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CHICAGO — The matchup between the Indiana Pacers and Atlanta Hawks was supposed to be this postseason’s infamous “NBA TV Series,” a combination of somewhat anonymous teams playing very ugly games to an audience that would rather watch more high-profile series on other cable stations. Instead, despite a pairing of teams from two of North America’s bigger television markets, the Chicago Bulls-Brooklyn Nets first-round series has supplanted the Pacers and Hawks’ rather enjoyable and relatively high-scoring series.
Coming off of a 79-76 win that put his Bulls up 2-1 over the Nets, it’s probably fair to assume that Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau prefers it this way. Away from the prying eyes, he’s put together 96 minutes of killer Bulls basketball and lineups for his players to perk their ears toward over Game 2 and Game 3, and despite Brooklyn’s veteran pedigree, the Nets just don’t seem to have any answers thus far.
Once again, Bulls forward Carlos Boozer led the way with a solid 22-point performance in the win, nailing nine of 15 shots while anchoring (yes, this is the same Carlos Boozer) Chicago’s defense with a series of needed defensive rebounds. Boozer managed 15 of those, and 16 overall as Chicago held Brooklyn to 35 percent shooting. Luol Deng helped spearhead a quick Bulls start to begin the second half, scoring 12 of his 21 points in a four-minute stretch at the outset of the third quarter, as Chicago managed to cling to the lead in spite of a late Brooklyn comeback.
That comeback seemed to frustrate P.J. Carlesimo more than it encouraged the Nets' interim coach, but that may just have been the weariness of a rough and tumble defensive battle settling in after Game 2. Whatever the influence, he lamented the team’s inconsistency — and for good reason. Brooklyn started Game 3 on a 17-5 run before Chicago came back to put together a 14-0 run to end the quarter and take over a lead they’d never relinquish. The Bulls led by as many as 17 points in the third quarter, an impressive mark in a contest that saw neither team top 40 percent shooting on the night.
Carlesimo seemed to expect as much, crediting Chicago for its typically aggressive strong-side defense, and for the distressing shooting numbers from both sides.
“At times,” he smartly admitted following the contest, referring to the two combatants, “the two of us are pretty offensively challenged.”
Carlesimo went on to express frustration at the team’s seven offensive rebounds, a surprisingly low number considering the combined 55 field goals and free throws the Nets missed on the evening. Heading into Game 4, P.J. is hoping his Nets can take advantage of that offensive glass, “if Chicago loads up” on Brooklyn’s strong side.
They will load up, you know. These are the Chicago Bulls we’re talking about.
They will also give the Nets a chance to win the home court back during Game 4 on Saturday, mainly because Chicago just cannot consistently shoot straight.
The Bulls went the final half of the fourth quarter without hitting a field goal, relying only on a pair of free- throw makes from Nate Robinson and Joakim Noah (on intentional fouls, no less) to buttress the final score and pull out the win. Brooklyn’s defense did improve during that stretch, to a point. By and large, though, the Bulls were just caught in their own typical web of mitigating offensive factors, exacerbated by Noah’s presence for the final six minutes — the Bulls center turned the ball over twice, did not attempt a field goal, and was incapable of initiating the Bulls offense as he did so routinely for the first part of his All-Star season.
To Carlesimo’s credit, he once again went with an offense-first lineup down the stretch when it became apparent the jumpers just were not falling for his typical rotation. Subbing Gerald Wallace and Reggie Evans out for combos that at times included MarShon Brooks, Andray Blatche, and C.J. Watson put pressure on a Bulls defense that to that point had ably handled the Nets’ lacking offensive spacing over the first three quarters. Brooks and Blatche were no great shakes — they combined to shoot just 1-5 in the fourth quarter — but their penetration allowed for broken plays and extra passes that gave Nets bigs Brook Lopez and Kris Humphries 14 fourth-quarter points.
Again, relatively small numbers. But once again, these are the Nets and Bulls we’re talking about.
Chicago pulled this out because, somehow (read: coach Tom Thibodeau) the Bulls remains undeterred despite the major roadblocks that always seem to show up on their drive home. A 17-5 disadvantage may not seem like a lot to a more capable offensive unit, but to a team like Chicago (one that scored just two points during the final six minutes of the contest), making up 12 points is quite the task. And yet, despite Noah's return to ineffectiveness and Derrick Rose’s continued presence in street clothes, Chicago acted like it was no big deal.
The Nets were together to be a big deal. To ride the superstar touch of Deron Williams, the reliable scoring and playmaking work of Joe Johnson, and the abilities of several well-heeled role players alongside the NBA’s top scoring center.
Instead, Williams has missed 17 of his last 23 shots while mostly working against Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich. Johnson gutted through a plantar fasciitis injury of his own, but he still needed 14 shots to score his 15 points. Lopez turned in another stellar performance, contributing 22 points and nine rebounds with a season-high seven blocks, but Wallace has made just three of his last 15 shots, and former Bull Watson turned in a rough night as he missed seven of eight mostly contested looks.
Brooklyn still has enough to eke out an ugly win in Chicago on Saturday. The Bulls just can’t be trusted offensively in spite of the chance for a turnaround from Noah, and Boozer’s continued impressive shot-making. Another game of holding Chicago to sub-40 percent shooting, combined with a few more caroms and 3-pointers gone their way, and Brooklyn could be heading home to a best-of-three series with two to play in New York.
This is no small feat. Brooklyn is going to have to match Chicago’s intensity, and learn to win a Tom Thibodeau-styled ballgame. As the crowd filed out on Wednesday night, there was still no word on if coach Thibs was interested in sharing any of his formidable secrets.