76ers 79 Bulls 78
PHILADELPHIA — Andre Iguodala and Evan Turner hopped on the scorer’s table and played to the crowd as the catchy 76ers theme song blared in the arena.
Eight years of going home empty was over. The Sixers were ready for a long overdue post-season celebration.
Iguodala made the go-ahead free throws with 2.2 seconds left and Philadelphia rallied for a 79-78 victory over the top-seeded Chicago Bulls in Game 6 on Thursday night, advancing to the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs for the first time since 2003.
The 76ers will face Boston, which beat Atlanta in six games, in the conference semifinals.
Omer Asik missed two free throws that would have given the Bulls a three-point lead in the final seconds. Iguodala grabbed the second miss, sprinted the length of the court, and was fouled by Asik on the driving layup. He made both and 20,362 fans went absolutely wild.
The Sixers are the fifth No. 8 seed to win a first-round series against a No. 1 seed. Memphis eliminated San Antonio last season, while Golden State (2007), New York (1999) and Denver (1994) also pulled off the rare feat.
In his second season, coach Doug Collins had already led the Sixers to their first winning season in seven years. Now, it’s on to the second round for the first time Allen Iverson was an All-Star.
“I don’t know how we won this game,” Collins said.
The Sixers were smiling and mobbed each other as they dashed to the locker room to keep the party going.
The Sixers were 2.2 seconds from playing Game 7 in Chicago.
Now, they will pack their bags for the second round.
Iguodala scored 20 points, and Jrue Holiday and Lou Williams each scored 14. The Sixers won even though the Bulls crushed them 56-33 on the boards. Iguodala snagged the one that mattered.
“We win on a rebound. Something we don’t get all night,” a smiling Collins said.
Iguodala made nine of 10 free throws in the fourth quarter in this series after shooting 45 per cent (23 of 51) from the line in the period this season.
“I just wanted it for Dre so badly,” Collins said.
Luol Deng had 19 points and 17 rebounds for the Bulls. Richard Hamilton scored 19 points and Carlos Boozer grabbed 13 rebounds.
The Sixers started 20-9 and led the Atlantic Division for the first half of the season until a late fade sent them tumbling toward eighth place.
None of that matters now.
Not even the fact that the series win comes with a bit of an asterisk. The Bulls lost star guard Derrick Rose to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee late in their series-opening victory. Center Joakim Noah was on the bench Thursday but failed to play in his third straight game with a sprained left ankle.
Without their stars, the Bulls found it tough to gut one out against the Sixers.
“I thought we had more than enough to win with,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “I’m disappointed in the loss but I’m not disappointed in our team.”
Williams, second in the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award voting, buried a 3-pointer for a 73-72 lead with 4 minutes left.
The jubilation was short lived.
The Sixers were whistled for goaltending and Taj Gibson later made two free throws for a 76-73 lead.
Spencer Hawes tried to draw the foul but settled for a basket underneath to shrink the deficit to one.
Asik scored to push the lead back to three with 25.8 seconds left and Philadelphia’s Thaddeus Young made it 78-77 to set the stage for the dramatic finish.
The Bulls had the lock-down defensive effort to nearly pull off the win.
The signature series came in the fourth quarter when the Sixers wasted a forced turnover on the other end with a brutal offensive possession.
Hawes missed a shot, Young missed two straight in the paint, and Hawes missed again against hands-up defence that sent the bench into a frenzy. Noah was the first one up pumping his fist and screaming encouragement for the fantastic defensive effort.
Hawes fired an airball next time down and there was a collective groan from the crowd.
Iguodala made up for a string of Sixers misses with a tying 3 that made it 70-all.
The Sixers tried to get a laugh by showing the Bulls bench on “Kiss Cam.” Noah popped his warmup jacket toward the camera and the crowd booed the oversized “Chicago” on the big screen.
Noah was one of the top offensive rebounders in the league and the Bulls figured on missing his presence in the middle. Led by Deng and Boozer, the Bulls instead went out and controlled the boards, holding a 49-29 edge early in the fourth.
“We have to use this as motivation to move forward,” Thibodeau said.
Notes: The Sixers scored a measly 26 first-half points in their Game 5 loss. They led Game 6 48-40 at halftime. … The Sixers started 12 of 20 from the field and finished the half at 50 per cent. They shot a season-low 32 per cent in Game 5 and failed to shoot better than 40 per cent in three other games. … The Bulls had a 3-pointer taken off the board right before the first half.