CHICAGO - Only three current 76ers before this postseason had ever reached the second round of the playoffs, since the team is mostly filled with very young players.
Elton Brand, Tony Battie, and Sam Young advanced out of the first round in their careers, and each knows how tough the close-out game of a series can be.
"Close-out games are notoriously tough, but I'd rather be in the position to be up 3-1 and have an opportunity to close things out," Brand said Tuesday before Game 5. "But it's never easy. The younger guys are just young. They don't even realize what they're getting into. It's a fun spirit around here. There's not a lot of pressure on the guys, they're just having fun playing basketball. Now, the veteran guys, we're a little more nervous. We have to tell the young guys to calm down."
Bulls forward Luol Deng's struggles in the series have largely been attributed to Andre Iguodala's defense and Deng's suffering from a wrist injury. That is all true, but Sixers coach Doug Collins found a little more to it.
"When [Derrick] Rose is playing, Luol seemed to play very well off of him," Collins said. "Derrick would create so many opportunities. You'd be looking at Derrick, and all of a sudden Luol would be back-cutting and slashing and getting those baskets out on the open court.
"As a coach, it's very difficult to run plays for three or four different guys. If you run plays for Rip [Hamilton], then it's hard to run plays for [Carlos Boozer]. If you go to Booz and Rip, it's hard to go to Luol. As a coach, that's a fine line you're dancing on. How do you get this guy involved, how do you get this guy going?"
With his team ahead by three games to one in the series and with a chance for his No. 8 seed to oust the top-seeded Bulls, Collins knew the pressure and the obstacles his team faced.
"When I was broadcasting, I used to call this a human-nature game," Collins said. "The team that's up, 3-1, if you get down, do you have that fight to get back in the game and do the things you have to do to win games like we've won in this series, or do you settle into that human nature of, if we don't get tonight we still have a couple more? These games are the kinds of games where teams really have to settle in."
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau remained coy before the game. Asked whether injured center Joakim Noah would miss a second game with a sprained left ankle, Thibodeau replied, "Game time."
Less than three minutes before Thibodeau spoke, Noah had hobbled into the Bulls' locker room, just 90 minutes before tip-off. He looked sad. And very unlikely to play.
Thibodeau said that Omar Asik still was slated to start his second consecutive game in Noah's place, but "we could always change it. It's the greatest right we have."
Though NBA commissioner David Stern acknowledged that the rash of injuries around the league could be the result of the compressed, 66-game schedule he imposed after the lockout, Thibodeau would not wallow in self-pity.
"Injuries are part of the game, whether it's a lockout season or not," he said.
Thibodeau's team was devastated when Rose, the reigning league MVP, blew out his knee in Game 1 after struggling with injuries all season - as did Hamilton. Noah then suffered a sprained ankle in Game 3, a fluke accident.
The back problems of Magic center Dwight Howard, Knicks forward Amar'e Stoudemire, and Celtics guard Ray Allen, among other chronic injuries to prominent players, have been blamed - at least in part - on the strenuous schedule over the shortened season.