Carmelo Anthony. In his final two games against the Bulls this season, LeBron James went 11-for-24 and 8-for-18. The Bulls held Dirk Nowitzki to 6-for-15 shooting back on April 21. And Kobe Bryant went 11-for-23 against the Bulls on Christmas day.
I could go on but you must see my point. If the Bulls can hold down the league’s biggest stars, they shouldn’t be getting lit up by Jrue Holiday, Lou Williams and Evan Turner.
Said Thibs: “The bottom line is the fight. We’ve got to fight.”
But let’s not get caught up in this one loss. The Bulls played badly. No question about it. But this team has a lot of heart and has bounced back from adversity and sub-par efforts so many times the past two years I wouldn’t suggest betting against them coming back with a strong effort in Game 3.
Said Noah: “It’s different (without Rose). There’s no excuses, though. We know we can play better. It’s disappointing, but you know what? We live to fight another day. There’s a lot of basketball to play.”