The Chicago Bulls may have been the 7 point favorites over the Philadelphia 76ers going into Sunday’s game, but you would not have known that from their respective trajectories. The 76ers and Joel Embiid are the new darlings of the NBA having been surprisingly competitive in January, while Chicago has been embattled by locker room turmoil between Dwyane Wade, Rajon Rondo, and Jimmy Butler.
But the 76ers sat out Embiid for this game as part of his minutes restriction, and Jimmy Butler played like a star as Chicago took care of business. The 76ers hung around, prevented this game from becoming a blowout, and tied late, but Chicago had just enough offense and interior presence to pull off the win.
Philadelphia’s Interior Problem
The above title should sound absurd for a team which arguably has the best young true center in the league. But the story of the 76ers has been how good they are with Embiid on the court and how bad they are with him off the court. One of Philadelphia’s problems is their lack of interior protection without Embiid.
That may seem strange since Nerlens Noel has a good defensive reputation and Jahlil Okafor is a true big man. But Nerlens struggled with foul trouble tonight and Okafor was a DNP-CD. Without Nerlens and Embiid, Bulls center Robin Lopez got all the chip shots in the paint he wanted, scoring 21 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. He needs a lawyer for that one.
While Lopez had a good game, Jimmy Butler bounced back from a 1-13 performance against Miami which could have been one of the worst games by any player this season. Butler led the Bulls with 28 points and was much more willing to drive to the rim and draw free throws compared to the Miami game.
Chicago Defense not good enough
But while Butler and Lopez had good offensive games, the 76ers were able to stick around thanks to a strong offensive performance from Ersan Ilyasova with 31 points and Robert Covington with 21 points. Ilyasova has been a valuable veteran presence to the young 76ers squad, and Covington has his shot back after struggling for much of the season. While the Bulls are the 10th best defensive squad in the league as measured by defensive rating, they have had defensive struggles from Doug McDermott and an older Dwyane Wade.
It is not unreasonable to think that the 76ers could have won this game had Embiid played, but the center has not played both nights of a back to back this season and Philadelphia will be playing Sacramento tonight. However, Embiid is reportedly questionable for the Kings game with left knee soreness.
Even though the game was perhaps closer than Chicago would have liked, the Bulls have a nice bounce back win and need to make a strong push before the schedule toughens up in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, Philadelphia is working at identifying its weaknesses. While Embiid is still a potential superstar in the making, this 76ers squad is still a few players short of being able to make a serious playoff push.