As they pushed their way to the top seed in the NBA's Eastern Conference for the second season in a row, the Chicago Bulls did so in great part by winning the "hustle plays" and showing a willingness to do what their opposition would not.
But, as they stand at the brink of elimination following an 89-82 loss to the Sixers Sunday at the Wells Fargo Center, it is the Bulls who are seeing the grit of the 76ers.
"They are a tough team," said Bulls reserve power forward Taj Gibson. "They have a lot of guys that come off the bench and play tough. They know their roles, and they play hard late. In the last couple games it has come down to the fourth quarter, and they have shown that they have the toughness and the will to overcome."
Gibson was one of the players the Bulls needed to step up on Sunday with injured starters Derrick Rose (torn knee tendon) and Joakim Noah (sprained ankle) out of action. Gibson was referring not only to Sunday's fourth quarter but also to a crucial stretch of the fourth quarter in Game 3 on Friday. In that game, the Sixers overcame a 14-point, fourth-quarter Chicago lead by forcing the Bulls to miss 10 consecutive shots at one point.
On Sunday, the Sixers' defense again swayed the outcome, this time by forcing the Bulls into five turnovers that resulted in 11 points for the Sixers. One of those turnovers - lost by C.J. Watson - resulted in the second of two back-to-back three-pointers by the Sixers' Jrue Holiday. That bucket turned what had been a 74-73 game into an 80-73 Sixers advantage.
The Bulls had every reason to blame themselves for letting their big fourth-quarter lead slip away in Game 3. And while they never led in the fourth quarter of Sunday's game, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said that it was the Sixers' desire to do the things at crucial moments in the game that proved to be the difference.
"Yes, we have to find a way" to win late in the game, Thibodeau said. "At the end it's going to be hustle plays, tough plays, hard-nosed plays, second shots, multiple efforts. That's what it comes down to. You've got to make them."
In fairness to the Bulls, this is not the team they expected to field in these playoffs. No team can sustain losing its two top players and be expected to produce the same results. Take LeBron James and Dwyane Wade off Miami, and Chris Bosh is in Toronto all over again.
As a result, the Bulls find themselves just one loss away from becoming the third top seed to be eliminated by the eighth seed in the first round of the playoffs in a best-of-seven format. Last season, Memphis eliminated San Antonio, and in 2007 Golden State upset the Dallas Mavericks.
"It's tough, but you can't feel sorry for yourself," Gibson said. "Nobody is going to care. This is the NBA. Games are won on how tough you are mentally and physically. We've just got to keep fighting. Every game in the playoffs is going to come down to one or two possessions. It all comes down to will and who wants it more. We have got to have more will and toughness."