Playing Game 6 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, the Chicago Bulls suffered a devastating, season-ending 79-78 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday night at Wells Fargo Center. The Bulls lost the series 4-2 and are the third No. 1 seed to lose to the No. 8 seed in a seven-game series in NBA history.
The Bulls, without Derrick Rose (torn ACL) and Joakim Noah (ankle) yet again, placed four players in double figures against the Sixers. Luol Deng dropped 19 points and 17 rebounds, while Rip Hamilton had his best performance since Game 1, pouring in 19 points. Taj Gibson provided high energy once again, scoring 14 points and grabbing five rebounds. However, Andre Iguodala was the hero, with 20 points, seven assists and the game-winning free throws with 2.2 seconds left. Both teams shot below 40 percent from the field – as usual in this offensively-challenged series – but the Bulls went a bit worse than the Sixers and missed 11-of-13 three-pointers.
From the outset, the Bulls displayed their style of play, with plenty of ball movement and defense. Deng supplied the offense, but even Omer Asik made his presence felt on that end of the court, knocking down a jumper from just inside the three-point arc. The Bulls had nine assists on 10 field-goals, but they trailed 24-22 through one quarter of play. Late in the frame, Deng took an elbow to the face from Iguodala, and briefly went to the locker room to get two stitches on the left side of his nose. Still, the game was under the Bulls’ control, as the “Bench Mob” provided a spark to start the second quarter. But the tide-changing sequence of the first half came when Gibson was called for an offensive foul with 5 minutes, 35 seconds left and the Bulls down 36-34. Gibson was irate with the call, expressed his displeasure to the officials and received a technical foul.
That play got the Sixers and their subdued crowd rolling, as the home squad went on a 7-0 run before Gibson snapped the run he started due to the technical, converting a three-point play. Chicago trailed by as many as nine points in that second quarter, and mired by countless terrible fouls and unforced turnovers, the Bulls faced a 48-40 deficit at halftime. At the 1 minute, 12 second mark of the second, Gibson had appeared to beat the shot clock with a three-pointer – which certainly had the approval of Tom Thibodeau, who had a rare celebration moment on the sideline. But the referees reviewed the shot at intermission and waved it off. The Bulls know they could have played much better basketball as the first half wore on.
After an atrocious start to the third quarter – missing their first six shots and turning it over three times during that span – the Bulls went on an incredible surge that featured them erasing a 12-point Sixers lead to tie the game at 63 entering the fourth period. It was the much-needed out-of-nowhere spurt the Thibodeau’s bunch desperately needed with their season on the line.
The Bulls led for most of the fourth quarter, but they unraveled down the stretch. After C.J. Watson found Asik (10 points, nine rebounds) for a sleek dunk, the point guard had a major lapse in judgment when he passed the ball to Asik with the Bulls on top 78-77 with seven seconds left. Instead of keeping his dribble until he was fouled, Watson put the ball in the hands of Asik, a player who has a well-known reputation as a poor free throw shooter. In a stunning sequence, Asik missed both attempts from the charity stripe, and then Iguodala grabbed the rebound and took the ball coast-to-coast to draw the foul. The Bulls were without a timeout at that point and had to throw up a heave as the buzzer sounded.
The Bulls battled all night and put themselves in a great position to take this series to seven games. They had all the confidence, all the momentum, and silenced the weak Sixers crowd throughout the night. But when push came to shove, the Bulls again couldn’t come up with the critical game-sealing play. The Bulls got all the big outings they needed to pull out the win, although Carlos Boozer had a brutal offensive night, going just 1-for-11 for three points. Asik was en route to a career night before his two missed free throws that will be one of the lasting images of his team’s free throws – along with the unfortunate injuries to Rose and Noah.
There’s no question the Bulls fought extremely hard and they believe they should have won Game 6, and the series. It was a disappointing finish to what was set to be the Bulls’ biggest win to date. Even so, the finish was exhilarating, and the end of Chicago’s last playoff game this season was similar to the first – in crushing fashion.
Now, the Bulls’ season, which consisted of lofty expectation for most of the year, is over and the team will have a bad taste in its mouth entering the offseason.