Published January 28, 2017
CHICAGO -- The Philadelphia 76ers and Chicago Bulls appear to be headed in opposite directions within the Eastern Conference going into their game Sunday night at the United Center.
Philadelphia (17-28) is coming off a 123-118 loss at home Friday to the Houston Rockets, and won't have star center Joel Embiid who didn't make the trip to rest a sore knee. The 76ers will have stretch forward Ersan Ilyasova and point guard T.J. McConnell, who've each played significant roles of late.
Ilyasova, 29, is averaging 15.1 points a game and just had a streak of 25 straight games scoring in double figures end against the Rockets.
"He's been so good for us," Philadelphia coach Brett Brown told the team's website Saturday. "Really, I think if you point to some single things that have influenced our recent success and our progression, it's him."
Philadelphia's recent success dates back to Dec. 30, when McConnell was promoted to starting point guard. Since then, the 76ers are 10-4 and McConnell nearly had his fourth straight game with double-digit assists against the Rockets.
"T.J. has been excellent," Embiid told the team's website. "I thought the past 10 games, 13 games, I think he's been our MVP just pushing the ball up the court, just sharing the ball. That's what point guards do, and I think he's been excellent."
The Bulls (23-25) were anything but excellent in their past two games and began to criticize each other via postgame interviews and social media accounts.
They're still eighth in the East, the final playoff spot, but have lost their past two games. Even worse is the fallout from critical postgame comments by stars Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler following Wednesday's loss to the Atlanta Hawks.
After watching a 10-point lead with three minutes left in the fourth quarter slip away, Wade and Butler went off on their young teammates in postgame interview sessions. Rajon Rondo then fired back Thursday on his Instagram account, writing pointed words likely intended to criticize Wade and Butler.
Following a team meeting Friday that essentially replaced the morning shootaround, the Bulls lost 100-88 at home to the Miami Heat that night and turned in another lackluster effort.
Wade and Butler were benched to start the game, a punishment for their comments, and neither played all that well. Wade had 15 points, but Butler was held to a season-low three points on 1-of-13 shooting.
"I just didn't make shots," Butler told the Bulls' website. "I didn't do what I was supposed to do. That's fine. I'm not down on myself. I still have to be who I am, work and come back Sunday. My job is to go out and hoop. I didn't do a great job of that (against Miami)."
Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said Wade and Butler will return to the starting lineup Sunday. Hoiberg and Chicago's front office are hopeful the damage can be mended quickly among players.
"We obviously had a very emotional day," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. "It's not an excuse for how we played. It's the worst game we played all year, in my opinion. I hope what happened (Friday) morning has long-term benefits for our team."