IN THE END, none of it really made much sense.
The fear of 76ers coach Doug Collins at the beginning of this best-of-seven opening round series against the Chicago Bulls was that they would torture his team on the backboards. Even after Derrick Rose (torn ACL) was felled in the first game and Joakim Noah was sent to the sidelines after a twisted ankle stopped him in Game 4, it was still what kept Collins tossing and turning at night.
So Thursday in Game 6, with the eighth-seeded Sixers trying to become the fifth last-entered team to beat a top-seed, the Bulls went out and crushed the Sixers on the boards to the tune of 56-33. For the third time in the series the Sixers shot under 40 percent. For the second time they scored under 80 points. They won all of those games. How sensible is that?
No one in the Sixers organization cares about the whys, however, as with Thursday's 79-78 win over the Bulls the Sixers advance to the second round for the first time since 2003. They'll play in Boston for Game 1 on Saturday at either 7 or 8 p.m.
What made the victory even more crazy was this: Andre Iguodala, who shot 23-for-51 (45 percent) from the foul line in the fourth quarter during the regular season, drained two free throws with 2.2 seconds remaining for the final margin. Not only did he drain them and send the sellout crowd into an utter frenzy, he hit two no-doubt-about-its. Strangely, he hit nine of his 10 free throws in the last quarter in this series.
"I don't know what to say," said Collins, tears welling in his eyes. "What it means to me and the organization and the team is off the charts. I don't know how we won. It got away from us, 29 second-chance points, a layup on a short clock. I gotta tell ya, there couldn't be a better script, Dre rebounding and going the length of the floor and then stepped up and made two big free throws. I know how much it means to him and this team."
The final scenario was as unexpected as Iguodala's heroics.
"Doug always tells us, and I started to listen, that when we get into tough situations how are we going to respond," said Iguodala, who finished with a team-high 20 points. "I've been trying to keep us focused and make sure my [mind] is in the right place. I could tell that we were going to try and make something happen and continue to fight."
They really had no choice if they wanted to avert a return trip to Chicago for Game 7. Fighting was their last resort, because shooting and rebounding certainly weren't working until nearly the end of the game.
Two free throws by Taj Gibson gave the Bulls a 76-73 lead with 2 minutes, 3 seconds remaining in the game. There wasn't another basket until Spencer Hawes hit a reverse layup to cut the lead to one with 43.8 seconds to go. After a timeout, Chicago ran a perfect pick and roll at the top of the key. Omer Asik set the screen, then rolled hard down the middle of the lane, where C.J. Watson hit him with a perfect bounce pass for a dunk and a 78-75 lead. A driving layup by Thaddeus Young again cut the lead to one with 12.8 seconds left.
The Sixers were out of timeouts and needed to foul in order to stop the clock. Their attempts to do that in the backcourt failed, though, and the ball ultimately, luckily, landed in the hands of Asik. Utterly exhausted after playing over 39 minutes, Asik missed both. Badly.
The second miss dropped to Iguodala, who raced down the middle of the court and took the ball hard to the basket, something the team hadn't done all game. He was fouled by Asik and calmly went to the line and drained the two biggest foul shots of his career. A desperation heave by Watson at the buzzer just missed and the wild celebration ensued.
"We have a lot of guys who can make plays down the stretch, we have had guys make plays down the stretch," Iguodala said. "I still feel like we haven't played our best basketball. We learned a lot from the Chicago Bulls, a team playing without their superstar [Rose] and their other superstar, I think Noah is a superstar just by the energy he brings to the table. For them to be without those two guys, we can learn from that."
Jrue Holiday and Lou Williams each scored 14 points for the Sixers, while Evan Turner added 10 and Spencer Hawes grabbed 10 rebounds to go with eight points. Somehow the Bulls stayed close despite just three points (on 1-for-11 shooting) from Carlos Boozer. Luol Deng, who had to get a couple of stitches next to his nose in the first half, finished with 19 points and 17 rebounds.
After failing to close out the Bulls in Game 5 in Chicago, many players discussed the lesson being learned about how hard it is to finish off a team in a series. You couldn't help but feel the lessons just keep piling up. Collins can only hope that they will help his club in the next series against Boston. Iguodala's foul shots certainly showed how to handle the most pressured of situations.
"When you're under pressure you rely on the things you've done," said Collins of Iguodala's makes. "That's what Dre did. I don't think he hit the rim. For Dre, he's gone through a lot here. Nobody deserves more than he does to move on and experience this. Now we're in the high-rent district. Now you start to find out what it's about.
"On the final play, we were going to push it. Before that, I was screaming at Jrue [Holiday to foul], but I'm glad he didn't. That was a good move there. It's just amazing that we won it on a rebound. When you get into a grind it out game like this, it's will and determination. We won three games shooting under 40 percent, two games scoring under 80. We have heart and I just didn't want our guys to lose hope."
Heads are still being scratched over how the Sixers pulled out Thursday's game - and the series for that matter.
"Faith resides in the heart," Collins said. "And that's what we have."
And because of it, another playoff series, as strange as that seems.