Had someone suggested two weeks ago that the No. 8 seed Philadelphia 76ers would eliminate the top-ranked Chicago Bulls in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, it would have sounded, at worst, like crazy talk, and at best, like an upset for the ages.
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And on paper, the Sixers’ 4-2 series win — one that came to a close in a thrilling, if unfathomably ugly, 79-78 victory Thursday night at the Wells Fargo Center — was one of the biggest shockers in NBA history. In advancing to the second round, Philly became just the fifth No. 8 seed to knock off a No. 1 in the first round, and only the third since first-round series were extended from five games to seven.
But to call Philadelphia’s elimination of the Bulls an upset would be to ignore just how one-sided the series had become in favor of the Sixers. And the moment Chicago stars Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah went down with injuries, Rose in Game 1 and Noah in Game 3, anything less than a punched ticket to the next round would have been considered a failure for a Sixers team that locked up its first playoff series win since 2003.
In truth, Philly’s upset was largely a result of what Chicago was unable to do and who the Bulls were missing, not a product of any noteworthy play on the part of Doug Collins’ Sixers. But a win is a win, and now the Sixers — both predictably and against all odds — have a second-round date with the Boston Celtics starting Saturday.
“I don’t know how we won,” an awestruck Collins said, in a statement that could have referred to both Game 6 and the series as a whole.
This isn’t a Sixers team that played particularly well en route to its 3-2 series lead, especially on offense. Over the first five games, Philadelphia shot just 40.9 percent from the field and 21.5 percent from 3 — numbers that drop to 36.4 percent and 17 percent if you take out their Game 2 rout.
But Philadelphia came out hot in Game 6, shooting 55.6 percent in the first quarter and taking a 24-22 lead.
However, it didn’t take the Sixers long to revert to their old ways — or, rather, for the Bulls to regain the confidence on defense that kept them in the series to begin with — and Philly shot just 13 of 41 from the field in the second half. The Bulls erased a 12-point Philly lead with 5:05 left in the third quarter, and the game was tied 63-63 by the start of the fourth.
“I just tried to keep them encouraged,” Collins said of the meltdown. “We went through that stretch, you can see when we weren’t running we just got bogged down. We couldn’t score. We were just dead in the water.”
The Bulls’ lead reached as many as five early in the final period, but Philly kept battling back, and in a final break in a series full of them, Philly took the lead on two game-winning Andre Iguodala free throws with two seconds left — foul shots that were set up by two missed free throws at the other end by Bulls big man Omer Asik.
“For Dre, he’s gone through a lot here,” Collins said. “I told him, I said, ‘Nobody deserves this more than you do, to have this moment, to move on and to be able to experience this.’”
It was a touching moment between a star player and a coach and former Sixer who’s Philly through and through, but statistically speaking, it was a moment that should never have happened, and one that certainly shouldn’t have sealed a series win.
Philadelphia shot just 39.7 percent from the field for the game and won with 79 points for the second time this series against a Bulls team that was 16-0 in the regular season when holding opponents under 80.
Chicago was 43-3 in the regular season when leading after three quarters, and the Sixers were 2-25 when trailing after three, but Philly earned two of its wins against the Bulls with comebacks in the final frame.
Additionally, the Sixers were dominated 56-33 on the boards in Game 6, making them the first team since 1986 to win a playoff game when being outrebounded by 23 or more.
For most of the series, and even without the defending MVP Rose on the floor, the Bulls were the better team in nearly ever facet of the game — except on the scoreboard. But every once in a while, you just have to shrug your shoulders and take what you can get, no matter how little sense it makes, and this was one of those cases.
“Sometimes you just can’t figure this out,” Collins said. “Sometimes you’ve just got to enjoy it. That’s what I’m sure going to do, I can tell you that. It’s been an incredible year.”
It also can’t be overstated how badly the Bulls missed Rose, who tore the ACL and MCL in his left knee, on offense and Noah, who sprained his ankle in Game 3, on defense. And with them, they almost certainly would have made quick work of a Sixers team that was just happy to be there.
But one person who wasn’t making excuses for losing was Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau.
“I said this all along: I thought we had more than enough to win with," Thibodeau said. "And if you defend and you rebound and you keep your turnovers down, you do those three things and you are going to be in a position to win, no matter where you are or who you’re playing against.”
In the end, Philadelphia made something like history against a diluted No. 1 seed in an upset that wasn’t. Now the Sixers will be put to the test against a team that will actually, legitimately be favored.
“I told them, ‘Now we’re in the high-rent district; now you start really finding out what it’s all about,’” Collins said. “You can’t put a price on experience, what our guys are gaining every single day. Just to watch the joy that they had in that locker room after the game was something I’ll never forget.”