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Steve Aschburner

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Jrue Holiday (left) and Andre Iguodala (right) spearhead a Sixers squad poised to give the Bulls fits.
Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images

Sixers beating Bulls at their own defensive game


Posted May 4 2012 7:11AM

PHILADELPHIA -- Losing Derrick Rose broke the Chicago Bulls' hearts and, in time, it might break their playoff backs.

Losing Game 2 against the Philadelphia 76ers in their Eastern Conference first-round series stung badly, too, because it handed over homecourt advantage, that brass ring for which the Bulls had labored so long and hard through 66 regular-season games.

But losing the defensive battle between these two teams -- losing on the side of the ball from which coach Tom Thibodeau and the Bulls draw so much of their identity, and pride, and mojo -- that's getting downright personal.

That's exactly what is happening, though, as the teams head toward Game 3 Friday night at Wells Fargo Center. The Sixers have beaten Chicago at its own game, posting better numbers and tracking more closely to the game plan coach Doug Collins and assistant Michael Curry had in mind for this best-of-seven showdown.

Two games in, Philadelphia has held the Bulls to 97.5 points and 48.1 percent shooting, which isn't great until you compare it to the other guys' defensive stats: 100.0 points on 49.1 percent shooting. The Sixers have outscored the Bulls in the paint, 86-70, and on fast breaks, 42-21. They have bottled up forward Luol Deng (12.5 ppg) and Carlos Boozer (9.0) on combined 19-of-44 shooting.

And in the most recent 24 minutes, they put the sort of clamps on Chicago's attack that Thibodeau and his crew normally apply. The Bulls scored only 14 points in the third quarter of Game 2 and were outscored 62-37 after halftime overall, missing 21 of 35 shots, getting outrebounded by 10 and losing the fast-break dash, 13-0. Joakim Noah, so feisty in the first half Tuesday, got just seven points the rest of the way. Deng, Boozer and Richard Hamilton totaled six points on 2-of-11 from the floor.

Collins was effusive in praising his players for their turnaround after intermission, and he credited Curry for passionately reminded the Sixers just how good they can be defensively. During the season, they ranked third with a defensive rating of 99.2; the Bulls were second at 98.3. Philadelphia sputtered more at the offensive end -- no go-to scorer, a near-phobia about getting to the foul line -- but with a fleet of young, swift and generally interchangeable wing players, when the Sixers are prepared and committed, they can pester the fun right out of opponents.

Which is what they did in Game 2. Collins had gone with a starting backcourt of Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner with the idea that Turner could handle the primary ball handler -- C.J. Watson and John Lucas III are good but a drastic downshift from Rose -- while Holiday was better equipped to chase around the perpetually moving Hamilton. Turner's 6-foot-7 size was an advantage, too, and he helped with his team's rebounding chores (seven) more than Jodie Meeks normally does.

Not having to rush out to trap Rose 25 feet from the basket enabled Philadelphia to stay honest on the boards. And Collins has kept Andre Iguodala, who finished seventh in balloting for the Kia NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award, stuck to Deng (no defensive slouch himself).

"A lot of times with Derrick, we play a lot of pick-and-roll game," Deng said. "We did a good job of that in the first half [55 points]. We've still got guys who can play the pick-and-roll. We've just got to do what we do, not worry so much about what Philly does. We've played with this lineup or with these guys all throughout the year

"They've got good defenders but this is a team game. It's all how you do it defensively as a team. They changed the lineup, putting different guys on different guys. But we've still got to run what we've got to run and play our game."

Maybe one of the best things Philadelphia did while evening the series at 1-1 was give the Bulls so much to chew on defensively. Giving up 100 points a game!? That end of the floor is supposed to be a comfort zone for Thibodeau and his players, and whenever they get shredded they way they did in Game 2, they have managed to stiffen, clean up mistakes, dial up their intensity and target loose balls.

But while the Bulls can and almost certainly will improve defensively as the series shifts to Philly, it's not clear how -- with Rose sidelined -- they can generate much extra offense. Collins had expected Thibodeau to call more post-ups for Boozer and Deng in the last game but that never happened; Boozer, frankly, has had a two-season aversion to that with Chicago, preferring to stick to his mid-range jumpers in pick-and-pops.

Besides, Thibodeau sees success through a defensive prism. He reminded reporters after Bulls practice that Chicago did score 55 first-half points in Game 2. "You always can add a play or two, or put a counter in," he said.

Said Collins: "Tom Thibodeau is a pretty meat-and-potatoes guy. It's not like he's going to reinvent the wheel. What he's going to say is, 'We're going to do what we go, we're going to do it better, we're going to do it stronger.' I just don't see Thibs making a ton of changes. He might get some different personnel units out on the floor. We might see more of Luol as a 'four.' "

Those are tweaks though. The battle of defense will be decided on a grander scale.

"As this series goes on," Collins said, "the Xs and the Os, all those things, the adjustments, the tape you watch ... it comes down to the will to get the ball when you're supposed to get it, to go get that rebound, the will to get that 50-50 ball.

"I like where the guys are. I think they're very focused. I told them there's a fine line between being confident [and] assertive and ready to go, and then losing a little bit of your focus."

So far, the Sixers are outfocusing the focused.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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