Friday, May 11, 2012

No more Bull, Philly finally embraces Iggy

By John McMullen

PHILADELPHIA - Give coach Tom Thibodeau credit.

Evan after his No. 1-seeded Chicago Bulls were jettisoned by the upstart
Philadelphia 76ers in the most painful way possible, Thibodeau never made
excuses despite missing superstar Derrick Rose and starting center Joakim Noah
for most of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.

In fact, he repeated what almost became a mantra for the Bulls: "I do believe
we had more than enough to win with," the coach said after watching his team
fall, 79-78, in a sixth and deciding game Thursday night.

He was probably right.

In Tuesday's Game 5, something Sixers coach Doug Collins called a "human
nature game" for Philadelphia, human nature was evidently a euphemism for
an inability to shoot the basketball.

With a chance to close out the Bulls, Philadelphia was putrid in the Second
City. Chicago limited the Sixers to just 32.1 percent field-goal shooting with
the second quarter proving particularly challenging for the 76ers. They trailed
17-16 after one, but managed just 10 points in the second on 4-of-23 shooting
and never recovered.

Meanwhile, the 69 points Philadelphia mustered were the fewest points the team
scored in the postseason since laying a 68-point egg to Orlando in Game 2 of
the first round of the playoffs back in 1999.

Perhaps more importantly, it meant the young Sixers failed a very big test and
failed it miserably. This wasn't getting a 69 on your mid-term, this was
putting up a 40 on a test your professor graded on a scale.

In the Sixers' first chance to eliminate a playoff opponent since capturing
Game 6 against New Orleans in the East quarterfinals back in 2003, this group
built around young players like Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner and unproven
playoff veterans like Andre Iguodala and Elton Brand, came up smaller than
Earl Boykins at the Bol family reunion.

The Sixers, of course, are far from the first team to take their foot off the
gas after amassing a 3-1 series lead, but considering they were an eighth-seed
coming in against the NBA's No. 1 team, you would think a sense of urgency
wouldn't be too hard to create.

Of course, the only thing worse than sleepwalking through a Game 5 would be a
lackadaisical Game 6 at home. Let's be honest, you could sit Rose, Noah,
Taj Gibson, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Bob Love and the Sixers weren't
winning a Game 7 in the Windy City.

So Thursday was it for Philadelphia. Win or go home, albeit after a quick
stopover for the Game 7 sacrifice in Chi-town.

It's still hard to figure out how the Sixers beat the Bulls in Game 6 at Wells
Fargo Center. Chicago outrebounded Philadelphia, 56-33, and had 29 second-
chance shots compared to just to five for the Sixers. Philly didn't even snare
an offensive board until about eight minutes were left in the game.

The last time an NBA team won a postseason game when being outrebounded by 23-
plus boards was April 18, 1986, when Washington topped the Sixers despite
Philadelphia's 58-29 advantage on the glass.

Through all of that, however, Iguodala was at the free throw line with
2.2 seconds left to win it.

Buoyed by the staggering rebounding edge, the Bulls were up one late with
Omer Asik at the line, but the big man missed a pair of three throws to set up
an Iguodala dash to the rim.

"(Omer) Asik is a bad shooter, I knew I had a chance to get the rebound,"
Iguodala said. "Spencer (Hawes) did a great job boxing out."

The Sixers' most polarizing figure, often criticized for his late-game play,
was fouled at the rim.

Once an 80 percent shooter from the charity stripe, Iguodala had fallen on
hard times this season. The defensive stalwart hit just 61.7 percent of his
freebies in the regular season. He was at 45.1 percent in the fourth quarter
and was a dismal 7-for-18 in what the NBA calls clutch-time free throws.

Let's just say the fans in Philly were ready to pounce on the quiet guy with
the quirky personality whom they never embraced.

So what did Iguodala do?

With a little help from veteran big man Tony Battie, who didn't even play in
the series, he calmly swished them both and didn't even hit the rim while
doing it.

"On the free throws, Tony Battie told me to think of something that you love
when shooting free throws," Iggy said. "I thought of my son and it was easy
after that."

When C.J. Watson's desperation heave came up empty, the Big House in South
Philly exploded as the Sixers won their first postseason series since '03,
becoming just the fifth eighth-seed to take out a No. 1.

"I don't know how you could write a better script than Andre Iguodala getting
a rebound, driving the length of the floor," Collins said. "He struggled all
year at the foul line and stepped up, made two free throws to win a playoff
series to get to the second round for the first time. I don't know what else
you can say. I know how much it means to him and this team."

And Iguodala, the Sixers' best player since Allen Iverson left town, was
finally the conquering hero in a city that never accepted him because he
wasn't the original A.I.

"For Dre, he's gone through a lot," Collins said. "He's gone through a lot
here. I told him, I said 'Nobody deserves this more than you do to have this
moment. To move on and be able to experience this.'"

His reward in the country's toughest sports town?

Beat Boston or the boos are back.

"I told (Iguodala and the Sixers), 'Now you are in the high-rent district. Now
you start finding out what it's all about,'" Collins said.

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