Posted May 6 2012 7:10PM - Updated May 7 2012 7:02AM
PHILADELPHIA -- Bizarre, Carlos Boozer said.
Bizarre that the Philadelphia 76ers could flirt with the NBA single-season record for fewest free-throw attempts per game (18.15), then run a conga line to the foul line in their first-round playoff series against the Chicago Bulls. The Sixers have averaged 27.5 free throws through these four games and topped 30 three times, something they managed to do only four times in 66 games of the regular season. Oh, and the Bulls ranked 28th in free throws allowed (19.38).
Bizarre that across the final two minutes of Games 3 and 4 -- both tight, with late-game fouling kept to a minimum -- all 14 points scored by Philadelphia have come from the line. The Sixers have made more free throws (84) in the series than the Bulls have even attempted (79).
Boozer in particular suffered from the imbalance at a critical juncture in the Bulls' 89-82 loss at Wells Fargo Center Sunday. The Chicago power forward -- and frequent target for Chicago fans and media critics -- had acquitted himself well when his team needed him most (23 points, 11 rebounds, more than 41 minutes). His three-point play with 3:18 left cut Philly's lead to 80-76 and Boozer was thinking likewise when he got the ball at 82-80 and about 80 seconds left.
Boozer made his move toward the rim, went up between Elton Brand and Spencer Hawes and got nothing. No bucket. No foul. Just a blocked shot by Brand, according to the stats sheets and the referees. A whistle came at the other end and Jrue Holiday's free throws with 51.5 seconds left gave the Sixers enough points to win.
"I thought I got fouled, to be quite frank about it," Boozer said later, though he didn't raise a fuss in the moment. "The calls they were calling on the other side, I thought that call could have been made. But they didn't call it. We just kept playing on."
Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau thought the same thing as Boozer. "Quite frankly, I thought that we had some good hard drives where we didn't get calls," Thibodeau said. Veteran swingman Richard Hamilton, in constant contact with Philadelphia defenders on his perpetual motion cuts and curls, wouldn't answer the question directly but clearly felt the same.
Boozer didn't just feel shorted for himself. "I thought Luol [Deng] was driving almost every time he got the ball," he said. "He was getting contact on a lot of his shots. I thought C.J. [Watson] was driving the ball -- there was one play at the end of the game, he got hit right in the face. I saw the whole play; he didn't get that call."
To their credit, this wasn't whining by Chicago. More so, it was a little of the old Phil Jackson seed-planting, with Game 5 Tuesday at United Center in mind, seeking every advantage possible since, well, that's what they need now.
The Bulls, the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed, have lost three straight to No. 8 Philadelphia and are on the verge of elimination. Their backs aren't just to the proverbial wall -- their championship dreams have been all but snuffed and, looking ahead, their franchise timeline is in disarray. MVP Derrick Rose tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the final minutes of Game 1 two Saturdays ago is to blame for much of that, not the refs. Rose and Deng, who likely won't have surgery on the torn ligament in his left wrist until after the Olympics, aren't expected to be available until the 2012-13 season is well underway.
Center Joakim Noah going down, gruesomely, with a severe left ankle sprain in Game 3 is another reason for the 3-1 hole in which the Bulls find themselves. Noah probably won't play for Chicago again until next season and it's no coincidence that Sixers big man Spencer Hawes looked like an All-Star in the two games in Philadelphia (21 and 22 points). Noah is invaluable at both ends for the Bulls, as well as their energy guy.
Losing both Rose and Noah, within days of each other as punctuation to an injury-riddled season, at the worst possible time, is what truly is bizarre for the Bulls. The goofy disparity in how the whistles have gone in this series, yes, Boozer used that word but he wasn't letting his team off the hook otherwise.
"Listen, we're not going to sit here and blame the referees for our loss," said Boozer, who also lost the ball out of bounds with 48 seconds left for an unforced and costly turnover. "It was our fault we lost the game. We gave up 25 points in the fourth quarter. ... The discrepancy is huge. I thought we were being pretty aggressive. ... but at the same time, that's not why we lost. We lost because we didn't contain their guards in the fourth quarter."
Holiday's 3-pointers on consecutive possessions to pump Philadelphia's lead from 74-73 to seven points with 3:34 left were the most damaging example. But y'know something? There seemed to be something comforting for the Bulls in talking about guard play and free-throw discrepancies and the way Taj Gibson and C.J. Watson (finally) came alive for them.
It seemed right at this most horrible time for Chicago -- one game away from a long summer and an uncertain autumn -- to be talking about basketball problems, rather than the wrath of some injury gods. There's no getting away from what Rose's and Noah's absences have meant and still will mean for however long this series goes, but stepping away from all the rotten luck and heartbreak to grouse a little about officiating was a little bit of a haven, a momentary return to normal.
It might have to do for a while, regardless of what happens Tuesday.
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