The Philadelphia 76ers take on the Chicago Bulls tonight in what could be the clinching game of this first round series. Note the game begins at 9:30 Eastern, because the Eastern Conference Finals should apparently have games begin that late. Before the series began, I would have assumed this could be the clincher for Chicago. But a series of unfortunate and possibly avoidable events that has occurred since the beginning of the series has now shifted the tides, with the Bulls just trying to figure out how to extend the series against the suddenly resurgent Sixers. Here’s 5 more things to look for in Game 5:
1. Finding Offense in Chicago
The Bulls, quite honestly, need to muster some offense to have a chance in this series. Rip Hamilton has been held down by Jrue Holiday for the most part since game 2. And as John Hollinger wrote earlier, and as I mentioned throughout Game 4, the Bulls need to play smaller lineups in order to provide any. That requires heavy doses of Luol Deng at the 4, Taj Gibson/Carlos Boozer/Omer Asik (but mostly the first 2) at the 5. That way, the Bulls can play Kyle Korver and Hamilton together. The sources of offense for Chicago, primarily, are high pick-and-rolls and off-ball curls from Hamilton and Korver. Playing a smaller lineup allows Chicago to play both Korver and Hamilton, which means Jrue can only cover one. Deng at the 4 either provides a 1-on-1 mismatch with Thaddeus Young or forces the Sixers to go smaller as well, which would still be favorable to Chicago’s offense. And it’s not like the Sixers have a punishing player down low – Elton Brand, Lavoy Allen and Spencer Hawes are all jump shooters.
2. Is Noah on board?
Joakim Noah is currently listed as a game-time decision with his severely sprained ankle. It would be a minor miracle if Noah played tonight, but I wouldn’t put it past him either. This game reeks of desperation, and desperate people resort to desperate measures. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau has, perhaps irresponsibly, played injured players before, most notably Noah post-injury in game 3, so if Noah presses him and the training staff (and he will, no doubt) he may end up playing. His effectiveness will likely be limited, however. He’s not going to move well on a sprained ankle, and his value comes via his mobility at his size. Even if he comes back, I doubt he’ll be too effective. Then again, I’ve been wrong before.
3. So much Hawes
If Noah doesn’t play, then Spencer Hawes stands to benefit yet again. Hawes has thrived primarily by hitting open jumpers that the Chicago defense is willing to give him. The other bigs not named Joakim don’t have the mobility or length to contest or prevent the Hawes jumper. He also gets them because he stands a foot in front of the three point line and takes shot that are, by nature, inefficient and possibly the worst in basketball in general. They’d rather prevent the guard, either Holiday or Evan Turner, from getting into the lane. However, Hawes does hit those shots more frequently than the average player and did so better than nearly anyone in the league to start the season when he played especially well - he hit 57% of his mid range shots before injuries muddied his season. Of course, he finished at 45% from mid range, still above average for the year, but much worse post-injuries. The 57% was obviously fluky, but injuries certainly helped the percentage come crashing down. If he can keep up the shooting (he’s 10-15 so that’s a tall task, but w/e), then he’ll keep making Chicago pay. If not, then he’ll be much less effective. The problem for the Bulls is, at this point, he only needs to do it for one game out of three, and when he’s shown that he can hit the open jumper fairly consistently, that risk is difficult to swallow.
Even with Noah, the opportunities should be there for him to succeed. But he’ll have to work harder for them.
4. Free Throws R’ Us
So if you thought the Sixers would win the free throw battle going into the series, raise your hand. Anyone? No?
Well, it’s happened, mainly because Holiday and Turner are being aggressive. Chicago fans complained big time about the lack of calls in Game 4. The truth is the game was whistled inconsistently, and both sides should have gotten more foul calls. From my view point in the stands, Omer Asik never once went up vertically (he body checked everyone) but never got called for any fouls, especially in the first half.
The hope is that the trend of getting to the line continues. Obviously, the Sixers need the help, as they aren’t good enough offensively when the rest of their shots are long twos.
This thing, which Stephen Jackson was famously in a romantic relationship with, will be on the minds of both teams. The Sixers don’t want to give the Bulls hope for winning the series. The Bulls have the pressure to perform likely without their best or second-best players with their season on the line. One thing Stephen didn’t know was that there was plenty of pressure to go around.
The Sixers can close it out tonight. The Bulls can give themselves a chance. There’s a lot on the line tonight. And hopefully, the Sixers come out on top.