PHILADELPHIA — Barely an hour before the Philadelphia 76ers hosted the Chicago Bulls on Thursday night at Wells Fargo Center, coach Doug Collins knew exactly what was at stake.
"This game will be the hardest of my two-year career here," Collins said.
Collins had no doubts about the challenge he was facing, even against an injury-depleted Bulls team. But even Collins didn't foresee a Game 6 that would be in doubt until the final 2.2 seconds, though, resulting in a one-point Sixers victory, 79-78, to capture the first-round series, 4-2.
It was Sixers forward Andre Iguodala, who was an abysmal 45.1 percent from the free throw line in the fourth quarter during the regular season, who sank the tying and winning baskets, completing the eight-over-one seed upset.
"I know how much it means to him [Iguodala] and this team," Collins said. "We just found a way. I told the guys before the game, 'Faith resides in the heart and that's what we have.' The one thing I tried to do is keep them encouraged."
With the win, the Sixers advanced to the second round for the first time since 2003, and they will begin a second-round series against the Boston Celtics on Saturday.
"I'm happy, but not as happy as I am for my teammates," said Iguodala, who scored a game-high 20 points. "This is something I've been trying to get better at as my career has gone on, and what type of mark I'll leave on my teammates. I changed my thought pattern a little bit."
For Iguodala, who has been widely criticized in his seven seasons in Philadelphia, including the belief by some that he's not enough of a star for the team to build around, it was an especially satisfying win.
The temptation might be to place an asterisk next to this particular upset, just the fifth eight-over-one upset in NBA history, due to the injury-decimated Bulls roster and the lockout-shortened 66-game season.
The Bulls were without reigning Most Valuable Player Derrick Rose, who tore the ACL in his left knee in the first game, and Joakim Noah, who missed three games with a sprained left ankle. Taj Gibson was playing on a gimpy ankle, and Luol Deng had a nagging wrist injury. Deng, who scored 19, also received several stitches under his eye when his face made contact with an inadvertent Iguodala elbow in the first half.
But through it all, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau refused to indulge in the excuse game.
"I said this all along — I thought we had more than enough to win with," Thibodeau said. "If you defend and rebound and you keep your turnovers down, and you do those three things, you're going to be in position to win, no matter who you are and who you're playing against. If you execute offensively and play inside out and share the ball, you're going to have a great chance of winning."
The Bulls did some of what Thibodeau hoped for, but not all. They held the Sixers to 39.7 percent shooting, but shot an even worse 37.5 percent themselves. They destroyed the Sixers on the glass, 56-33, but had 14 turnovers to Philadelphia's seven.
"I did like the fact that we fought back, and we put ourselves in a position to win," Thibodeau said. "We just didn't do what we should have done to close out the game."
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