CHICAGO – Don’t be so quick to discredit these Brooklyn Nets. The Chicago Bulls may be literally limping into the arena each night and losing their lunch on the bench midgame, but the Nets have made all the right moves on their way toward a 3-3 series tie in this ever-evolving first round series. Once again, the Nets needed every single miniscule advantage to win two straight and tie the series, as the team earned a chance at a Game 7 by taking down the Bulls by a 95-92 score, sneaking out of Chicago by the hair of its chinny-chin-chin.
It’s true that Chicago cannot seem to catch a break, the team was already working through injuries to center Joakim Noah and star guard Derrick Rose before Game 5 on Tuesday when word leaked out that guard Kirk Hinrich could be out for the entire series with a badly bruised calf. Following that loss, both Luol Deng and Taj Gibson missed Wednesday’s Bulls practice with a nasty case of the flu, and though Gibson gutted out nearly 18 minutes of play before fouling out, Deng could not bring himself to suit up. Worse for all involved, Nate Robinson was seen getting sick on the Bulls bench during the game.
The Nets took advantage. The team roared out of the gate early behind opportunistic scoring from Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson, as both teams put together an uncharacteristically offense-heavy first half. The various Chicago lineup shifts forced the Bulls to start Marco Belinelli in the backcourt as Jimmy Butler moved up front, and while Butler’s defense was active as usual, the Chicago team defense featured a series of lanes and angles defensively that just haven’t been typical of a Bulls team that at times ranks as one of the league’s toughest teams to score on.
The shape of things righted itself in the third quarter as the Nets shot just 4-19, as Chicago managed to close gaps in their interior. The problem for Chicago was a familiar one, though, as the Bulls missed 16 of 22 shots themselves in spite of what was some lacking Brooklyn defense. Despite coming through with a fantastic defensive upgrade, the Bulls only lopped two points off of Brooklyn’s halftime lead.
That was the story of the night for Chicago, as they were able to take advantage of several Brooklyn breakdowns and find themselves with good looks either at the rim or in the corner for that desirable 22-foot three-pointer. Belinelli missed six of nine treys on the evening, though, including several good open looks. And though Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah were able to work their way to 13 offensive rebounds, the two missed a series of chippies, and 17 of 31 shots overall.
For Noah, the problem was obvious. He prefers to both drive and finish with his left hand, and he continues to struggle in pushing off of his injured right foot (the right foot being “the right foot” for shooting left-handed). For Boozer? He’d like that game back. After taking just eight shots in Chicago’s Game 5 loss in Brooklyn, Boozer was made to be the focus of the team’s offense for long stretches, but he turned the ball over four times (and lost another loose ball to a jump ball clutch), shooting 7-15 and damning the Bulls on a night that ended as a one-possession game.
Brooklyn doesn’t want to hear any excuses, though.
Nets interim coach P.J. Carlesimo went out of his way following the game to credit what has turned into a remarkable series, and though you may balk at his classification of this at times ugly back and forth as “special,” or his reference to Gerald Wallace’s “monster game” of 15 points and three rebounds and 5-12 shooting, his Nets should not be sloughed off merely because they’ve managed to pull two wins against a hurting Bulls squad.
His adjustments have been key, as the Nets made a point to limit Bulls guard Nate Robinson’s options on his pell-mell drives to the basket, and Carlesimo’s resurrection of Wallace’s offensive game (finding him post-up opportunities, bringing him up top to the elbow instead of stashing Gerald in the corner) has to be credited. And Carlesimo has come a long way since last Thursday’s stuffy Game 3 loss to Chicago, as the interim coach has done well to trust small lineups featuring C.J. Watson and Andray Blatche (who again topped the Bulls with late game scoring off of broken plays, scoring five points in the game’s final 75 seconds) down the stretch.
Brooklyn was right there for both close Game 2 and 3 losses, and obviously the team could have taken down Chicago several times during Saturday’s triple overtime Game 4. The teams truly have played each other to a hilt, making Saturday’s upcoming Game 7 wholly appropriate.
And, weirdly, probably wholly entertaining. The Nets and Bulls began their series as afterthoughts in a league that was looking elsewhere. Between the injuries, the intrigue, the classic contests and the close battles, this has turned into something truly … hell, let’s agree with P.J. Carlesimo. It’s become “special.”
It turns out P.J. was right about a whole lot of stuff on Thursday night. Not bad, for an interim boss.