CHICAGO - As the game and the season slipped from the Sixers' grasp early Tuesday night, Jrue Holiday grabbed the organization in a deathgrip that he might not release for the next decade.
The offense died in the hands of homeboy Evan Turner, whose first playoff start might be his last. It might have been Turner's night, when the No. 2 overall pick from a year ago took giants steps in one glorious evening. But Turner clearly was overwhelmed by the moment; erratic and overeager as his home city booed him on every touch. He was a hindrance until midway through the third quarter.
Andre Iguodala, the All-Star and the likely Olympian, might have commanded the contest, but he played anonymously . . . unless he was giving the ball away, shooting airballs or, later in the game, dunking on the break.
The Sixers' big men played so small that Joakim Noah, as awkward with one hand as the other, made his first seven shots. Noah made as many as seven shots just four other times this season. He finished 10-for-11, the first time in 2 years he's hit double-digit field goals.
Holiday had nothing to do with any of that.
Holiday played flawless basketball, the engineer of a 109-92 playoff win over the top seed in the Eastern Conference that evened the series, 1-1.
In the biggest game of the season, at 21 he became The Franchise.
Holiday made 11 of his first 12 shots, nary a one of them forced, and finished with 26 points on 11-for-15 shooting. Two misses were shot-clock beaters. He had six assists. No turnovers.
"He played the perfect game," marveled Elton Brand. "It was excellent. It could be a signature game for him."
"He was great," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said.
"Jrue was spectacular," Sixers coach Doug Collins said.
He said he has encouraged Holiday to be aggressive, to attack, in the mode of New Jersey's Deron Willaims, who might be the best true point guard among a flock of superb contemporaries.
Holiday was Great. Spectacular. Perfect. Could he possibly have been better?
"Well," said Holiday, with a smile, "I could've been 15-for-15."
His teammates helped late, but he was the show early. He was 8-for-9 in the first half, and then the Sixers started running their offense through him. Now the focus, Holiday made his first two buckets of the third quarter, set up a third, earned Turner free throws, then assisted on three more baskets as the Sixers ran out to a defining, 70-61 lead.
As significantly, Holiday was assigned to harass Rip Hamilton. Mainly, he smothered the Coatesville killer. Hamilton had 10 points, but just two on Holiday's watch.
Holiday then erased sharpshooter Kyle Korver, who didn't score at all until the last 6 minutes, when the game was well out of reach.
Both Korver and Hamilton are Tasmanian Devils of activity away from the ball. Holiday dealt with exactly a dozen brutal screens when first tasked with stopping Korver, in the second quarter.
He emerged exhausted.
"I've never experienced something like that before," Holiday said. "I mean, I've guarded [the Celtics'] Ray Allen, but he has a break. On his team, he doesn't have anybody else running like that."
The Bulls, however, have a two-headed Energizer bunny that enters a thicket of oak trees and keeps going, and going, and going . . .
"Just running off those screens - bigs who screen like that, screen really well - that takes a lot out of you," Holiday said. "I'm definitely a player whose offense is generated by my defense."
So, even exhausted, Holiday carried the scoring load.
His big men had four fine Bulls defenders, an unassailable mountain, it turned out. Iguodala, to be fair, faced the closest thing to a mirror in Luol Deng, which is a terrible task. And Turner, in front of 20,000 haters, had no chance.
True, Holiday did all of this in absence of reigning MVP Derrick Rose, whose buckled left knee in Game 1 ended his postseason.
But Rose is not exactly known for his defense, and no one else could handle the stifling of Hamilton and Korver; certainly not Turner; nor the starter Turner deposed, Jodie Meeks; nor Lou Williams, whose poor defense made John Lucas' namesake look like . . . well . . . dad.
These games, the playoffs, in every sport, are less about playing hard that night as it is about a desire to play the next game.
It means committing to as many as 28 games on top of 82 already played; or, in this bastardized season's case, 66, condensed into what should have been a 50-game window.
It means punishment.
It borders on masochism, given Holiday's load: running the team, defending the dervishes, serving as the only viable halfcourt option. Lately, he has emerged as all of those things.
Holiday's late-season excellence has been lost in the debris of a desperate playoff push and the hubris of playing the Bulls.
In the last three games of the regular season that mattered, Holiday made 21 of 40 shots, dealt 16 assists and committed just four turnovers. All on the road.
In Game 1 on Saturday, Holiday scored 16 points and pulled seven rebounds. Desperate for rebounding against a bigger, tougher Bulls squad, no Sixer pulled more boards than their point guard.
In the last five significant games - the playoff push, then the two games here - Holiday has played his best. Not Turner; not Sweet Lou Williams; not, heaven forbid, Iguodala.
Holiday has played like a winner. Like a leader.
He has averaged 19.4 points, six more than his season's average to that point. He has averaged 4.8 assists and just 1.2 turnovers. He has shot better than 53 percent.
How's that for desire?
How's that for wanting to play as many as 28 more games?
How's that for taking a franchise by the nose and leading it into the next 10 years?
It doesn't get much better than that.