PHILADELPHIAThe visitors locker room at the Wells Fargo Center nearly a month ago was a somber place following the Bulls 16-point defeat at the hands of the 76ers, but one constant in the players postgame comments was a collective vow to make up for the lackluster outing upon their next visit to the City of Brotherly Love.
On Sunday evening, the Bulls (31-8) made good on that promise, holding off the Sixers (22-16), 96-91, behind a masterful scoring performance from Derrick Rose and a dominant rebounding effort out of Joakim Noah for the teams sixth straight win.
I was just excited to play them again. I remember playing them here a little while ago and they got the best of us. Theyre a good team and I just couldnt wait to play them again, said Rose. We know this is a team that we could definitely see in the playoffs, knowing how good they are. This is fun. Just got to go out there, keep balling, playing together and playing defense.
I just tried to do whatever it takes to win that game, whether its passing, scoring, making plays, whatever and tonight was making shots, he continued. I know at the beginning of the game, thats definitely what I have to do with this team, lead by example. We let them score the ball a little bit too easy in the beginning and that kind of hurt us, but we fought our way back into the game and got the win.
With the Bulls feeling vengeful after being shellacked in South Philadelphia a month ago and the Sixers fully aware that was the case, the intensity at the games outset was already high, manifested in the form of a point-guard scoring duel between reigning league MVP Rose (35 points, tying a season-high, eight assists) and challenger Jrue Holiday (16 points), who attempted to match his foes array of successful jumpers and drives.
Holiday received supportmainly in the form of All-Star swingman Andre Iguodalas (14 points, six rebounds, six assists) playmaking and veteran Elton Brands (14 points, 13 rebounds, five assists) interior scoringbut couldnt keep pace with Roses relentless drives and accurate outside marksmanship.
The visitors also got help from the starting inside tandem of Joakim Noah (11 points, season-high 18 rebounds, four assists) and Carlos Boozer (13 points, seven rebounds)the latter was a strong complementary scorer, while the former was active on the boards, as is his trademarkand maintained a slight edge over their hosts by limiting fast-paced Philadelphias transition opportunities.
At the conclusion of the opening period, Chicago held a tenuous, 26-24 lead.
The Bulls reserves, known as the Bench Mob, is regarded as one of the leagues better second units, but perhaps the best bench group in the league is the Sixers backup quintet, which demonstrated their value by getting out on the fast break, playing frenetic defense and turning the tables on their guests to take the lead.
A surprising boost from rookie big man Nikola Vucevic (14 points, eight rebounds) led the charge and Philadelphia head coach Doug Collins mixed in his regulars, as well, to keep enough scoring on the floor.
While the Bulls received solid contributions from the likes of backups Ronnie Brewer and Omer Asik, but a rejuvenated Brand, the continued floor generalship of Holiday and Iguodala asserting himself more as a scorer allowed the home team to remain in control.
Theyre a good team, they know how to win games, they play well together, they dont just have one person on their team, they move the ball great. You never know with that team who can have a big night. It could be anybody on that team and thats makes them so dangerous, said Rose. We werent aggressive at all. They were getting anywhere with the ball, rebounding the ball. We didnt make them miss.
Added Thibodeau: The second quarter, I didnt like the way we played at all. They were into us pretty good, we were careless with the ball, I didnt like our shots, we were back on our heels.
The third quarter, I thought we came out a lot more aggressive. I didnt think we rebounded the ball well, so I was concerned about that, but I liked the way we fought in the second half.
With Thibodeaus preferred formula of low turnovers, rebounding, inside-out scoring, unselfish team play and stout defense ironically providing the blueprint for the opposing team, Chicago went into the intermission facing a 46-40 deficit, following Roses spectacular step-back dribble move and three-pointer at the halftime buzzer.
After the breakwithout the services of backup point guard C.J. Watson, who sprained his left ankle, though he returned in the fourth quarterthe Bulls managed to stay afloat and even mount a gradual comeback early in the third quarter.
Though the Sixers continued to beat them on the boards, with the exception of Noah, who was a force, behind Roses dominant scoring, the Bulls surged back to regain momentum, taking their first lead since early in the second period.
Derrick was great. They tried different things to try to stop, but he kept coming up big and making big plays, said Luol Deng. Jo was great, man. Jo plays with a lot of energy. Weve got a team where everybodys got a job to do and its such a deep team that some nights, we dont know who its going to be, but someones going to come up big somehow.
Praised Thibodeau: He was active, from the start of the game to the end of the game. His rebounding effort was terrific. He had a big tip-in late in the game, too. That was a big play.
Chicago didnt take complete control of the contest, which evolved into a back-and-forth affair, as Iguodala and Vucevic paced Philadelphia, but by fighting fire with firethe Bulls gave the Sixers a taste of their own medicine by pushing the tempoand clamping down on defense, they had become the aggressor.
The tight-knit theme of the quarter extended until the very end, when Rose hit his second consecutive buzzer-beater to end a periodthis time, a deep deuce off the dribbleto knot things up at 64 apiece heading into the final stanza.
Perhaps buoyed by the return of Watson and Deng starting to make an impact on offense, the Bulls went on a 7-2 run at the beginning of the fourth quarter to give them a slight cushion, prompting a Sixers timeout.
In the fourth, we made big shots and once we got the lead in the fourth, we did a good job of keeping the lead. Theyre a good team. They forced us into turnovers and getting some looks, said Deng. The difference between this year and last year or the previous year, weve just got guys who are mature now and know what it takes, especially in the fourth, to do little things to win.
Rose concurred: Its great, knowing that we didnt get distracted toward the end. We knew what we had to do. Guys stepped up, made big plays. Turned the ball over a little bit, but were going to learn from that and weve just got to keep growing as a team.
Thibodeau chimed in: We had a number of players step up for us. Our bench gave us quality play at the end of the third, start of the fourthC.J., Taj and Omerand we needed that. Derrick was terrific all game. Derrick and C.J. on the backcourt were very effective. Jo was huge on the boards and making plays.
The onslaught didnt end, however, as Rosepaired with Watson in a dual point-guard set, while Thibodeau went with the backup big man duo of Taj Gibson and Asik for defensive purposesturned it up yet another notch, torching the hosts futile defense, yet mixing in selfless playmaking, to aid the visitors in obtaining a double-digit winning margin.
But the Sixers didnt go away quietly, storming back to trim the deficit via the transition game, timely plays on the defensive end and scrappy work on the offensive glass, to once again limit the Bulls breathing room.
Theyre a hard-playing team, theyre a tough team, theyre well-coached, theyre tough to match up with and the thing is, our transition because we were scrambling around, we didnt protect the basket as well as we wanted to, but we hung around and I thought we showed a lot of toughness, said Thibodeau. Those things happen. They made a run and I thought we settled a little bit.
Just when it seemed as if the Bulls had sufficiently killed Philadelphias momentum, the hosts came back with another run, making it a one-possession contest as the game entered its stretch run.
Watson stepped up with some big shots in the clutch, but he was countered by his reserve counterpart, athletic Sixers forward Thaddeus Young (17 points, nine rebounds), who knocked down a jumper with less than two minutes to go, to make it a 91-89 contest, in favor of the Bulls.
The score remained the same until Rose drove and hit a tough runner with 20.2 seconds on the clock and although two missed free throws by Gibson kept the door open for a game-tying three-pointer in the waning seconds, the Bulls managed to survive after, fittingly, Noah corralled the carom.
They had been trapping me almost the whole second half and I saw that Thaddeus Young was kind of tired from trapping and I just attacked him, Rose explained of his shot, which effectively sealed the game. Anything it takes to win. Thats my game. I kind of hit crazy shots all the time, but it was a floater and I was able to get it off.