Looking to avoid their first three game slide since November, the 76ers were matched up with the top-level contending Chicago Bulls in the Windy City. In their toughest showing all year, the Sixers (38-36) outdueled the Bulls (53-20) in a slugfest, 97-85.
The prospect of bouncing back from Sunday’s Sacramento Kings fiasco against the Chicago Bulls Monday looked grim. The Bulls, winners of 12 of their last 13 before Monday, had been roaring behind MVP front-runner Derrick Rose. On top of that, they entered the game holding a 32-4 record at the United Center, not dropping a game there since January.
To avoid their longest losing streak since the tail end of their 3-13 start, the Sixers would need a playoff-level effort to tame the Bulls on their home floor.
They came out swinging behind southpaw Thaddeus Young, whom coach Doug Collins described as “indispensible” afterwards. He netted 17 points, 6 boards, and 2 blocks in 11 first half minutes. After two quarters, the Sixers led by 16.
The Sixer’s lead was reminiscent of Friday’s loss in Miami, in which the Sixers also led by 16, and that game was not far from coach Collins’ mind Monday night. When the Bulls charged out of the gate in the second half, they tightened the bolts on their defense and fell in line behind Rose.
The Chicago crowd notched the intensity up to a playoff-caliber as they shrunk Philly’s lead. Collins took a timeout to remind his team to not get “knocked on their heels,” as they did in Miami.
The response was resounding. In stark contrast to the blown lead on Friday, the Sixers never slowed their pace in the second half. In fact, they led the Bulls wire-to-wire.
And, unlike Sunday’s dreadful late game performance, the team worked to find open jump shots and convert in crunch time. Spencer Hawes made his biggest contribution of the stretch run yet, netting 6 of his 14 points during a 4th quarter dry spell before fouling out. Andre Iguodala and Lou Williams sealed the deal with a pair of slams.
Points came at a premium for the Sixers in the second half as the Bulls bunkered down into Tom Thibodeau’s world-class defensive scheme. Giving up 91.1 points per game entering Monday, Chicago had the 2nd best defense league-wide.
To fend off the Chicago assault, the Sixers brought some lockdown defense of their own. Hats off goes to the front court of Young (4 blocks, 2 steals) and Elton Brand (2 blocks, 3 steals) for outplaying Chicago’s Boozer-Noah-Gibson trio by securing the defensive blocks and sealing off the rim.
Derrick Rose, despite his 31 points, coughed up 10 turnovers. While it was a team effort to force the mistakes, Jrue Holiday stepped up to the task of chasing Rose all night. It’s been an encouraging sign to see Holiday relish the challenge of top-flight point guards all season – there’s a good chance he could be seeing some in the playoffs. Andre Iguodala checked swingman Loul Deng, and, in an impressive display, limited him to 10 points on 3-11 shooting.
After the game, Collins singled out Iggy’s defense particularly saying “He’s probably the defensive player of the year. He should at least be 1st team All-Defense.”
As bad as the losses over the weekend looked, Monday’s win offers redemption for the Sixers’ outlook as the league sprints to the finish line. Refusing to submit to the Bulls on their home hardwood showed true grit; they absorbed Chicago’s best punch behind Derrick Rose and never wavered. Where they lacked in the clutch Sunday, the team collectively answered the bell in the heading into the close of the 4th quarter.
Yes, it is only one win that should not be overstated with this much breathing room between now and round one of the playoffs. But, it was a win in which the Sixers outplayed, out hustled, and out coached the top team in the Eastern Conference – while on the road.
Since February, Philly has notched wins against the Spurs, Hawks, Celtics, and now the Bulls. They can run with the big dogs, and they proved it again on Monday. In the future, they can point to this win as, perhaps, the most impressive display of resiliency they’ve shown all year.