CHICAGO — After going 18-9 without Derrick Rose in the regular season, the Chicago Bulls finally won one in the playoffs.
Now all they have to do is figure out a way to win two more and prove their character once again.
The Bulls’ defense held the 76ers to a season-low 32.1 percent shooting from the field, and the Eastern Conference’s top seed got just enough offense to pull out a 77-69 victory before 22,093 at United Center Tuesday night.
Luol Deng equaled his total output in the three previous games with 24 points, including four of five from three point range, and grabbed eight rebounds. Carlos Boozer tied a career playoff high with six assists and added 19 points and 13 rebounds.
Philadelphia, whose biggest lead came early at 16-10, will have to win Thursday to avoid a Game 7 finale in Chicago. Joakim Noah, out for two games with a sprained ankle, should return for Game 6 in Philly.
“They’re going to treat the game in Philly like it’s Game 7,” said Richard Hamilton, who chipped in six points in 18 minutes of action. “They don’t want to come back here. We’ve got to figure out a way to do the same thing we did tonight, and hopefully we’ll get the win.”
“We feel like we can go to Philadelphia and get one great road win,” Boozer said.
Such a mix of desperation and confidence stems from the root character of this team, and may be exactly the fuel that can ignite the improbable comeback from down 3-1 and without Rose. Even though the Bulls shot only 41.5 percent themselves, they could come back to win this series with their signature defense. Philadelphia has averaged just 79 points per game over the last three.
Still, Philadelphia coach Doug Collins is not ready to advance the Bulls to the second round just yet.
“You can’t let one game all of a sudden get you spinning in the wrong direction,” he said. “We didn’t expect to beat the Bulls four straight. This is a damn good team.”
But even Collins cannot ignore the fact that his team continues to spin shots in the wrong direction. Despite winning Games 3 and 4 at home, Philadelphia shot just 34.2% and 39.2%, respectively.
“When you can defend the way they can, you can win. That’s my concern, are we going to be able to score the ball. I think we’re going to be okay defensively. We’ve got our hands full, there’s no question about that.”
Jrue Holiday led the 76ers with 16 points on 5-for-17 from the field. Lou Williams scored 13 points and Andre Iguodala and Spencer Hawes both finished with 11.
“It’s frustrating that we couldn’t make shots,” said Iguodala. “We got some open looks, I got some open looks. They weren’t going in.”
The shots were certainly going in for Deng, who has epitomized the grit of this Bulls team, playing more than half the season with a torn ligament in his left hand. Deng hit three three-pointers in the fourth quarter to keep the 76ers at a distance, the final one giving Chicago its biggest lead at 67-52 and earning a slap on the rear end from former Chicago great Scottie Pippen, who was in attendance.
“We’re in a situation where we know if we lose, we go home,” Deng said. “After tonight’s game, they are going to feel some pressure and try to close it out.”
Such will be a tough task for the 76ers even at home if the Bulls bring the same furious energy to the defensive end on Thursday. Perhaps an even tougher task than coming back from a 3-1 hole.