Sixers seize series lead as Bulls' latest collapse could doom them
The 76ers pulled away in the second half to earn a 79-74 win and 2-1 series lead
The Bulls never recovered after Joakim Noah sprained his left ankle in the third
After two crushing losses in three games, Chicago might be headed for elimination
The scene was all too familiar. The Bulls led 45-42 with eight minutes remaining in the third quarter, firmly in command of Game 3 against the 76ers. They held Philadelphia to just 1-of-10 shooting to start the second half, and following an emotional letdown Tuesday, seemed ready to regain control of the series. They were playing selfless Chicago basketball. They looked every bit the team that went 18-9 without Derrick Rose during the regular season.
That's when Joakim Noah grabbed a rebound in traffic, barreled up the floor and -- flanked by Richard Hamilton and Luol Deng -- attempted to drive to the basket. His left ankle twisted viciously. And just as Rose did five days earlier, he collapsed to the court and screamed.
Though it only turned out to be a sprain, it served as a precursor of doom to come: Noah missed 17 of the final 20 minutes, the Bulls made just two field goals in the last 9:34 and Philadelphia -- behind a 19-2 fourth-quarter run -- surged to a stunning 79-74 victory.
The Bulls win -- and lose -- behind defense and rebounding. Granted, this is no great revelation. Defense and rebounding have long been staples of Tom Thibodeau-coached teams, and they were areas in which Chicago thrived during the season: The Bulls ranked first in rebounding differential, first in points allowed and second in opposing field-goal percentage, respectively.
And that was the case through three quarters Friday. But over the final 9:11, Philly connected on 7 of 14 attempts and outrebounded Chicago, 16-12. The Bulls seemed lost and deflated, and the 76ers took advantage.
It should be noted that Chicago held Philadelphia to 34.2 percent shooting, a stat that shouldn't be taken lightly. But the 76ers played a tougher brand of basketball down the stretch. Ultimately, that made the difference in the outcome.
While 76ers coach Doug Collins received plenty of praise for starting Evan Turner in Game 2, his decision to start Spencer Hawes -- who averaged 24.9 minutes during the regular season -- went largely unnoticed. Hawes netted just two points on 1-of-3 shooting, serving as a nonfactor during the Sixers' 109-92 rout Tuesday.
But on Friday, he certainly made his presence felt. Hawes finished with 21 points and nine rebounds, including 10 points during the momentum-shifting 19-2 run.
The 7-foot-1 center out of Washington could play a critical role moving forward. He's a scoring threat from both the perimeter and the paint, and could emerge as a force to be reckoned with, particularly if Noah's ankle injury lingers.
The 76ers displayed maturity beyond their age. Though Chicago has more experience responding to adversity -- it excelled despite regular-season injuries to Rose, Noah and Hamilton -- Philadelphia was unmistakably the more resilient squad Friday. As the Bulls floundered, squandering the shot clock and hoisting bad shots, the Sixers clawed back behind smart, hard-earned buckets.
In spite of their youth, Hawes, Turner and Jrue Holiday (ages 24, 23 and 21) showed more poise than playoff veterans Deng, Hamilton and Carlos Boozer. That's significant, and should lend immense confidence to Philadelphia in Game 4.
The Bulls lack a closer in the clutch. Though the Bulls were expected to struggle offensively without Rose -- their scoring average dipped from 98.1 to 93.9 during the 27 regular-season games that he missed -- no one could've predicted the extent of their ineffectiveness in Game 3. Key players simply disappeared: Deng, Hamilton and John Lucas III went a meager 10 of 34 from the field (29.4 percent).
Though Boozer played valiantly (18 points and 10 rebounds), even he missed a wide-open baseline jumper that could've stunted the Sixers' comeback. And C.J. Watson was nowhere to be found; he played 20 minutes and didn't score a point.
This much is clear: Thibodeau needs to find an answer -- and fast.
Chicago is in dire need of an emotional spark. Heading into the playoffs, no one expected much from this series. The Bulls were supposed to romp the overmatched 76ers, a team that lost 12 of their final 18 games, and take one step closer to their seemingly inevitable Eastern Conference Finals clash with Miami. It felt more like certainty than hypothetical. It was going to happen.
Now, following the 76ers' thrilling Game 3 comeback, the Bulls are suddenly reeling. With another loss Sunday, they could face the harsh reality of a heart-breaking first-round exit.
Rose's injury changed the complexion of the playoffs, and likely vanquished the Bulls' lofty title hopes. But their collapse in Game 3 might be more crushing. The stage is set for Game 4, and it's must-see TV.
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