CHICAGO - Before the season started, the Chicago Bulls were planning on sending out a starting lineup of Derrick Rose, Rip Hamilton, Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah most nights. But injuries allowed them to do that only 13 times in the regular season and 11 of them were wins.
Saturday at the United Center, the Bulls strolled out that starting five and won again. They beat the 76ers, 103-91, in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series. Game 2 will be Tuesday at 8 p.m. again in Chicago.
Whether the Bulls can use that starting lineup anymore in this series or beyond is in question as with 1 minute, 20 seconds to go, Rose came to a hard jump stop the lane. As he then jumped to make a pass he grimaced in pain and grabbed the outside of his left knee. He fell to the baseline under the basket in obvious pain, gripping the damaged area and writhing. An MRI following the game showed a tear of his ACL, which obviously ends his playoffs.
Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau was asked why he had Rose in the game so late as the Bulls were leading by 12 at the time and on their way to an obvious win. Thibodeau dejectedly said: "I don't work backwards like you guys. The score was going the other way. He's got to play."
Up to that point Rose's play was a big reason why the top-seeded Bulls pretty much dominated the Sixers throughout. The point guard, who missed 27 games during the regular season, was closing in on a triple-double at the time of the injury with 23 points and nine each of rebounds and assists.
He and starting backcourt mate Hamilton seemed to pierce the Sixers each time the score would become a little more interesting. Hamilton scored 19 points, doing so by making all but one of his seven shots and each of his six free throws. He did so many figure-eights running defenders off picks that you had to wonder if he was a little dizzy after the game.
The Sixers probably were as they got manhandled down low all game. Chicago owned the backboards to the tune of 47-38 and continually took the ball hard to the basket, an art the Sixers seem unwilling to learn.
"That was the fourth time we have played the Bulls this season and this is the best they have played against us," said coach Doug Collins. "Rip Hamilton came out and gave them a great start. He's got championship experience. I think he had 19 points on seven shots. To my thinking that's almost three points a shot. Then (Kyle) Korver's line says 11 points, but his impact out there is much greater than that. That's 30 points from your two-guard position.
While the Bulls were getting that contribution from their shooting guards, Collins had to bench his starter as Jodie Meeks was pulled with 4:31 to go in the first quarter after leaving Hamilton for an open three-pointer, committing a bad turnover and getting called for a stupid foul. He wasn't heard from again until the final minutes of the game when the outcome was no longer in doubt.
Evan Turner, booed lustily by his hometown crowd, chewed up most of the two-guard minutes and finished with 12 points and five assists.
But the advantage that was most lopsided in the game was the Bulls play around the basket. They continuously were able to either get the ball at the rim or fight for offensive rebounds. And defensively they didn't allow the Sixers any comfort, holding them to 39.8 percent shooting (33-for-83) and muscling them away from the basket all day. Joakim Noah was a big part of that, collecting 12 points and 13 rebounds.
"We're going to watch a lot of tape," said Elton Brand, who led the Sixers with 19 points and pulled down seven rebounds. "Now it's a chess match. We have to get better, we have to box out, maybe not trap as much so we're not out of position [to rebound]. We're going to find a way to hit those boards.
"It's like a play for them. They shoot their shots and they get tip outs and then they get second-chance points. Every time, though, we made a mistake, they executed and made us pay for it. They just spotted and made a run every time."
The first one of those happened right after the opening tip as the Bulls started with a 10-3 spurt. The Sixers cut it to three, the Bulls quickly upped it to nine. When the Sixers tied the game early in the second quarter at 28-28, the Bulls slapped on a 9-0 run, which included five from Luol Deng, who finished with 17. When the Sixers worked it close again, getting to within 41-36 on two Brand free throws, Chicago used steals and blocks and putbacks to up the lead to 53-40 just before the half. The Sixers made one final serious push early in the third, dropping the lead to 53-48 only to see the Bulls put together a 9-1 run and essentially close the door on the opening game of the best-of-seven series.
"They do a good job defensively as a team," said Andre Iguodala, who struggled through a 3-for-11 shooting day while collecting 11 points, six rebounds and five assists. "We need to do a better job and make some adjustments as far as how we attack them. I think [the Bulls' effort] is why they had the best record in the league. It's not a one-man show. They have a solid unit and a great coach.
"Even when they had their number one guy [Rose] out throughout the season they got wins and still played high-caliber basketball. Offensively they are about as good as it gets. We have to match that intensity and that high-caliber style of basketball."
And now they'll be trying to do that against a team that is severely shorthanded again due to another Rose injury.