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Bulls drop third in row vs. 76ers, game away from elimination

Bulls forward Carlos Boozer loses control ball front Thaddeus Young second half. | Michael Perez~AP

Bulls forward Carlos Boozer loses control of the ball in front of Thaddeus Young in the second half. | Michael Perez~AP

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Updated: June 8, 2012 8:16AM

PHILADELPHIA — The anticipation had been building since last season’s loss to the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. The regular season almost seemed like a formality. The essential questions about this Bulls team wouldn’t be answered until its playoff run began.

But nobody expected Derrick Rose to be nursing a torn anterior cruciate ligament and Joakim Noah to be on the bench in a sport coat with a walking boot on his twisted left ankle.

On the court, with the game on the line, the Bulls couldn’t make key baskets or prevent the 76ers from doing the same Sunday at the Wells Fargo Center. The result was an 89-82 victory for the 76ers, their third in a row against the battered Bulls, who are one loss away from becoming the fifth top-seeded team to be eliminated by an eighth seed since the playoffs went to a 16-team format in 1984.

“It’s not the way we thought the series would go a week and a half ago,” Kyle Korver said. “It’s a different situation for us, but this is the way it goes. This is why you play the playoff games.”

The Bulls went seven possessions without a field goal before Taj Gibson made an 18-foot baseline jumper with 4:30 left. Jrue Holiday, who missed 14 of his first 15 shots, made back-to-back three-pointers, the second of which came with 3:34 left and gave the 76ers an 80-73 lead.

The Bulls cut the lead to 82-80 on C.J. Watson’s 17-foot jumper. Carlos Boozer had his shot blocked and lost the ball on two of the team’s next three possessions, and Holiday and Andre Iguodala made clutch free throws as the 76ers put away a game that saw them shoot 31 free throws to the Bulls’ 14.

Philadelphia has made more free throws (84) than the Bulls have attempted (79) in the series.

“We didn’t get as many free throws as they did, but that’s not why we lost,” Boozer said. “We lost because we couldn’t contain their guards in the fourth quarter.”

Boozer scored a game-high 23 points and had 11 rebounds. Watson had a slow start but finished with 17 points. Luol Deng aggravated the torn ligament in his left wrist when he crashed to the floor in the first quarter but had 11 points and five rebounds.

The Bulls held Doug Collins’ team to 39 percent shooting and still lost.

“We’ve been keeping the [score] in the 80s, where we want it to be, but when we get ahead, we have to increase it,” Rip Hamilton said.

“We can’t just play possession by possession.”

The Bulls have learned to count on Gibson for defense and rebounding, but what he provided in the second quarter was less expected. He scored 12 of his 14 points in the quarter and also had six rebounds to help the Bulls cut the lead to 44-42 at the break.

Gibson had 12 rebounds and four blocks in the game.

“You can’t feel sorry for yourself because no one is going to care,” Gibson said.

Spencer Hawes had 22 points and eight rebounds for the 76ers, and Holiday added 20 points on 7-for-23 shooting. Ten of his points came in the fourth quarter. Iguodala had 14 points and 12 rebounds.

Game 5 is scheduled for Tuesday night at 8:30 at the United Center.

“Now it’s a must win,” Boozer said. “We’re going to have to fight like dogs in Game 5.”

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