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Inside the Sixers: 76ers' fortunes suddenly looking up

Honestly, did anyone think just about one week ago that it would be the 76ers sitting in the catbird seat as the NBA and NHL playoffs moved to the next level?

Honestly, did anyone think just about one week ago that it would be the 76ers sitting in the catbird seat as the NBA and NHL playoffs moved to the next level?

Of course not.

Not after the Flyers had dismissed the Penguins and then gone on to take Game 1 from New Jersey. The narrative then (it's a bit more tempered today) was focused on the infinite possibilities of this Flyers team, about the playoffs possibly even concluding with a Stanley Cup.

Meanwhile, even after the Chicago Bulls lost reigning MVP Derrick Rose for the playoffs - and probably for a good part of next season - many of the denizens of this metropolis still figured the shorthanded Bulls would need just five, maybe six, games to dispatch the Sixers.

What a difference a week makes.

With a win Sunday afternoon over the Bulls in Game 4 of this Eastern Conference quarterfinal against a team that will not only be minus Rose but also Joakim Noah (listed as doubtful after gruesomely spraining his ankle in a 79-74 loss on Friday), the Sixers can put themselves within one victory of becoming just the fifth eighth seed to knock off the No. 1 seed since the playoffs went to a 16-team format in 1984.

All of a sudden, Sixers guard Evan Turner, who said the Sixers preferred to face Chicago instead of No. 2 seed Miami, looks like a genius. It was an innocuous statement that was turned into bulletin-board material - OK, handheld device material - but now Turner looks like Nostradamus.

Wonder how much more the Knicks would prefer to be playing the Bulls right now? What are the chances that Amar'e Stoudemire would have thrown a stiff jab into a metal and glass box housing a fire extinguisher if he and his cohorts were facing a Bulls team without Rose?

If the Sixers can get out of this round, they'll have the good fortune of once again avoiding the Heat, who have beaten them 11 consecutive times in the regular season. The Sixers will get the winner of the Atlanta-Boston series. They went 5-1 against those teams during the regular season.

While injuries will continue to be a significant factor, what can't be ignored is the advantage that Doug Collins has established over Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau.

Perhaps nothing about the Sixers turned Collins off more than their inability to get to the free-throw line and make their freebies. The 18.2 free throws per game the Sixers attempted during the regular season was just short of the NBA futility record of 18.0 held by the 2005-06 Phoenix Suns.

Just four times during the regular season did the Sixers attempt 30 free throws or more. But in their two victories over the Bulls, the Sixers have aggressively gone to the basket. Coming back from a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit on Friday, the Sixers attempted 33 free throws and made 26.

The Sixers attacked the rim aggressively in Game 1 as well. They were just 12-for-15 from the line in Game 2 but who cares? When you are making 59 percent of your field goals and running past the opposition the way the Sixers did in that 109-92 cakewalk, trips to the line are irrelevant.

One thing the Bulls have never had a problem doing for Thibodeau is playing with effort. Energy has never been a question.

But all of a sudden it is.

On Saturday, one day after watching his Bulls miss 10 straight field goals in a stretch of the fourth quarter that cost them the game, Thibodeau spoke of his team's failing to close out the game, an effort issue not expected from these Bulls, no matter how injury-depleted they may be.

He talked of their getting out in the open floor more, but the problem is that the Bulls don't do well in transition basketball, especially when they can't depend on players like Luol Deng and Richard Hamilton, who are better-suited to the half-court game.

Thibodeau might want to be careful about what he asked for. As lovers of the lottery in this town can attest, you never know what you might get.