CHICAGO -- The Chicago Bulls weren't very good at the start or finish, but dominated the middle part of the game and hung on to beat Brooklyn 79-76 on Thursday at the United Center.
The Bulls took a 2-1 lead in the first-round playoff series, with Game 4 set for Saturday afternoon in Chicago.
The Nets outscored the Bulls 17-5 early in the first quarter, then closed the game with a 14-2 run, but it wasn't enough.
Carlos Boozer led the Bulls with 22 points and 16 rebounds. Luol Deng added 21 points and 10 rebounds, while Kirk Hinrich scored 12 points. Chicago settled down quickly after getting hit with an opening flurry.
"We've been a resilient team all year," Boozer said. "I guess we clung to that experience. We kept fighting, kept playing, our defense got better, then we had the momentum."
After trailing by 17 points early in the fourth quarter, Brooklyn used a 10-0 run to close within 77-72 with two minutes remaining on a driving lay-in by MarShon Brooks.
While the Bulls kept coming up empty on offense, the Nets missed two chances to get even closer. Finally, after Brooklyn rebounded a pair of its own misses, Brook Lopez' dunk made it a 3-point game with 14.4 seconds on the clock.
After Nate Robinson split a pair of free throws, Deron Williams scored on a driving lay-in to make it 78-76. With no time outs left, the Bulls inbounded the ball to Joakim Noah, who also split two free throws to leave the lead at three points with 4.4 seconds on the clock.
Just before the final buzzer, former Bulls guard C.J. Watson missed the rim on a corner 3-pointer. Lopez led Brooklyn with 22 points, while Williams scored 18 and Johnson added 15 points in 41 minutes, despite playing on a sore left foot.
"We played more aggressive offensively," Nets coach P.J. Carlesimo said of the closing run. "In comparison to what we were doing, we did things a lot better."
There's no doubt Brooklyn is struggling with the Bulls' defense. During final 16 games of the regular season, the Nets averaged 103.8 points per game, then rang up 106 in the series opener at the Barclays Center.
Since then, Brooklyn has scored 82 and 76 points, while shooting less than 36 percent from the field in both Games 2 and 3.
"The Bulls are playing good defense," Carlesimo said. "They are loading up on our guys who are capable of scoring. We are not shooting the three well at all. Most of the (misses) inside is because they are playing very good defense."
The Nets seemed determined to match Chicago's defensive intensity at the start of the game. While the Bulls had trouble working the ball anywhere near the paint, Brooklyn got back-to-back 3-pointers from Williams and Johnson. Then a pair of Williams free throws put the Nets ahead 17-5 at the 6:25 mark of the first quarter.
What happened next could generously be described as a sudden turnaround. Brooklyn missed its next 15 shots and 25 of 26 as the Bulls rolled up a 28-4 run.
By halftime, the Nets were shooting 22.5 percent from the field, but managed to pull within 41-34 thanks to a 3-pointer at the buzzer by Gerald Wallace.
To start the third quarter, Deng got hot, scoring 12 points in the opening four minutes. He hit four jumpers and added a 3-point play off a back-door cut. That flurry helped stretch the lead to 54-38 and the normally high-scoring Nets struggled to make up ground from there.
"We had to dig out of that hole (at the start)," Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau said. "Once we did that, I thought for the most part, the second and third quarters, we played well. You relax for a second, that team is very, very good. They get a crack, they can score the ball. We're going to have to bounce back. There's a lot of things we have to do a lot better."
Before the game, Carlesimo kept everyone in suspense about the status of Johnson, who is suffering from plantar fasciitis in his left foot. Carlesimo did say he would have started Watson if Johnson couldn't play.
Johnson missed four games late in the regular season with a left heel injury, then tweaked his foot early in Game 2.
"We didn't anticipate this," Carlesimo said before the game. "We thought it was going the other way until the first quarter the other night. We'll just deal with it. They're dealing with things, also."
Noah has been playing with a severe case of plantar fasciitis in his right foot. The Bulls center played 27 minutes and his late free throw was his only point.
NOTES: Reports emerged Thursday that Brooklyn general manager Billy King is on the verge of signing a contract extension. King was hired in July 2010 after the Nets completed a 12-70 season. This year, they finished 49-33. "I hope it's true," coach P.J. Carlesimo said before the game. ... Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau again promised that guard Derrick Rose will play if he feels fully recovered from ACL surgery. Rose suffered the injury on April 28, 2012. "We've said this all along. If he's ready to come back, he's coming back. No matter when it is," Thibodeau said. "If it's a week from now, great. If it's not, that's fine, too." ... Two games into the playoffs, Bulls forward Carlos Boozer led the league in postseason minutes per game at 43.5. ... Before the game, Carlesimo called the United Center one of the toughest places to play in the league. The Nets had lost 10 of their previous 12 in the building.