Eight-seeded Sixers push depleted Bulls to brink of elimination
The Sixers took a 3-1 lead over a Bulls team without Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah
Spencer Hawes led the 76ers (22 points) and poses a matchup issue for the Bulls
Injuries have affected Chicago's offensive rebounding, its point guard situation
It wasn't pretty for either team, but the 76ers' 89-82 victory over the Bulls in Philadelphia on Sunday will hold a certain beauty only a defensive-minded team with no superstars can appreciate. After getting manhandled in the series opener, the Sixers pushed the top-seeded Bulls to the brink of elimination with their third straight victory in the series. Philadelphia gritted its way through a low-scoring game, made all the clutch plays down the stretch, and pushed the injury-riddled Bulls -- still searching for a leader after losing Derrick Rose late in the series opener -- into a 3-1 series hole.
The most impressive part of the Sixers' win was that they scrapped through a grinding victory while their offensive leaders in the series struggled. The Bulls haven't been very effective in slowing Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner and Lou Williams on the perimeter, and the trio combined to average 56 points in Games 2 and 3. So the Bulls adjusted on Sunday by compressing the paint defensively, which prevented Philly's guards from making aggressive moves to the rim and instead forced them to make lateral passes and take shots out of rhythm. Their efficiency plummeted as a result: Williams hit just two of 10 shots, Turner hit three of 12, and Holiday missed 13 of his first 14 attempts.
Young teams learning to win in the postseason often fold when their shots aren't falling, but Philly's trio didn't let its shooting struggles take it out of games. Holiday recovered with a 10-point fourth quarter, Williams threaded a pass to Spencer Hawes for a key layup with 2:06 remaining to give the Sixers an 82-78 lead, and Turner had six rebounds, three assists and sank the two game-sealing free throws with 21 seconds remaining. Those plays showed a mental toughness in Philadelphia's guards that often makes a difference in the postseason.
Two games ago the names Spencer Hawes and Moses Malone would never have been placed together in the same sentence. Hawes wasn't a factor in the first two games of the series, combining for just three made baskets and seven points. But he now has not only become the first Sixers center to score 20 or more points in back-to-back playoff games since Malone did it 29 years ago, but he has suddenly become one of the most problematic matchups on the court. Hawes has now hit 16 of 26 shots in the last two games and -- hold onto something steady -- been the Sixers' leading scorer in both. Hawes was as effective in the post on Sunday (4-of-5 shooting inside five feet) as he was from the perimeter (5-of-7 outside 15 feet) in a 22-point performance. And as Chicago compressed the paint to control the penetration of Philadelphia's guards, Hawes' outside shooting became a valuable weapon for the 76ers, who repeatedly found him open on the perimeter as he showed his hot fourth-quarter shooting in Game 3 wasn't going to be an isolated success story.
The Sixers came into Sunday's game concerned that Achilles tendonitis might hinder All-Star Andre Iguodala. It took only one play early in the game to put those concerns aside. After Evan Turner missed a 13-foot jumper with 7:45 remaining in the first quarter, Iguodala exploded toward the rim, grabbed the rebound with one hand and flushed it back -- hardly a sign of a player struggling with a heel issue. Iguodala never gave cause to question his health again. He pulled down 12 rebounds -- one short of his season high -- and finished with 14 points on 5-of-11 shooting, his best offensive performance of the series. And he made one of the critical plays of the fourth quarter when he took a pass on the perimeter late in the shot clock, drove into the paint and drew a foul on Omer Asik with the Sixers leading by four. The two free throws extended Philadelphia's lead to 86-80 and pushed the Bulls to the point of desperation.
The full effect of the injuries the Bulls have suffered in this series continue to reveal itself. It's not just that Chicago has lost two starters who also happen to be team cornerstones. The loss of Rose and Joakim Noah has also taken away essential elements of the Bulls' identity. Rose's absence has already been evident in Chicago's lost ability to penetrate and create open shots for its cast of shooters, most notably Kyle Korver and Richard Hamilton, who have combined for just 33 percent shooting and 15.3 points in the last three games.
Now the effects of Noah's loss have added a potentially critical problem: the weakening of Chicago's offensive rebounding, one of its greatest strengths. The Bulls pulled down nearly one of every three missed shots in the regular season, and were remarkably efficient converting them into second-chance points. But the Bulls pulled down only 11 of their 51 misses on Sunday (22 percent), and with the offense already struggling through a 40-percent shooting night, those lost second opportunities only magnified their troubles. Their offense became a constant grind as it searched for a leader to carry them, which isn't a successful formula in the playoffs.
The injuries have also exposed Chicago's point guard situation in this series as a critical hole without a good solution. C.J. Watson had his best performance of the series on Sunday with 13 points, and yet he was still alarmingly inefficient on a 3-for-15 shooting day that lowered his field-goal percentage for the series to 24 percent, capped by a missed three-pointer at the end of the game when the Bulls were desperate for a score. Even worse, he's been a defensive liability against Holiday, who has consistently beaten Watson in isolation situations, including on a key drive with 51.5 seconds remaining in which Holiday got past Watson an drew a foul on Korver in the paint. The two resulting free throws gave Philadelphia an 84-80 lead that proved to be one of the game's pivotal moments.
Trouble is, Chicago doesn't have a very good option to turn to. John Lucas III has injected energy into the Bulls' offense when he's entered games off the bench, but at 5-foot-11 he's not a good defensive matchup to keep in the game long-term against Philadelphia's bigger backcourt. It looks like Chicago's best option will be to stick with Watson and hope his shot warms up in time to help halt the Bulls' collapse.