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Marcus Hayes: Sixers take huge step forward

The Bulls lost their heart when Derrick Rose ruined his knee in Game 1.

Sixers Elton Brand scores between Carlos Boozer, right, and Kyle Korver (not pictured). (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)
Sixers Elton Brand scores between Carlos Boozer, right, and Kyle Korver (not pictured). (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)Read more

THE BULLS lost their heart when Derrick Rose ruined his knee in Game 1.

The Bulls lost their soul when Joakim Noah turned his ankle in Game 3.

Sunday, the 76ers stepped on their necks.

As a franchise, the Sixers took a giant step forward. Their 89-82 win gave them a 3-1 first-round lead over the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

As an emerging franchise, anything but a win would have created a different image; one having to do with the Sixers' throats, and their inability to breathe and swallow.

As it stands, to borrow and to alter a phrase, this is not a choking situation.

That was averted.

"Absolutely accurate. Absolutely accurate," said veteran Elton Brand, who in his reconstructed career has turned into Dennis Rodman. "If we lost today, it would affect our mentality. Our organization. Our franchise. Our talent level. Just all we're doing here.

"We still have to fight to win this series. But this game, at home, to really take the driver's seat - we had to have this. For the growth of the young guys."

One of the young guys, center Spencer Hawes, put his foot down first, with 17 points on 7-for-8 shooting in the first half. He finished with 22, including a shocking three-pointer at the end of the half and a key lay-in with 2 minutes to play. It nicely complemented his 21 points in the Sixers' Game 3 win.

Another young guy, Jrue Holiday, replaced Hawes' boot with his own in the second half. He shook off a 1-for-13 nightmare and drained six of his next nine, including the two three-pointers that put the Sixers up by seven with just over 3 1/2 minutes to play. He had 20, and he leads the Sixers with 19.8 points per game.

"It didn't seem like Jrue was 7-for-23," Andre Iguodala mused afterward.

Yes, it did.

Brand kicked in with nine rebounds, but none counted among his more memorable plays.

First, he channeled Ian Laperriere with a dive midway through the fourth that created a jump ball with Taj Gibson. Then he snuffed Bulls go-to man Carlos Boozer with an emasculating block with just over a minute to play that preserved a two-point lead.

Brand might be 33, but this is just his third playoff run in 13 seasons. Brand was a Clipper back when being a Clipper was a punchline.

"I've watched a lot of championship basketball. Derek Fisher. Rodman. Whoever," Brand said. "They get a tip, a putback or a steal, whatever. Something big, that helps get a team another possession."

Meanwhile, Iguodala quietly supplied 43 minutes of grit. His knee and his Achilles' tendon burned with pain, but not so much that he couldn't lead everyone with 12 rebounds, his career playoff high. Iguodala helped cement the win with 26 seconds left when he made a pair of fourth-quarter free throws, a bright moment for him, a lovely moment for the team.

But this game was not a beautiful thing.

Throttlings seldom are beautiful.

They are painful, and brutal, and loud.

The Bulls went. Kicking and screaming, they went.

"You can't give away playoff games," Sixers coach Doug Collins said.

Both teams suffered from wretched shooting, the product of sloppy offense and, to a lesser extent, indifferent defense, since both teams score off their defense.

Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said before the game that, despite the absence of Noah and Rose, the reigning MVP, "We feel we have more than enough to win with."

Thibodeau had to say something.

After the game, he insisted, "We can do a lot better."

No. They cannot.

Omer Asik replaced Noah. He scored one point in more than 22 minutes. Asik's offensive limitations - unlike Noah, Asik cannot perform outside of the low post - let the Sixers collapse into double-teams that led to an 18-8 lead, which moved Thibodeau to take Asik out of the game.

The Sixers led by nine at the first break, thanks largely to three steals, three blocks and six offensive rebounds - all categories the Bulls rely on when Rose and Noah are healthy.

They rode Boozer all game, but he managed six misses in eight shots, not even the the worst effort in the Bulls' 7-for-25 quarter. Rose's replacement, C.J. Watson, was 0-for-6 thanks to Evan Turner's efforts.

And then, the Bulls stopped mourning.

Noah left Game 3 for good with 7 minutes, 58 seconds to play and did not, of course, play in the first quarter Sunday. In the 15:13 span from the time Asik took Noah's place until he sat for the first time Sunday, the Sixers outscored Chicago, 37-13. They finished Friday's game with a 19-5 run that won it, and jumped to that 18-8 lead.

Then the Bulls began executing. They rotated on defense. They moved the ball on offense. They set tough screens, and they rebounded like demons, and, for the next hour or so, they remained relevant. They outscored the Sixers by three over the last 41 minutes.

Boozer hit his last nine of 16 shots, but the Sixers exhausted him on the other end. Boozer averaged less than 30 minutes per game this season. Without Rose and Noah, he has played 76 minutes the past two games, or 38 minutes per, in less than 48 hours.

All of these minutiae mattered Sunday. They will matter even more Tuesday night in Chicago.

Then and there, the Sixers seek to take the next, logical step, and win a playoff series for the first time since Allen Iverson dispatched Jamal Mashburn and the New Orleans Hornets 9 years ago.

"Next game, we have to play like it's a Game 7," Holiday said.

That's because there might be a chance that Noah is be healthy enough to factor in a Game 6. And if Noah returns, a Sixers effort like Sunday's means a Sixers loss. Period.

The Sixers managed a two-point halftime lead despite a 4-for-28 shooting effort from guards Holiday, Evan Turner and Lou Williams. They led by one at the end of three.

And then, the Sixers brought out the hobnails.