With both Luol Deng (wrist) and Rip Hamilton (groin, thigh) sidelined for the second straight game, Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau again rolled out a starting lineup of Derrick Rose, Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah against the resurgent Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday night.
That same starting group dropped a whopping 90 points in Monday night's 98-88 victory over the Washington Wizards, and they got off to the type of start Wednesday that would lead one to believe they were set to have a similar outing against a Sixers team that ranks first in opponents' points allowed, surrendering just 86.1 per game.
The Bulls jumped out to a 15-9 lead in the first quarter and forced the Sixers to call a timeout at the six minute, 26 second mark. At that point, Brewer had knocked down a pair of mid-range jumpers; Rose had five points on a three-pointer and a fast-break dunk; and Korver had scored or assisted on 10 points. However, Sixers coach Doug Collins, who has done an excellent job turning around a squad that was in the lottery just two years ago, brought in three reserves -- Lavoy Allen, Lou Williams and Evan Turner -- who helped his team finish the opening frame on an 18-6 run to take a 27-21 lead through one stanza of play.
In the first quarter not only did the Sixers completely snatch the momentum of the game from a Bulls team that still has the best record in the Eastern Conference, but they also did it while Chicago's starters played the entire period. Thibodeau routinely calls on a member of the "Bench Mob" in the first, but he elected not to on this night.
The young, athletic Sixers gained confidence by outplaying and outworking the Bulls, whom some NBA followers consider as the favorite to win this season's championship, early in the game. They took a 19-17 lead with just over three minutes left in the first and never looked back again, defeating the Bulls 98-82.
Indeed, a young team that has confidence can be a major headache -- and the Bulls found that out the hard way on Wednesday.
"We were out there sluggish," Rose told reporters after the game when asked about the Bulls' starting lineup. "Our energy wasn't there. I really can't explain it.
"It was just one of them games the starters didn't come out and play the way we know how to play."
Rose himself certainly did not have the performance he wanted. The 6-foot-3 point guard, who was a little under the weather, scored 18 points and dished out six assists, but missed 9-of-17 shots, had a plus-minus of minus-17 and committed four of his team's 17 turnovers, which the Sixers scored 29 points off of.
"You can't do that," Thibodeau said of his team's sloppy ball control. "Their speed and quickness, if you turn the ball over, puts them in the open floor. [In a] live ball they're very hard to stop. 29 points off our turnovers, you can't make that up."
Unfortunately for Rose, his fellow starters were not able to pick up the slack. The Bulls' starters combined for only 44 points and a plus-minus of minus-68. Boozer and Noah put up 11 points on 4-for-14 shooting between them, while Brewer and Korver, in place of Deng and Hamilton, added six and four points, respectively. The Bulls were able to cut the Sixers' double-digit lead to 49-44 at intermission, but they were outscored 26-11 in a disastrous third quarter in which the visitors went the first six-plus minutes without a bucket, shooting 3-for-15 overall.
That's in stark contrast to Philadelphia's offensive attack, which featured five players in double figures, led by Andre Iguodala's and Thaddeus Young's 19 points each, and a bench that outscored the Bulls' 51-38. C.J. Watson had a game-high 20 points for the Bulls, but 11 came in a fourth quarter that the Sixers handily controlled, given their defense and ball movement, as the latter of which led to 26 assists on 40 baskets.
"We were a step slow tonight," Noah told the assembled media. "Disappointing, it was a big game. [We] wish we could have it back. We'll play them again.
"We couldn't get anything going. We couldn't get in any kind of rhythm offensively and defensively. We know we're better than that. [It is] disappointing, but we'll be back."
The Sixers appeared to crowd and swarm Rose with multiple defenders much more in the third quarter, when he had three points and shot 1-for-5 from the field. The reigning league MVP posted 15 points and six assists in the first half but was not able to find his scoring rhythm in the second half.
"He's definitely one of the top players in our league," said Iguodala, who started the second half with two emphatic dunks, a three-pointer and a sleek, behind-the-back pass to Jrue Holiday for a 17-foot jumper. "So you've got to do it as a unit. The bigs did a good job. We made some minor adjustments from the first half because he was getting where he wanted to go. It was a team effort."
Yes, the Bulls clearly missed Deng and Hamilton, their second- and fourth-leading scorers, against the Sixers. However, Thibodeau's bunch has displayed their depth, arguably the most in the league, time and time again this season. And that's why the Bulls and their fans could not pinpoint the reason why the starting unit had faltered for almost all of Wednesday's contest.
Instead of the Bulls looking like the deepest club in the league, it was the Sixers who received all-around efforts from multiple sources.
"No, I'm not trying to think that way," Rose said when asked if being short-handed has caught up with the Bulls. "Knowing that we do miss them, but there's no excuses. We've still got to go out there and play these games and put forth the effort. And tonight, it was clear that we didn't."
Added Thibodeau: "Our starters were so lethargic in the third. Quite honestly if we had gotten it closer I was going to finish with the group we had in their, because they were fighting to get us out of the hole."
One key Bulls' starter remains an enigma on a game-to-game basis, and his name is Boozer. Unlike last season, the much-maligned power forward is playing much better at the United Center than on the road and is averaging almost six more points in Bulls' wins (16.2) than losses (10.1).
During and after Wednesday's game, both Bulls announcer Stacey King and Comcast SportsNet analyst Kendall Gill directed plenty of criticism toward Boozer, specifically for the 10-year veteran's lack of defense, a sight Bulls fans have grown accustom to over the past two seasons. While Boozer's defensive struggles probably won't change, the Bulls need him to provide an offensive presence night in and night out.
Still, Boozer wasn't the only starter who struggled against the Sixers, who solidified their case as a legitimate threat in the Eastern Conference.
"They've got more experience now, another year together," Thibodeau said of the Sixers. "They play hard, they play unselfishly. They don't make mistakes, so you've got to be sharp. [In] the third quarter, I thought they came out with a lot of aggressiveness. We got on our heels and we dug ourselves a big hole."
The reigning Coach of the Year will almost certainly use his team's loss as a teaching point, one which the Bulls can "learn from," according to Rose. Although, the starters realize it's a wake-up call for them and that, as a team everyone wants to play their A-game against, they must bring more energy and activity from start to finish.
"The moment that we let up, things can go wrong in this league," Korver said. "And we know that. Games like tonight's kind of a reminder."