Playing Game 5 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, the Chicago Bulls earned a grind-out 77-69 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday night at the United Center. The Bulls pulled within 3-2 in this best-of-seven series.
The Bulls, who were again without Derrick Rose (torn ACL) and Joakim Noah (ankle), placed two players in double figures against the Sixers. Luol Deng had struggled in the last three games but picked up his game in a big way, dropping a game-high 24 points to go along with eight rebounds, two steals and two blocks. The All-Star forward drained three of his four three-pointers in the fourth quarter – dagger shots to propel his team to a season-saving win. Carlos Boozer also put up an elevated performance, pouring in 19 points, 13 rebounds and dishing out six assists. Taj Gibson, the energizer all night, added eight points, seven rebounds and four blocks, and his teammates appeared to rally around the forward’s right ankle injury in the third quarter. He changed the complexion of the game and was a force on the defensive end.
Both teams struggled mightily on offense right out of the gate, as they combined for just 16 points about seven minutes into the game. The Bulls were able to force turnovers in the first quarter, but their fastbreaks repeatedly stalled, while the Sixers crashed the glass. At one point, Sixers guard Evan Turner had more rebounds (seven) than the Bulls’ entire team (six). However, behind Deng’s strong start, the Bulls closed the opening quarter on a 7-0 run to take a 17-16 lead into the second frame. The poor offensive display continued as the first half wore on, but Gibson, Ronnie Brewer and John Lucas III gave a major spark off the “Bench Mob,” especially the former. Gibson had four first-half blocks and initiated a skirmish late in the second when he and Elton Brand dove for a loose ball and exchange elbows – none of which connected. But the sequence, everyone could tell, had already been building up and one that you could see coming. The two teams have been through heated, down-to-the-wire games, and the Bulls finally were the instigators and needed a hard-nosed play like that. Once again, the Bulls closed the second on a flurry – a 10-2 stretch to extend their lead to 35-26 at intermission. Still, the team knew it had to receive a better second-half effort from players like Boozer, Rip Hamilton and C.J. Watson.
In the third quarter, both squads picked up the offensive pace, scoring 22 points apiece in the frame – giving the Bulls a 57-48 lead through three, behind Boozer’s 12 points. However, Chicago saw yet another player fall in the third when Gibson rolled his right ankle while going attempting to contest a shot. He went to the locker room to get treatment and returned to the contest in the fourth. The Bulls locked up defensively when they needed to in the final frame, and Deng and Boozer were able to quiet the doubters to an extent. Especially Deng, who drained a pair of long-range shots to beat the shot clock.
Yet again, the Bulls forced the Sixers – who were led by Jrue Holiday’s 16 points – into their style of play, rather than the up-and-down tempo Philadelphia would prefer to play. Tom Thibodeau’s bunch believes they should have won the last two games, and Tuesday evening’s tilt wasn’t much different than those. The Sixers shot a paltry 32.1 percent from the field and likely would have been down much more most of the game if it weren’t for their 17-for-24 line at the free throw line, compared to the Bulls’ 4-for-11.
Many counted the Bulls out, but given their character and determination, it should not come as a surprise that they were able to eke out a win to extend their playoff run. They did what they had to do, and now the series will move back to Philly. The United Center crowd gave the Bulls a boost Tuesday, but on the road the squad will have to be able to put up a similar high-effort outing. Whether Noah returns for Game 6 remains to be seen – but the Bulls know they will be in position to win as long as they play like they did Tuesday. However, critical shot-making will be essential come Game 6, and players such as Deng and Boozer will have to step up.
Next up, the Bulls have a day off Wednesday before Game 6 against the Sixers on Thursday night at Wells Fargo Center.