With one misstep, Joakim Noah crashed down on his side and clutched his sprained left ankle. Already reeling without Derrick Rose, the top-seeded Chicago Bulls now hold their breath waiting on Noah’s fate for the rest of the first-round series.
The Bulls can’t afford any more injuries to their stars – or else the surprising 76ers could be the team advancing to the next round.
Spencer Hawes led a Philadelphia fourth-quarter comeback to remember, letting a late go-ahead jumper fly from just inside the 3-point arc to help the Sixers rally from 14 points down to beat the Chicago Bulls 79-74 on Friday night and take a 2-1 lead in their Eastern Conference playoff series.
"We’re playing a team that has some injuries," Sixers coach Doug Collins said, "and we’ll see if we can do something about that."
The Sixers are on their way toward eliminating the top-seeded Bulls. They won Game 2 in Chicago with Rose out and stormed back in a fourth quarter where Noah was limited to 2 minutes. Noah left the arena on crutches and was wearing a protective boot.
Noah has little time to recover. Game 4 is Sunday in Philadelphia.
"We’ll be ready. We’ve got to be ready," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. "We can’t feel sorry for ourselves."
Hawes scored 21 points, grabbed nine rebounds and buried the winner with 2:11 left to give the Sixers their first lead since halftime. Hawes scored 10 clutch points in the fourth to put the Bulls on the rocks.
"We have a huge opportunity here in the playoffs and we have to try and capitalize on it," Hawes said.
The 74 points are the fewest ever allowed by the Sixers in a playoff game.
Already playing the rest of the series without Rose because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, the Bulls got a second scare in the third quarter when Noah hurt his ankle. Noah, who scored 12 points, returned in the fourth quarter and mostly hobbled around the court.
With Rose out, the Sixers believed they were in perfect position to knock off the Bulls and build a series lead on their home court.
The Sixers scored only 11 points in the third quarter and trailed by double digits early in the fourth before taking off against the battered Bulls.
Hawes keyed the surge and buried two free throws to pull them to 71-70 with 3:28 left.
Nursing a one-point lead, Omer Asik missed two free throws giving the Sixers new life.
Hawes hit a 20-footer for a 72-71 lead and Evan Turner made two free throws for a three-point lead with 1:24 left.
John Lucas III of the Bulls buried a 3-pointer to make it a one-point game and a send a shiver into a team that faded down the stretch after a 20-9 start.
All of that is behind them now. Jrue Holiday hit two free throws to seal the win to the delight of 20,381 fans who packed the Wells Fargo Center.
"When we’re at our best is when we find joy in playing," Collins said.
The Bulls missed 10 straight field goals over 5-plus minutes in the fourth to lose all of their 14-point lead. Carlos Boozer had 18 points and 10 rebounds for the Bulls and Richard Hamilton scored 17 points.
"Our fourth quarter has to be our best quarter and tonight it wasn’t," Boozer said. "We had good looks down the stretch and just missed them."
Holiday scored 17 points and Turner had 16 while reserve Lou Williams added 14. The Sixers missed 13 of 14 3-pointers and shot 34 percent (26 of 76) from the floor. Yet their late run was enough to help them win consecutive playoff games for the first time since 2003.
"We just pulled it together," Turner said.
Noah’s injury came midway through the third quarter when he stepped on Andre Iguodala’s foot driving down the lane. His feet gave out from under him and he crashed to the court. Noah instantly grabbed his left ankle in pain – while a smattering of fans cheered the fallen Bull.
Noah walked gingerly to the bench for a timeout but returned to shoot his free throws.
He was on the bench after a few possessions and stayed there until the fourth.
Noah hopped around trying to take pressure off the ankle. He put the pressure right on the Sixers and even nailed a 15-footer.
The bumps kept coming for the banged-up Bulls.
Boozer was whistled for his fourth foul with 4:36 left in the third and joined Noah on the bench. The duo had combined for 26 points and 15 rebounds by that point.
That left Taj Gibson and Asik in the frontcourt. With that lineup, the Bulls kept an ineffective Luol Deng in the game when he picked up his fourth foul about 2 minutes later.
Before the quarter was out, Gibson became tangled with Thaddeus Young and was briefly down. No worries on this one. He buried a jumper for Chicago’s first double-digit lead of the game, 60-50.
Hamilton hit a 3 for a 67-53 lead in the fourth and it appeared they were cruising toward the victory.
Not so fast. With the Philly crowd standing and waving their rally towels, the Sixers seemed primed for a comeback. Hawes fought inside for a tough basket that pulled the Sixers to 69-64 to help them end the game on a stunning 26-7 run.
"When Rip hit that shot, I was looking in our guys eyes," Collins said. "Somehow, we fought back."
The Bulls need to figure out a new rotation without Rose and way to protect Noah if they don’t want this series to slip away.
"You need guys who have that great will to win, no matter what the circumstances," Thibodeau said.
Notes: Hall of Famer Julius Erving returned to the Sixers as a strategic adviser. His deal runs through 2015 and he will be available to the franchise on an as-needed basis. … Actor Bill Murray was at the game. … The Sixers snapped a four-game home losing streak.