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Sunday, July 21

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Bulls Sat May 05 2012

Bulls Choke in Game 3

Bulls_200.pngGoodness, that hurt.

Not just Joakim Noah's ankle roll in the third quarter that made his foot bend like a flexi-straw, but the improbable collapse Friday night that saw Chicago lose a 14-point lead in the final few minutes to fall to the 76ers, 79-74.

It was a gut punch of a loss, the kind that makes you wonder, with no exaggeration, if there's any chance this team can come back.

The night started out well enough, with Carlos Boozer coming back from his lackluster Game 2 to open 4 for 4 from the field, Noah grabbing the first few rebounds, and the Bulls offense playing smart basketball all around.

Stacey King called it "taking care of business" on the local broadcast, but to be more specific, I saw them playing calm, controlled basketball. Rip Hamilton doubled up? Dish it off to the Boozer or Noah under the hoop. 76ers collapsing on a driving Deng? Kick it out for the open jumper.

It was the type of play you expect to see from a #1 seed against a #8, and while the game was still close (16 lead changes in the first half), that's to be expected when you're missing the production of Derrick Rose. Philly led 40-39 at the half, but things seemed in control.

Then Noah went to the lane with about eight minutes left in the third, stepped on Andre Iguodala's foot, rolled his left ankle and went down writhing. Successive replays showed his ankle bending almost a full 90 degrees, earning full "oooooooooh's" from the crowd, while Chicago collectively cursed under its breath. He played on, in what admittedly was an incredibly impressive display of toughness--the same toughness we've been dying to see from Boozer since last year. Hobbling up and down the court, Noah clearly refused to leave, but successive defensive stands showed him to be so slow and unable to react that head coach Tom Thibodeau had no choice but to take him out.

Heading into the 4th quarter, the Bulls held a nine point lead, but then the bottom fell out like the floor of a burning building. It wasn't just a sudden cold streak (though there was one), it was a combination of factors that, in hindsight, sunk the ship long before the water touched the bow. There was Boozer, sent to the bench for his fourth foul, with about five minutes left in the third. He ended up with 18 points and 10 rebounds in not much more than three quarters worth of work. There was Luol Deng, held to five points in the entire game before earning his fourth just before the end of the third quarter. A rash of turnovers (15 by game's end), poor free-throw shooting (60%) and a sudden inabilty to stop the 76ers with a front court consisting of Omer Asik and Taj Gibson gave Philly every chance to get back in the game.

In the end, it happened before you even realized it was close. The 14-point lead was lost with about 90 seconds left in the game, the 76ers kept pushing, and before they knew what hit them, the Bulls were down 2-1 in the series with another road game to go.

Game 4 is Sunday, and I have to believe that if the Bulls haven't recovered mentally from the loss of Rose yet, I don't know what another 24 hours of stewing over this loss will do to help. Thibodeau clearly came up with a game plan tonight, and it was working, until foul trouble and turnovers brought adversity. With no Pooh to turn to in hopes of righting the ship, the Bulls couldn't find an outlet to release the pressure. Let's hope somebody steps up, because if not, it's Wait 'Til Next Year time in the United Center instead of Wrigley for once.

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