When the Chicago Bulls hung on to defeat the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday in a thrilling triple overtime classic, the logical assumption had the Bulls following through on their 3-1 lead and topping the Nets in their first round matchup. After all, Chicago’s defense and preparation had made mincemeat out of the Nets at times, with the Nets giving off the image of a team that was “gutless” and “heartless” to those who weren’t paying attention.
Those who were paying attention knew that the Nets won in a walk during Game 1, they had their chances to down the feisty Bulls in Game 2, Brooklyn had an open shot to tie Game 3 at the buzzer in Chicago, and a measly extra point at the end of regulation, overtime numero uno, or the second extra session could have resulted in the Nets tying the series and heading home for a best of three with home court advantage.
Even before Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich went down with a debilitating calf injury, this was a far closer series than most gave it credit for. And now that Hinrich is out for Thursday evening’s Game 6, is it possible that this Nets team should be favored to win the whole thing? Even if it means having to beat the Bulls in Chicago in Game 6 and back home in Brooklyn in Game 7? Even if it means taking three straight from a Bulls team that doesn’t tend to tilt that often?
Possibly. Things tend to go haywire when you lose your starting point guard. Ask the Bulls – they’ve done it twice in 12 months.
There’s a very slim chance that Hinrich could change his mind and still play on Thursday, of course, but the Bulls guard (and Deron Williams stopper) hasn’t practiced with the team since last week, and he hasn’t even attempted to run, jump or cut on his bruised calf entering Thursday. Hinrich did make a point to address reporters on Wednesday, but by all appearances he doesn’t seem like he’s in a place to contribute in uniform in Game 6. From the Chicago Tribune:
"I'm still walking very gingerly," Hinrich said. "I haven't tried to run or cut or jump or anything yet. I'm hoping it improves a lot. ... It's just one of those things where I took a good shot and it's preventing me from moving very well."
"It's brutal," he said. "All year we've kind of been looking forward to this time. This is really the second time I guess I've missed playoff action, and it's never any fun. You never want to end a year like that.
"So just try to do the best I can to get ready, hopefully [Thursday] but if not [Thursday], whenever we play next or whoever we play next and go from there."
Though reserve point guard Nate Robinson defended Deron Williams well at times during Saturday’s Game 4, he had an impossible time denying Williams (who wasn’t even looking to drive against Hinrich, enjoying his best success at pulling up for long jumpers through the first four games) as he penetrated the Bulls’ lane. As a result, both Chicago’s defense and rebounding fell apart; as did the team’s ability to stay grounded as Brooklyn attempted to run.
One possible solution for Chicago would be to go big, and start guard Marco Belinelli in the backcourt with Jimmy Butler. Marco worked as the Bulls backup point guard for long stretches this season with Robinson dashing around off the ball, and even started in the backcourt in a game against Brooklyn earlier this season alongside Nate when Hinrich was forced out of action due to injury.
Putting the active (and taller; though absolutely everyone in this league is taller than Nate Robinson) Butler on Williams (he has defended him well during this series) and pushing Belinelli onto guard Joe Johnson would not only provide Chicago with the defenders it needs, but also allow Robinson (who had 20 points and eight assists in Game 5, but was also nearly fouled out by Williams in the regular season game linked-to above) to do his work off the pine once again.
Wouldn’t that allow Joe Johnson, the former All-Star, to go off? Possibly, he’s proven to be an effective flat-foot scorer in this series. Johnson is making it clear through the press, though, that he’s clearly hobbled by the same set of plantar fasciitis that is making life so rough on Bulls center Joakim Noah. From the New York Post:
“I’m kind of out there on one leg, honestly,” said Johnson, who scored 11 points in Game 5.
“I can’t push the basketball if I get a rebound, and I can’t run pick-and-rolls. I’m basically just a decoy, a spot-up shooter. I can’t really do a whole lot.
“Like I told Deron and Brook [Lopez], I’ll be the bailout guy. If you get in a sticky situation, just try to find me.”
Johnson admitted that if Thursday’s Game 6 were a regular season, he “probably” wouldn’t be suiting up. And while you might scoff at his “decoy” and “bailout” statements, understand that a broken play that leads to Johnson posting up and firing a loping jumper over the top of Belinelli can be an effective tool late in the shot clock.
Still, why waste Jimmy Butler’s defense on the guy?
Chicago doesn’t really do or need bulletin board material – hell, even the star power-obsessed Brooklyn Nets shy away from pretending to be motivated by things outside their locker room – so expecting the Bulls to be sent into a frenzy by talk about the series from the Brooklyn shower stalls is a bit much. This is a Bulls team that is limping from game to game, with two of its more notorious limpers – Luol Deng and Taj Gibson – having to miss practice on Wednesday with colds that were so severe that they couldn’t even make it to perhaps their most important off day of the season. Both are game time decisions on Thursday night. Injury, and illness.
And we’ve gone this far without mentioning the continued excellence of Brook Lopez. It’s true that Lopez has been left open quite a bit by the Bulls offense as they limp around to try and stave off cutters, and that he’s been able to rotate properly on defense against a pretty crummy Bulls offense, but that shouldn’t take away from what Lopez has consistently contributed – 23.6 points per game, eight rebounds, and 3.4 blocks per contest. Lopez needed to rise above and make his mark in a slog of a series, and he’s followed through.
On top of that, the Nets are correct in calling themselves the better team. Which is what they did, brazenly, on Wednesday. From Newsday:
"I think we are. I think all-around, we are a better team than they are one through five," Wallace said after the Nets wrapped up practice Wednesday. "We've got to establish our bigs and kind of dominate from the inside, start inside-out and that's kind of the way our team is built. We go inside-out, and we are able to get in transition and we are able to pick teams apart that way."
You may dislike players like Blatche, and as a Bulls fan it’s an absolute killer to watch Andray’s loping and soft runners put Chicago away in a close game, but the Nets truly are the more talented team. Throw in a Chicago starting lineup’s worth of walking wounded – Noah, Deng, Hinrich, Gibson, Richard Hamilton – and Carlos Boozer’s inability to contribute offensively without a sound pick and roll point guard feeding him the ball, and you have the perfect setting for even a flawed team like Brooklyn to win three in a row to take the series.
To do that, though, they’ll have to take the second. This means topping the Chicago Bulls in points spread out over a 48-minute (or longer) span, something the Nets have failed to do six out of their last nine times despite this clear advantage in talent.
On paper, the Nets have Chicago licked. Paper don’t play, of course. But how many Chicago Bulls are there left to actually play on Thursday night?