It isn't every season the 76ers win three straight playoff games. It isn't even every decade it happens.

The last time, in fact, was the first round of the 2001 playoffs, which turned out to be a pretty successful postseason. All it took to complete that three-game streak was 33 points from Allen Iverson against the Indiana Pacers, and a rimmed-out three-pointer by Jalen Rose that would have tied the game.

Yeah, it's been a while. Rose is now a television guy, clucking his tongue at players who miss big shots at the end, and Allen is showing up for exhibition games in Mongolia or someplace for cab fare.

The current Sixers won their third consecutive playoff game on Sunday at the Wells Fargo Center in another eye-of-the-beholder game against the depleted Chicago Bulls. They took a three-games-to-one series lead with the 89-82 win, and merely needed another 22 points from Spencer Hawes and an almost unbelievable advantage at the free-throw line to hold off the Bulls.

It might be that, with Derrick Rose out with a knee injury and Joakim Noah sidelined with a sprained ankle, even the referees are trying to be kind and put Chicago out of its misery as painlessly as possible. There's no other explanation for some of the officiating on Sunday, but the Sixers will take whatever help they can get.

"I thought our guys drove the ball hard," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau deadpanned. "We've got to go in harder, I guess."

There was no replay of the fourth-quarter collapse that cost Chicago in Game 3 after Noah went out, but the Sixers won this one in the final period, too. That means the Bulls either don't have enough left by the end of games without Rose and Noah, or they simply don't figure they can win.

"We're fighting, but we can do a lot better," Thibodeau said.

Maybe, maybe not. They can't beat a team that shoots 39 percent from the floor, as the Sixers did Sunday, and they can't find a reliable perimeter game to force the Sixers to go smaller and open up the basket area.

It looked for a time as if Jrue Holiday and C.J. Watson, the two starting point guards, were intent on seeing which of them could provide more offensive rebound opportunities for his respective team. Holiday missed 13 of his first 14 shots, and Watson was 0 for 8 in the game (and 0 for Philadelphia in this series) before finally making a three-pointer midway through the third quarter.

Holiday was 5 for 20 before making a dagger of a three-pointer with a little more than four minutes to play. Just to prove it wasn't a fluke, he made another 30 seconds later, and the Bulls were only a possession or two - and a couple of more blown calls - from having to send the game to the foul line for final absolution.

Chicago had chances, but needed more of Carlos Boozer's volleyball tosses to drop in, and needed to handle the ball a lot better. Of course, any team in the NBA will leak oil all over the court without its best two players, particularly a team like the Bulls, which - unlike the Sixers - can reliably name its best two players.

"We're shorthanded, and we've got guys playing who are banged up, and two huge parts of our team are out. Right now, we need everybody," Boozer said. "We'll fight like dogs to win Game 5 and bring it back to Philadelphia."

It's the right thing to say, but do the Bulls still really want to do that? Given what has happened to their team, no one will blame them for losing this series now. It seems like an awful lot of trouble to put themselves through on Tuesday in Chicago just for the privilege of losing eventually, even if they were to somehow survive this round.

"It comes down to mental toughness and physical toughness," Thibodeau said. "I think this team has great character, and I think the fight will be there."

After the game, Sixers associate head coach Michael Curry told the team about the first round of the 2003 playoffs when the eighth-seeded Orlando Magic took a 3-1 lead over the top-seeded Detroit Pistons, and Tracy McGrady already was talking about how much he was looking forward to playing in the second round of the postseason. The Magic walked through a 31-point loss in Game 5 on the road, figuring to put the series away when they went home. That didn't happen, and McGrady is still waiting to play in a second-round game.

"The message is that Game 5 has to be as important to us as it is to the Bulls," Sixers coach Doug Collins said. "When we go to Chicago, it has to be as important. You don't give away playoff games. You can't do that."

It makes for good telling, but the Bulls, unlike that Pistons team, isn't just playing badly. Without Rose and Noah, it is bad. And the Sixers aren't the kind of team to take anything for granted. So, it will be a game Tuesday in Chicago. It might even be the first time the Sixers have won four straight playoff games since 1985. If the Bulls can lose a couple of more players, anything is possible.