My uncle spent an afternoon in the emergency room around a decade ago after his dog bit through his hand. “Denny” was a mild animal of what vets admitted was uncertain ancestry, loved and lovable, but he’d been hit by a car and so spent the last hours of his life in a terrified frenzy. He didn’t know where he was, or what he was doing. My uncle had seen him get hit—he was chasing a bird, I think, and ran right into the path of some kind of sedan—rushed to his side to comfort him, and the dog bit deep into his palm. Denny was, in those last moments, gripped by fear, capable of anything. That was how he died.
The lesson: be very weary of wounded animals, even, maybe especially, the ones you think you know.
Its corollary: be very weary of the Chicago Bulls.
The eastern conference’s number one seed has taken, in the last 49:30 of this opening series, a devastating one-two punch. First they lost their, and the league’s, MVP to a knee injury that will sideline him for the rest of this season and most of the next—a crushing blow to their title hopes now and for the foreseeable future—then, in the following game, on their home court, were chased out of the building, blown out in the third quarter alone by 22 points, by a Philadelphia team that spent most of the second half of the season apparently trying, and failing, to play its way out of the playoffs.
In light of these new facts, the mood in Philadelphia has shifted. A series that didn’t look winnable now very much does. The Bulls are wounded. Vulnerable.
“I think they’re really different (without Rose),” Jrue Holiday said Friday on “Mike & Mike in the Morning” a touch hubristically. The implication being, of course, that they’re much worse.
The thing is: they aren’t.
As we touched in this space before game two, Derrick Rose was not the prime driver of the Bull’s success this year. It was a combination of their defense, their depth, and their extraordinary (in aggregate) frontcourt of Noah, Boozer, Gibson, and Asik that led them to the East’s best record and an 18-9 mark without their putative star.
And so now this team that is already better than people think, because the guy they lost isn’t quite as good as people think, has the added a pair of powerful intangible benefits: they’re angry—because they lost their Guy, got blown out at home, and everybody’s written them off— and they have absolutely nothing to lose.
This is a dangerous combination.
Game threes are pivotal. Something like 75 percent of teams that take them go on to win the series. I’m hopeful, if not confident, the Sixers do both. But if they want to, they’re going to have to have to handle the Bulls emotional edge. This doesn’t mean they have to match their energy—stay with them for every surge—as much as they need to ride out the Bulls waves, soften them, then coax as much energy as possible out of each of theirs.
Joakim Noah can’t go 7-of-7 again in the first half. John Lucas III can’t go 5-of-8. When Lucas and Watson spot up from outside—and they’re both near 40 percent 3-point shooters—the Sixers need to challenge them. When they miss, Brand and company need to keep Noah and the rough and tumble Chicago frontcourt off the offensive glass.
The Sixers need to play defense like they did in February, not April.
The balky Achilles that’s now bothering Iguodala needs to heal. Evan Turner and Jrue Holiday need to create offense. Holiday especially. In an admittedly small sample, he’s shooting 70 percent in this series when Rose isn’t on the floor. In a larger one, he’s scoring 21 ppg in five games against the Bulls this season. Get to the basket, Jrue. Challenge Watson defensively: Derrick Rose only averaged 1.8 personal fouls per 48 minutes in the regular season, his backup committed 4.3. Use that.
Most of all, though, the Sixers can’t relax for a minute. The Bulls are wounded, but don’t take them lightly, guys. You’re liable to get your hand bitten.