The No. 8 just seed isn’t supposed to beat No. 1—the way the Philadelphia 76ers are on the verge of doing to the Cbicago Bulls—after grinding out an 89-82 win Suday to take a commanding 3-1 series lead.
One more “W’’ would make them only the fifth team in NBA history to pull off such an upset, something which happens regularly on ice.
The difference basically is there’s may be goaltending in hoops, but no goaltenders to swat away shots before they enter the net. That’s the great equalizer in hockey, where L.A. Kings are the latest to pull off the trick, having dispatched both top-seeded Vancouver and No. 2 St. Louis.
Basketball is generally a different story, where the team which has proven its superiority over the course of a season—even a 66-game one like this, rather than the standard 82—isn’t supposed to find itself in the predicament the Bulls arein. Of course you can blame those crippling injuries—first to reigning League MVP Derrick Rose, then to center Joakim Noah—for their plight.
But Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau and his players won’t buy that as an excuse, and Sixers’ head man Doug Collins has drummed into his young team’s head that a wounded opponent is still dangerous.
In fact, even after fending off the Bulls’ desperate attempt to square the series, the first thing the coaching staff did was warn them about looking ahead. Only Collins wasn’t the one to deliver the message. “Michael Curry spoke to the team after the game,” said Collins of his lead assistant who runs the defense. “He talked about being a No 1 seed in Detroit (in 2003), playing a No. 8 seed in Orlando, and Orlando going up 3-1.
“Then Orlando coming in and giving away Game 5 thinking they were just gonna go home and win Game 6. Then they lost Game 6 and lost Game 7.
“The message from that is Game 5 has to be as important to us as it is to the Bulls when we go to Chicago. You don’t give away playoff games.
“You’ve got to take care of your business, and the closeout game is the hardest game to win in sports. We have to go into Chicago with the idea of trying to get that win.’’
The Bulls, on the other hand, will be simply trying to stay alive and earn another trip back here. “We have to go into Game 5 with confidence, feeling we can beat their team,’’ said Carlos Boozer, whose 23 points and 11 rebounds paced the staggered Bulls, who shot just 34-for-85, 40%, in dropping their third straight to a Philadelphia team which went an even worse 31-for-79, 39.2%. ”A lot of guys have had to step up.
“Now we need to step up even more. We have to fight like dogs to win Game 5 and then keep it up.’’
The Bulls play the kind of stifling defense that always gives them a chance—and the Sixers know it. That’s why they’ll heed Collins’ words and think short term, having seen firsthand how quickly the tide can turn once Rose, then Noah went down.
“We’re not taking anything for granted,’’ said center Spencer Hawes, Philadelphia’s best player with 22 points on torrid 9-for-11 shooting and eight rebounds. ”Right now we’re in a good position, but the game in Chicago is gonna be huge.
“Coach Curry told us “Stay in the present. It’s nowhere near over.’’’
It might be for the Bulls, who racked up an impressive 50 wins during the season, much of which they had to go through without Rose. But there’s a difference between having to adjust to facing C.J. Watson and John Lucas III when you’re playing the Bulls one night, traveling to Cleveland the next night, then hosting Indiana two nights later than when you can actually game plan to exploit them over a series.
That’s what the Sixers have done, with guards Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner and Lou Williams taking turns working them over, while Hawes, Iguodala and Elton Brand do the dirty work up front. For all the resistance the Bulls have offered—and it was considerable here this weekend—the Sixers have somehow been able to find the answer when they had to have it.
As a result they stand on the brink of joining the 1994 Nuggets (over Seattle), 1999 Knicks (over Miami also in a lockout shortened season), 2007 Warriors (over Dallas) and last year’s Grizzlies (over the Spurs) as the only No. 8s to conquer a top seed. ”We’re in the driver’s seat but we’re not satisfied,’’ said Brand, who bounced back from going scoreless in Game 3 with seven points and nine boards. “We need to Chicago with the mentality of trying hard to win there.
“We’re not even thinking about coming back home and Game 6.’’
Still, this is virgin territory for the Sixers, who haven’t won a series since beating the Hornets in 2003 and hadn’t even won three games since Iguodala arrived in 2004. The Bulls. meanwhile, are hoping Noah can make it back to the lineup, since replacement Omer Asik provided little in his spot.
“We know it’s just one game,’’ said Luol Deng, whose 11 points gives him just 24 in the three games since Rose went down—and out. ”At the same time we still believe.
“We have to get one to get going.’’
Then they’d still need to get two more, which seems almost insurmountable the way the Sixers are playing, building confidence every step of the way. Maybe a goaltender would help.
Otherwise, it’s hard not to think the No. 8 seeded Philadelphia 76ers don’t already have what’s left of the top-seeded Bulls on ice.
Jon Marks has covered the Philadelphia 76ers from the days of Dr. J and his teammate, Joe Bryant (best known no as Kobe’s dad). He has won awards from the Pro Basketball Writer’s Association and North Jersey Press Club. His other claim to fame is driving Rick Mahorn to a playoff game after missing the team bus. Follow him on Twitter.