CHICAGO - Perhaps it was just the last gasp of a team that didn't want to leave the season with a loss on its home floor. Tuesday night's 77-69 win by the Chicago Bulls to avoid elimination by the 76ers could have been nothing more than that.

The Sixers better hope so, and they better hope their offense returns from the land of the missing when the series continues Thursday in the Wells Fargo Center. It wasn't as if the Bulls were terrific in narrowing the Sixers' lead to three games to two. They were the same crippled team that lost three straight to the Sixers to get themselves into this predicament.

But the Sixers were just awful. They took bad shots, didn't take care of the ball and couldn't match the Bulls' muscle in what became a very physical contest. The only question now is whether the game was a harbinger or merely the final act of defiance by a team that would prefer to end its injury-induced misery somewhere else.

Whichever is the case, the series has changed. We find out Thursday night how much.

"They are a very good defensive team and that's what keeps them in games," Sixers coach Doug Collins said. "The more you get into the playoffs, the more physical it gets. We're not a physical team, and we can't play out of character."

Coming into the game, Collins said his greatest worry about Game 5 was that it was a "human nature" game, one in which the natural tendency for the team with a commanding series lead is to play without the necessary urgency to get the thing over.

"If you get down, sometimes that team doesn't have the fight to get through or it settles for the human nature part of it, which is we've got a couple more to get it," Collins said.

The Sixers got down, but they never got knocked out of the game, even though their offensive statistics were horrendous. They established a franchise low for scoring in one half when they collected just 26 points in the first half and fell behind, 35-26.

Given the circumstance, given the way the series had gone, it wouldn't have been that surprising if the Bulls extended the lead and turned the game into a rout in the second half.

That didn't happen, and if there was a single bright spot for the Sixers, that was it. They hung around and still trailed by nine after three quarters. Midway through the final period, Andre Iguodala had an open jumper that, had it fallen, would have trimmed the lead to just seven points.

It was a loss and it was ugly, but it wasn't because they rolled over. It was because they weren't very good. If there is solace in that, take it for what it's worth.

"I don't think we gave into that game," Collins said. "I didn't see us give up. It's not like [Chicago] played a great game. But the Bulls were efficient enough, and made enough shots to keep us off them."

Things change quickly in the postseason and this series has a chance to change even more when Game 6 comes around. Collins knows better than almost anyone that putting away a playoff series is never that easy.

It's so difficult, in fact, that the last time a Collins-coached team won a postseason round, Elton Brand was 10 years old. That was in 1989, as the Chicago Bulls beat the New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference semifinals before losing the conference championship to the Detroit Pistons.

Collins lost his job that offseason, and in three seasons as coach of the Pistons, two with the Wizards, and the 2010-11 season with the 76ers, he didn't coach past the first round of the playoffs. So getting past Chicago, the team that let him go, and getting a playoff series win after such a long wait has to mean something to Collins as well.

"I don't focus on what it is for me," Collins said. "I'm too old for that."

What lifted the Bulls in Game 5 - and their 41.5 percent shooting wasn't that great, either - was a return to the inside offense provided by Carlos Boozer and much better outside shooting from Luol Deng, who struggled until this game.

Boozer and Deng combined for 43 points and the Bulls scored nearly half of their 77 points (36, to be exact) in the paint. If the Sixers and the officials let Chicago bang around like that on Thursday, the Sixers could very well face the unpleasant prospect of returning to the United Center to decide the series.

"I don't want to come back here for a Game 7," Collins said.

That might happen, though, and you don't have to be a psychologist to know what kind of human nature game that could be.

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