Philadelphia 109, at Chicago 92 (Series tied 1-1)
Offensive Ratings: Philadelphia 128.3, Chicago 108.2
We all know that the mainstream sports media loves to default to the easiest explanation. The ephemeral, the unquantifiable, the intangible -- these enemies of reasoned analysis dominate discourse in the athletic world. As someone whose vocational requirements entail a certain amount of fence-straddling between the objective and subjective, I've always tried to tilt the scales towards the former. Sometimes, however, you just can't rule out latter.
I can't tell you with any degree of certainty whether the Bulls' second-half collapse on Tuesday was due in a large part to Derrick Rose's absence, and the knowledge that was not just a one-night thing. What I can tell you is that the Bulls did several things that they virtually never do.
Let's start with the margin of victory. The Bulls have almost never been blown out since Tom Thibodeau took over as head coach. Chicago has lost just two other games by 17 or more points since Thibs was hired by Chicago, a 29-point loss to Orlando in 2010, and a 17-point defeat to Denver in March. (Strangely, all those defeats have come at the United Center.)
The Sixers rolled up a 59-percent shooting mark on Tuesday. No Bulls' opponent has done better in the Thibs Era. Chicago has allowed just 18 of their 166 opponents under Thibodeau to shoot even 50 percent. This was against a team that coach Doug Collins freely admits is a poor-shooting outfit, one that finished 17th in Offensive Rating during the regular season, matching their best ranking over the past six years. According to Elias, the Sixers' 36-14 third quarter marked the first time in 1,220 playoff quarters that Bulls have been outscored by at least 20 points.
All of this happened to the No. 1 overall seed in the playoffs, playing on its home floor, in the first game after its heart and soul went down with a knee injury that sucked the collective energy out of 23,000 people. Can we attribute the collapse to trauma? Maybe not entirely, but the Bulls' disintegration on Tuesday seems to be at the very least a case of really bad timing.
In retrospect, the Bulls' idea of having Rose "walk" out onto the floor to deliver the ball for the opening tip was ill-advised. Sure, it provided a fleeting moment of euphoria. I'm not ashamed to admit that it gave me goose bumps. At the same, Rose was moving with a pronounced limp, a stark reminder that he's not going to be back any time soon. I suppose it did the fans some good to see his face. But the players had to see their leader hobbled just minutes before they took the floor without him for the first time.
"It was an offensive game from the start," Thibodeau moaned after the game, clearly indicating that he doesn't approve of such contests by his use of the double entendre. "We never got our defense going."
The teams combined to average about 1.1 points per possession in the first half, so it was indeed surprisingly slanted toward each team's offense. The Sixers posted a .597 eFG%, hitting 16 for 32 on twos and 3 of 4 on threes. The Bulls allowed just 14.7 field goals per game at the rim during the regular season, the fourth-fewest in the league. Philly shot 11 of 15 from there in the first half, mostly by pushing the ball in transition against a Chicago defense that was constantly out of position. Jrue Holiday was a model of efficiency, hitting 7 of 8 shots -- 5 of 5 at the rim and 2 for 2 behind the arc. (He missed one long two.) He seemed just a step ahead of C.J. Watson all night. It wasn't anything fancy, either.
"They got into the open floor and crushed us off isolation," Thibodeau said. According to MySynergySports, the Sixers ran 15 isolations in the game and averaged 1.27 points per play on them. During the regular season, Chicago was third in the league allowing .75 points per iso.
Holiday picked up where he left off to begin the second half, hitting a two off a pick when Watson was slow to close. Then he hit a three in transition after the Bulls picked up everyone but the guy with the ball. Thibodeau called timeout, sensing where things were going, but it didn't help.
Despite the defensive problems, the Bulls were able to maintain the upper hand in the first half thanks to hot shooting from Joakim Noah and John Lucas III, who combined for 25 points on 12 for 15 shooting before the break. Lucas was doing his thing off the dribble -- getting his own shot is probably his best skill. Noah was left open in the high post repeatedly. Collins was intent on stopping the curl plays Thibodeau ran for Rip Hamilton and Kyle Korver over and over in Game One. When either of those players would come around the corner after down screens from the Bulls' big men, a Sixers' big man would venture out to the wing to trap. Noah was left open, and he did a great job of attacking the basket off the dribble. He also hit 3 for 3 on side jumpers when left unguarded.
Somehow or another, the openings in the Sixers' defense disappeared after the break. Noah played 7:51 in the third period without compiling a single stat in any category. The Bulls went 1 for 7 in the lane, and 4 for 13 outside it. Nothing worked. Lucas didn't enter the game until late in the period; neither did Korver. Floor balance, as Thibodeau noted afterwards, was an issue all night. When a Bulls guard would penetrate or cut, no one would rotate out top to protect the backcourt. Meanwhile, the Sixers had achieved the goal that Collins said was the most important aspect of Game Two: They sealed off the defensive glass. Chicago pulled down just 1 of 12 offensive rebound chances in the period. Iguodala and Lou Williams started to release down the floor. The Sixers were in their element, and the Bulls seemed like they were playing in cement shoes.
This is where the transient elements to the proceedings may have manifested themselves. No, I can't prove it. From the start, the Bulls seemed a step slow on defense, but were able to get by because of an Xs and Os loophole opened up by Collins' defensive scheme. Collins plugged that hole and his charges got their confidence going (another Thibsism, that). The Bulls simply did not have the wherewithal to respond to Philadelphia's burst. Nothing could stem the tide and, soon, it was too late.
No one would fess up to the psychological impact of the Rose story, which dragged on for several days. And truly, it may not have existed. The Sixers may simply have played that well.
"The third quarter we played tonight was as good of a one as I have ever seen this team play," Collins said.
What's left is semi-panic in Chicago. Not by the team, certainly. But, still, if there was a subconscious drag on their collective will in Game Two, one wonders if it will carry over to the rest of the series. Because as we've pointed out again and again, the Bulls were fantastic without Rose during the regular season. The best team in the league, in fact. But this is the playoffs. And if the task in front of them seems insurmountable without Rose, then the Sixers may have one heck of an opportunity pull off the upset. This is not the time of year to have an existential crisis.
"We got our asses kicked," Noah said on the podium afterwards. He said it twice, and he was still understating it.
But we see this sort of thing every year in the playoffs, even if it doesn't happen to the Bulls very often. Teams have bad games, for whatever reason, leading to all sorts of proclamations about their imminent demise. Then we discover, yet again, that one game in the NBA playoffs has nothing to do with the one that came before, nor the ones that will come after. The Bulls should bounce back just fine. If they don't, then they were never a championship squad to begin with.
(Note: Data from MySynergySports.com and NBA.com/Stats were used in this piece.)
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