Playing Game 3 in the best-of-seven quarterfinals of the Eastern Conference playoffs, the Chicago Bulls suffered a heartbreaking 79-74 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Friday night at Wells Fargo Center. The Bulls trail the series 2-1.
The Bulls placed four players in double figures against the Sixers. Spencer Hawes poured in a game-high 21 points to go along with nine rebounds, while Jrue Holiday had 17 points and Evan Turner scored 16. While Carlos Boozer dropped 18 points and 10 rebounds and Rip Hamilton put up 17 points and seven assists, the Bulls’ offense was anemic for most of the night, as they shot just 37.3 percent from the field and 4-for-14 from three-point range. The most disappointing part for the Bulls is that they were not able to come away with the win despite the fact that the Sixers knocked down a paltry 34.2 percent from the field.
Once again, the Bulls looked sharp out of the gate, as their defense was leading to offensive opportunities. John Lucas III connected on a fadeaway jumper to beat the buzzer to give the Bulls a 20-19 lead after the first quarter. Both teams’ offense struggled for most of the first half and that continued in the second quarter. The Bulls, in particular, had two major dry spells in which they failed to score a basket – a three-minute drought at the beginning and a six-minute stretch near the end. Still, the Sixers weren’t much better, although they took a 40-39 lead at intermission. The Bulls were rebounding and looked as suffocating as the home squad defensively, but their offense was stagnant as they didn’t get much shot-making from Luol Deng or Hamilton.
The Sixers’ offensive woes continued in the third quarter when they missed 17-of-21 shots, 2-of-10 in the paint, for 11 points, while the Bulls had a 21-point frame to take a 60-51 lead heading into the fourth. However, the news wasn’t all good for the Bulls. With about eight minutes left in the third period, Joakim Noah led the fast break suffered an ugly ankle sprain, going down wincing and screeching in pain. He continued to play but the pain obviously didn’t subside, which made it hard for him to move around on the court. Moments later, Taj Gibson hurt his right knee, but he, too, stayed in the game.
In a surprising turn of events, Noah returned early in the fourth quarter, but he moved around with a gruesome limp, barely able to walk, even though he miraculously knocked down a mid-range jumper. Seconds later, Noah checked out of the game for good. The inspiration Noah provided by playing with a terrible ankle injury didn’t resonate with his teammates as well as the emotional center probably hoped. The Bulls led 67-53 with 10 minutes, 15 seconds left in the final frame, but they scored just seven points the rest of the way as the Sixers went on a 26-7 run to snatch the victory from Chicago.
Tom Thibodeau preaches continuity and stresses that his team sticks to the game plan. But the Bulls came up short on all fronts during crunch time. Rather than going with what was working well – such as going to Hamilton or Boozer – the Bulls’ offense was stagnant for large portions of the fourth. And when they did get into their play sets, the Sixers’ defense was suffocating. In short, the Bulls had no one to go to for a basket late as the win was getting away. Sure, Derrick Rose – who tore his ACL in the final minutes of Game 1 and will be sidelined for a while – would make a major difference and give Thibodeau a go-to man, but the Bulls severely lacked in the execution department. Boozer made just five out of his last 13 shots while Hamilton went 4-for-15 for the game. Deng’s shot was also missing, as the All-Star shot 2-for-7, including missing a potential game-tying three-pointer late in the game.
The Bulls know they completely unraveled down the stretch, and now that they’re down a game in the matchup after already losing home-court advantage, their odds to win this first-round series take a hit. Chicago’s tough challenge will only get more difficult should Noah miss Game 4, which appears possible, if not likely. On this night, the Bulls’ defense was on-point – they outrebounded the Sixers 49-43 – yet they were not able to win a game in which Philadelphia played dreadful offensively as well.
Next up, the Bulls return to the practice floor on Saturday before playing Game 4 against the Sixers Sunday afternoon in Philadelphia.