With over a decade and a half of NBA experience on his resume, Brett Brown knows well the potential pitfalls presented by this particular late stage of a season, especially for teams on the outside of the playoff picture looking in.
The 76ers’ head coach, however, also knows the make-up of his hard-fighting, prideful group, and he subsequently expected the club to bounce back with a spirited showing on the heels of a one-sided loss.
Brown’s read was right, but, from the Sixers’ standpoint, they were on the wrong side of Thursday’s 102-90 outcome, as the Chicago Bulls posted a key victory at The Center.
With the win, Chicago moved to within a game of .500, and kept its hopes of sneaking into the post-season very much alive. The Bulls entered the evening tied with Miami and Indiana for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Despite falling behind by as many as 14 points in the first half, the Sixers never backed down. They trimmed the margin to three points just prior to intermission, and again scrapped back several times in the third quarter.
Chicago, maintaining veteran poise, always seemed ready with an answer, especially late.
“We couldn’t crack it,” said Brown. “We just couldn’t get over the hump.”
Nikola Mirotic, who topped all players with 22 points, nailed a pair of timely 3-pointers in the final three minutes and change to seal the Sixers’ fate.
The Sixers were led by Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, who did the bulk of his scoring in the second stanza. His 18 points extended his double-digit scoring streak to four games. During this stretch, the rookie wingman has racked up 79 total points.
Richaun Holmes was a steady two-way presence for the Sixers, finishing with 10 points and 10 rebounds. The double-double was his fourth of the campaign.
In addition to Mirotic, Chicago got a big all-around effort from Jimmy Butler. The three-time All-Star manufactured 19 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists for his second triple-double this season.
“Chicago played well,” said Dario Saric, who pitched in with nine points and 10 rebounds. “Jimmy Butler, their star player who made the All-Star team, was a lot better, and they deserved to win the game.”
Already limited to 10 players, two of whom (Saric and Tiago Splitter) are currently on minute guidelines, the Sixers weathered an injury scare late in the third quarter. As T.J. McConnell was trying to bring the ball up the court, he lost his footing while attempting to avoid a backcourt pick set by Butler.
“I caught the ball, and didn’t see Jimmy Butler behind me,” said McConnell, describing the sequence. “I planted wrong, and felt pain, so just dropped to the ground.”
McConnell stayed on the floor for a moment, gathered himself, and went to the Sixers’ locker room, where he was examined by the team’s medical staff. It turned out he had only tweaked his left ankle, and was cleared to return to action.
The lone true point available on the Sixers’ roster, McConnell checked back in with around seven minutes to go in regulation, and received a nice hand from the home crowd of 15,000-plus. The point guard notched nine points, six boards, eight assists, and three steals in 33 minutes.
“I feel pretty numb,” McConnell said afterwards, his foot in an ice bucket. “It’s getting better. We’ll see how it feels [Friday].”
So much a part of fueling the Sixers’ collective competitive heartbeat throughout the season, McConnell made clear he’ll do whatever it takes within reason to be available for the team’s final three tilts.
“If I’m good enough to go, I don’t care how many games are left,” he said. “I’m not going to abandon this team. We all know how many people are hurt, so I’m not going to sit out the rest of the year.
“If it’s sore, I’m going to play through it, and I’m going to be smart about it on off days. You’ve just got to fight through it any way you can, scratch, claw. The finish line is right there. [We’ve] just got to take care of our bodies on days like [Friday].”
The Sixers are idle Friday, and will host the Milwaukee Bucks Saturday.
Although their fourth and final meeting with Chicago began at a back-and-forth pace, the Sixers were forced to climb uphill for most of the evening. The Bulls outscored them by nine to close the opening quarter for a 27-17 edge.
“The first period sort of set the stage,” said Brown. “We really had a hard time scoring.”
Free throws from Alex Poythress (4 pts, 3 reb, 25 min) made it a 50-47 game with a minute left in the second frame, but Chicago swiftly re-established a double-figure cushion early in the third. A string of three straight field goals from Richaun Holmes, sparked by a midcourt steal and dunk, brought the Sixers within eight. Butler and Robin Lopez (9 pts, 7 reb, 3 blk) then stepped up to author the Bulls’ response, as they took an 80-67 pad into the fourth quarter.
From a shooting standpoint, the Sixers were kept in check Thursday. They converted only 36.3 percent of their field goal tries, and went 7 for 33 from beyond the arc. In the first half, the Sixers hit 3 of 18 heaves from 3-point territory.
The Sixers also misfired on 25 of 49 attempts in the paint.
“It’s a reminder to our young guys of what we have to do this summer,” Brown said. “There’s nothing like putting the ball in the hole. We’re going to have a fantastic summer of development with a lot of those things I said in mind as it relates to our focus points and where we invest our time this summer.”
Placed on a playing time recommendation for a third game in a row, Saric logged 22 of the 24 minutes he was allotted. While he battled offensively, sinking 3 of his 8 shots, he proved productive on the glass, generating 10 rebounds.
“I physically can’t say, but I tried to push myself as much as possible,” said Saric, who turns 23 on Saturday. “At this part of the season, and of course I care, I just want to help the team. I try to compete even with my minutes, and play with pressure. We are doing a very good job, and the organization is doing a great job.”
“He goes in and he plays his heart out,” said Brown.
Saric wasn’t alone in that respect Thursday. The Sixers just didn’t have enough going their way.
In his limited 21-game stint with the Sixers since being acquired via trade from the Dallas Mavericks, Justin Anderson has certainly shown a knack for attacking the basket in authoritative fashion. On this transition sequence at the outset of Thursday’s third period, Anderson – after hesitating for a moment – turned on the jets, and put his driving prowess on display.
The Sixers welcome Milwaukee to The Center Saturday, as their four-game home stand reaches its home stretch. The Bucks dropped a 104-89 decision to Indiana Thursday; however, they remain in sixth-place in the Eastern Conference standings. Led by first-time All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee is bidding for its third playoff berth in three years under head coach Jason Kidd.