CHICAGO -- For a while there, the score and the game resembled something from another time, like perhaps the 1950s and a scene out of "Hoosiers." All that was lacking was a collision with a trophy case and someone running the picket fence.
When it was over, the Chicago Bulls, 77-69 Game 5 winners over the Philadelphia 76ers, had lived to hobble another day; their coach's "Next man up" credo more of another-man-down nightmare with fans left to worry about the literal survival of their remaining players as much as the team's figurative survival in this first-round Eastern Conference series.
But, as they insisted in the winning locker room, this is what they do.
"We've been sticking to our same morals all year long," said Taj Gibson, one of Tuesday night's heroes. He had eight points, four blocks and seven rebounds --- four points and one rebound coming in the last six minutes on what looked to be a badly sprained right ankle.
Even in Philadelphia, there had to be one kindly basketball fan who felt a twinge of sympathy as Gibson went down under the Sixers' basket with 2:06 remaining in the third quarter, his ankle, like teammate Joakim Noah's in Game 4, rolled over at a grotesque angle. The United Center crowd responded with a collective grown that sounded a lot like "Nooooo."
"We were like, 'You've got to be kidding me, man,'" Kyle Korver said of the Bulls' bench. "It's just been that kind of a year, series too, but that kind of a year."
With Derrick Rose bouncing his nieces and nephews on his good knee up in a luxury suite and Noah watching from the bench in a walking boot, this was simply one more loss the Bulls could not take. So Gibson came back in the game with 6:43 remaining and, noticeably laboring, gave the Bulls the final push they required.
"I was going back in regardless," he said.
By "sticking to their morals," Gibson was referring to a defense-first attack that Bulls fans had been looking for but not always getting this series, particularly when it came to closing out games.
"When we've won without Derrick, when we've beat good teams without Derrick, this is how we played," Korver said. "High energy, big defensive plays, protecting the rim, making them shoot jump shots. That's how we have to play."
It also helped that the Bulls' best remaining players came through. Luol Deng led the team with 24 points on 10-of-19 shooting, eight rebounds and two steals, while Carlos Boozer bounced back from uneven play in previous games to finish with a solid 19 points and 13 boards.
In addition, the Bulls flexed their muscles and bodied the Sixers enough to render an already offensively challenged team practically impotent with 10 points in the second quarter on 17 percent shooting, 26 points in the half and a moribund 14 assists for the game.
That said, with Gibson still in the locker room and the Bulls up by 12 following a Boozer jumper at 9:30 of the fourth quarter, this was the part where the Sixers were expected to chip away at the lead until the Bulls collapsed into a pile of lint as they did in Games 3 and 4. (Game 2, they didn't wait until the fourth quarter, falling apart in the third.)
Except at this point Tuesday, the Sixers trailing by 12 was roughly the equivalent of the Bears being down 13 with Caleb Hanie at quarterback and hoping for a comeback.
Philadelphia coach Doug Collins pointed out that had Andre Iguodala hit a 3-pointer with 37 seconds left in the game, the Bulls' lead would have been reduced to five. "We just need to be more efficient with our offense," Collins said.
But more efficient is not likely going to mean the Sixers will suddenly turn into a brilliant half-court team. Even Collins acknowledged "We're not a good-shooting team," which really didn't need to be said. Rather, the Sixers have to hope Game 6 in Philadelphia, particularly with an iffy Gibson and Noah, will go back to the open-court game and easy runouts that allowed them to actually dominate the series.
There was some discussion that perhaps Gibson would face a suspension for his part in a loose-ball scuffle near the Bulls' bench in the second quarter that resulted in a double-technical for him and Elton Brand. Gibson appeared to throw an elbow, though no one on the Philly side, including Brand, was complaining afterward while Gibson and his teammates appeared shocked at the suggestion.
Melodramatic as it may seem, what it signified at that point for the Bulls, was a show of heart, something they did not mind owning up to.
"The scuffle was nothing too crazy," Bulls guard John Lucas said. "We were just letting them know, we're not going nowhere, we're right here, you're going to have to go through us. There was none of that bullying and trying to show how tough we are. Taj did exactly what he was supposed to do. It was nothing intentional. It was just two teams going to battle."
It will likely take a lot more than attitude in Philadelphia on Thursday to force a Game 7 in Chicago on Saturday, but bold talk and determination is all the Bulls have the strength for at the moment.
"It's not over," Lucas said. "We're going to come in and play, you're going to have to beat us, we're not giving you nothing. We're going to come in with the same mentality Thursday and then it's a different series."