AFTER THE 76ers had defeated the Boston Celtics in a thrilling overtime game last Friday, they traveled to Boston for a rematch the next night. They got trampled. Coach Doug Collins talked about how the Celtics, with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo, were a mentally tough team that knew how to win games with their minds as much as with their skill.
The Bulls started their game at the Wells Fargo Center Wednesday against the Sixers less than 20 hours after a tough loss against the Los Angeles Clippers in Chicago, without their heart and soul, Derrick Rose, without his replacement, Kirk Hinrich, and playing on legs that oftentimes resembled wet noodles.
For the most part, the Sixers played the game as if they were waiting for the right time to throw their haymakers at the Bulls. Problem was when they tried to do just that, Chicago wasn't the easy target the Sixers had hoped, and the Bulls bobbed and weaved their way to a 96-89 victory.
Add to Chicago's handicaps that center Joakim Noah (21 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists) played 44 minutes against the Sixers after logging 43 against the Clippers. Also, second-leading scorer Carlos Boozer was relatively ineffective, shooting just 1-for-6 from the floor and scoring five points in close to 26 minutes. Luol Deng helped pick up Boozer, collecting 19 points and 12 rebounds.
"They're a scrappy team," said Sixers forward Thaddeus Young, who scored 13 points. "They definitely outplayed us towards the end of the game and they willed themselves to the victory. They're a tough team, they're a playoff team, they're a contending team each and every year, so we kind of knew it was going to be a close game. We know the Bulls aren't going to go down without a fight."
Close games had been good for the Sixers this season, but that wasn't the case Wednesday and the clues that it was going to be that way started popping up early. After Jrue Holiday converted a driving layup to give the Sixers a 22-15 advantage with 3 minutes, 10 seconds to go in the opening quarter, it appeared as if the fresher Sixers were on the verge of expanding the lead and perhaps coasting to a rare lopsided win. The Bulls looked that sluggish. But following a timeout, Chicago finished out the quarter scoring six of the final eight points and trailed by just three.
That was the margin at the half before Chicago got the upper hand in the third quarter, mostly due to the play of guards Nate Robinson (14 points) - who scored six in the quarter and dealt three assists - and Marco Belinelli (nine points in quarter, 16 overall). They fueled the Bulls to a three-point lead going into the fourth and were instrumental in helping to close the game out, giving the Bulls (12-9) their fourth straight win on the road while the Sixers fell to 12-10.
"It was disappointing to say the least," Collins said. "I thought we put ourselves in a position there when we went up seven [60-53 in third], it looked like we had a little bit of a grip on the game. Nate Robinson hit a huge three to cut it to four and Jimmy Butler later hit a big three to put them up one. And their bigs are good. On a night like tonight when you go to [Taj] Gibson late in the game defensively, he and Noah out there make it difficult. I thought we got a little bit tired. I had to play Evan [Turner] 41 minutes tonight and Jrue 40. I thought fatigue was a factor."
Going into the game that would have been a very good assumption, but for the Bulls, not the Sixers. But the Sixers were the ones with the stats that made it appear as though they had the lazy legs, making just 5 of 11 foul shots and only 2 of 14 from three-point range. Meanwhile, the Bulls were 24-for-26 at the line.
Holiday led the Sixers with 26 points, but it took him 28 shots. Turner added 16 while Nick Young and Spencer Hawes (10 rebounds) each scored 10.
"Obviously I'm the type of player who doesn't like taking that many shots," Holiday said. "I'd rather distribute up throughout the team. I think some stuff I forced when I shouldn't have. I didn't know I took 28 shots. Maybe that's something I have to be conscious of."
Learning how to be more mentally tough, like Boston and Chicago, should be something the whole team is conscious of.