PHILADELPHIA - Evan Turner sped past a defender for a dunk in the first quarter. He spun around another to make an acrobatic reverse layup in the second.
Pretty plays, for sure.
But the one that made the difference in the Philadelphia 76ers' 79-74 victory over the Chicago Bulls in Game 3 on Friday night was ugly.
With the Sixers clinging to a one-point lead in the final minute, Turner drove to the basket and put a shot up in traffic that missed. He grabbed his own rebound and fell to the floor as three defenders, desperately trying to swat the ball away, converged. Turner fought them off, got up, maintained control and put up another shot. It missed, but he was fouled.
"I appreciate that (coach Doug Collins) put the ball in my hands in a key possession," Turner said Saturday. "That was the least I can do to keep fighting."
Turner swished both free throws and the Sixers sank the injury-depleted Bulls, taking an unlikely 2-1 lead in their first-round Eastern Conference series.
With reigning NBA MVP Derrick Rose out for the season after tearing a knee ligament in the series opener and Joakim Noah doubtful for today's Game 4 at the Wells Fargo Center with an ankle injury, the top-seeded Bulls are in trouble.
"The singular biggest play of the year for us was Evan Turner, the play he made under the basket," Collins said. "Evan just fought, fought, fought, got fouled and made those two free throws.
"It was beautiful. Evan getting in there and fighting, he's a big-time competitor."
Turner's tenacity against the undermanned Bulls has the eighth-seeded Sixers on the verge of pulling off a stunning upset. The injuries are piling up for Chicago, which has to find a way to rally in the series without Rose and probably Noah.
"He's most likely out (today)," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said of Noah.
As for the remainder of the series, Thibodeau said Noah is "day-to-day."
Omer Asik would replace Noah as the starting center. Asik, a 7-footer, averaged 3.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 14.7 minutes per game in the regular season.
"I feel we have more than enough," Thibodeau said. "Next guy, got to get the job done."
Noah got hurt midway through the third quarter when he stepped on Andre Iguodala's foot driving the lane and crashed to the court. Noah instantly grabbed his left ankle in pain, though he returned to shoot free throws after a timeout. He also played briefly in the fourth quarter, before leaving the arena on crutches.
"It's up to guys to step up," Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. "When one man goes down, you have to be ready. This is the NBA and things like this happen."
What's happening on the other bench is quite remarkable.
On a big stage, Turner is showing why the Sixers chose him with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2010 NBA draft. He's had plenty of ups and downs in his two seasons. Heck, he didn't even start Game 1 of this series.
But the Sixers have won two in a row with him starting. Turner had 19 points, seven rebounds and six assists in a 109-92 win in Game 2. He followed that up with 16 points and nine rebounds in Game 3.
The highlight plays he made Friday night earned him style points, but his resilient effort on that play late in the game earned respect.
"His will to win was excellent," Sixers veteran Elton Brand said. "He wouldn't let us lose that game."
Turner hasn't lived up to expectations in his first two seasons, though part of the problem has been playing time and adjusting to a different role. Turner was The Associated Press Player of the Year as a junior at Ohio State before heading to the NBA. He averaged 20.3 points, 9.2 rebounds and 5.9 assists while leading the Buckeyes into the round of 16 in the 2010 NCAA tournament.
Turner stepped into the starting lineup as a rookie in Philadelphia but struggled early and appeared confused on the court at times. He was used to handling the ball in college, but Jrue Holiday is the point guard on the Sixers so the offense runs through him. Turner didn't adapt quickly to becoming a spot-up shooter and was benched after 18 games. At the time, the Sixers were 5-13. With Jodie Meeks, a dependable outside shooter, starting at two-guard, Philadelphia went 36-28 the rest of the way and earned a playoff berth.
Turner's minutes dwindled, but he showed potential at various points with productive games late in the season. He scored 15 points and 17 points off the bench in two playoff games against Miami, who won the series in five games.
After spending the summer refining his shooting skills with Herb Magee, the Hall of Fame coach at Philadelphia University, Turner figured to open the season as a starter. But Collins stuck with Meeks, because that lineup worked last year.
Turner was relegated to a reserve role again, and the Sixers started 20-9. No reason to make changes.
Then Philadelphia lost eight of 10, and Turner went back in. He started 18 straight games before going back to the bench after a four-game losing streak. Following a 12-point loss to the Bulls in the playoff opener, Collins switched his lineup again. Turner has made the most of the opportunity.
"He is at his best in these kinds of games," Collins said.