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Bulls caught in a Brooklyn net of frustration
by Sam Smith
Posted on Apr 30
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This was the kind of game in Brooklyn Monday for the Bulls you almost wanted to skip, let the other guys take the win and go back home after the stunning Saturday victory and perhaps a bit healthier and more rested and end it in Game 6 Thursday.
After all, it’s about winning the series. But it’s also about playing the game, competing and not showing weakness or doubt. The Bulls went out and did all they could, battling the desperate Nets within a point four minutes into the fourth quarter. But there just wasn’t enough left or enough there, and in the end the Bulls go home Thursday, anyway, now ahead 3-2 in the first round series after a 110-91 loss and perhaps with their own sort of backs to the wall game.
“Home court is not going to win it for us,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “We’re going to have to play well. It’s good to be home; we have great support there. But we’ve got to put the work into the game to give our fans something to cheer about. We have to get things corrected.
“Right from the start of the game, I knew they were reacting to the ball quicker than we were,” said Thibodeau. “So I was concerned about that right from the beginning and it never changed. We worked our way back and put ourselves in position. But if you defend fairly well and then you give a team a second and a third crack at it, it’s hard to win like that.”
It was as easy a game as any to figure out. No excuses, we know. But the numbers alone show a weary, injured, fatigue-distracted Bulls team. Despite being one of the league’s best rebounding teams, the Bulls were outrebounded 44-34 and crushed on the offensive boards, giving up 17. The Nets’ 24 second chance points were a season most for an opponent. So much for playoff intensity. The Nets also had 54 points in the paint, duplicating the inside edge they had in their Game 1 blowout win. The Bulls barely made the finish line, trailing 85-84 with 8:16 left and then getting their last field goal with 4:15 left and being outscored 15-1 to end the game.
It suggested a team out on its feet. And why not given the triple overtime win Saturday, Kirk Hinrich having to sit out with a calf injury that makes his participation Thursday problematic and Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson, the team’s most physical rebounders, playing through their own injuries and combining for a total of five rebounds.
That was half the total of noted weak rebounder Brook Lopez, who led the Nets with 28 points and 10 rebounds, six offensive. Deron Williams added 23 points and 10 assists while Andray Blatche was big off the bench with 10 of his 13 points in the fourth quarter. Nate Robinson, making his first career playoff start for the injured Kirk Hinrich, led the Bulls with 20 points and eight assists.
Nets coach P.J. Carlesimo also did a nice job pacing his starters as none played more than 39 minutes. He had Williams out early in the first quarter and then back late in the fourth for the finishing kick when the Bulls starters were breathing heavily.
“They were getting more loose balls,” said Jimmy Butler, who had a strong effort with 18 points with three of four threes and four steals. “It was the rebounding. They got wherever they wanted to on the floor. I feel we weren’t pressuring them enough. We should have from the very beginning. Rebounding, loose balls, hustle. When we get back to the grinding teams we are we’ll be OK.”
But can the Bulls as they now face their pressure game? Lose and go back to Brooklyn on one days’ rest to try to win a seventh game on the road to avoid the ignominy of blowing a 3-1 playoff series lead.
“I thought it was a winnable game, except for the last couple of minutes at the very end,” said Carlos Boozer, who had 10 points and 10 rebounds, but just eight shots despite leading the team in scoring in the series. “There is always pressure. But we love that. That’s why we’re athletes and compete.
“I think going home will be good for us,” added Boozer. “Obviously, we wanted to close it out. But we didn’t. You look ahead; you can’t keep looking backwards. We look ahead to the next game. We’re very confident. We’re the kind of team, we get hit, we hit back again. We’re one of those teams that always bounces back. We’re looking forward to the next one. We’ll be ready for Game 6.”
And two off days until then should help some. Though this one figured to be somewhat predictable with Hinrich out and the big men laboring with injuries and the extended game against the healthy and desperate Nets. Thibodeau did go deeper into his bench giving Marquis Teague a look and more extensively with Marco Belinelli. Though Luol Deng, Boozer and Robinson all went over 40 minutes again. Still, the ethic in the playoffs is you don’t show fear and you don’t let them believe they can beat you. You make them do it.
The Nets earned this one with more effort and hustle, the Bulls’ usual formula. The Bulls didn’t drive anyone off the ball, didn’t push the big men outside for tougher shots or catches. Didn’t get up and over screens, labored to get to the three point shooters as the Nets made four of seven after halftime.
It’s always next up. But it still was asking a lot of Robinson after his stupendous performance in Game 4 that had the pregame TV cameras all focused on him as the players dressed. Nate was the star.
I did wonder a bit as he took Hinrich’s place defending Williams. Thibodeau finished Game 4 with Robinson on Gerald Wallace, a lesser scorer though Wallace made two big late fourth quarter plays to help seal the win, while Butler was on Williams and Deng on Joe Johnson. But Thibodeau Monday went mostly with Robinson against Williams. And enjoying more freedom, Williams scored 19 of his 23 points against Robinson. He had shot 33 percent in the series when defended by Hinrich, according to ESPN stats.
“You know Kirk is a good defender. You know he is tough. He fouls, he gets into you,” said Williams trying to be diplomatic. “You know he does what he is suppose to do. He tries to get (over) your screen. It is definitely a different look between Nate and Kirk.”
No one is blaming Robinson as the Bulls might be about out of this series now without him. But it’s tough to replace Hinrich and even Robinson acknowledges that.
“Coming in down Kirkie is tough,” said Robinson. “Kirk is the captain. That’s like Tom Brady going down and someone having to fill in for him. It’s tough.”
Robinson had his moments, like a beautiful crossover for a three point play against Williams early in the second quarter and playing wide receiver hauling in a full court football pass from Butler for a layup as the Bulls fought back from a 63-53 deficit midway through the third quarter. But it seemed even the seemingly indestructible Robinson wore down late with a quick pull up three that went awry with 2:39 left and the Bulls down 98-91, and then after a Wallace three laying off a lazy pass that Wallace stole and went in for the clinching slam dunk as Robinson never moved to catch him and just stood in the front court.
“We feel like we’re the better team,” said Wallace. “We’ve just got to play a 48-minute game completely and stay in attack mode. Right now, it’s win or go home. Like the coaches say, we’re in an NCAA tournament right now. So every game counts, every possession counts. We just have to come out and keep playing hard. I don’t think any of the guys are ready to go home yet. I think we put the pressure on them now. I think they were expecting to go back to Chicago (winners). I think they feel more comfortable playing in Chicago. We just have to go in, play our 48-minute game and steal one in Chicago.”
Again, not to single out Robinson as Deng continued a shooting slump with three misses from three-point range and is one of 18 shooting on threes in the series. And Gibson has just 10 rebounds in more than 70 minutes.
But the Nets came out attacking Robinson, which leaves the defense unbalanced. The big men in still a very good help defensive team have to step up to stop the ballhandler, which left Nets’ interior players free on the back line for rebounds and put backs, even Lopez with huge dunks against the scrambling Noah.
“We were just trying to keep pressure on their point guard and make their bigs make their
decisions,” confirmed Joe Johnson with 11 points. “I thought we were were successful doing just that.”
And then on offense, though Thibodeau put the ball in Belinelli’s hands some, Boozer tends to get left out of the offense. It was almost six minutes into the game before he even touched the ball for the first time, and he had two shots the entire second half, making them both.
There’s no question the Nets are paying attention to him, particularly Reggie Evans, their robo rebounder with a dozen. Evans generally fronts Boozer to start the possession, which without Hinrich’s patience generally sends the Bulls into a pick and roll across court and perimeter shot. The Bulls without Hinrich won’t work the ball back into the post very well, and don’t even make the first post past that well. So Boozer, who still is working and led the team in offensive rebounds Monday and made some terrific interior passes for scores to Noah, finds himself on the outside of the offense despite his success in this series.
It’s another edge for the Nets, who try to get into a perimeter shooting game with the Bulls that they believe they always will win.
“I’m disappointed because of the way we played. We lost by a lot. When we win, we win together and when we lose, we lose together,” said Thibodeau, who is loath to single out individuals players for criticism. “There were some parts when he played extremely well, but we all have to do better.”
“We have to gang rebound,” said Thibodeau. “It’s not always going to fall on Jo or Taj. Our smalls have to get in there and come out with some rebounds. Collectively, as a team, we have to do a lot better. Allowing a team to score 110 points and shoot a high (50) percentage is not going to get it done. The rebounding component is critical. You have to hit and you have to fight.”
We’ll see Thursday how much of that is left in them. In Game 7’s in NBA history, the home team has won about 80 percent.
The Nets got things going their way early as the Bulls launched 10 shots before Boozer got one despite averaging more than 20 points in the series. It’s a tenet Thibodeau talks about often and emphasizes, to play inside/out, make sure the ball touches the paint to draw the defense and produce better shots. After all, a coach doesn’t make shots. A coach’s job on offense is to get players the best, most open shots. And then it’s on them.
But the Bulls were firing early from the perimeter, something like running to a fast defeat. They fell behind 15-8 when Thibodeau went to the lately little used Belinelli, who handles the ball well for a shooting guard and he fanned out a nice pass to Robinson off the ball for a three to bring the Bulls within 17-15. Thibodeau even gave rookie Marquis Teague a look, and he followed with a fancy crossover drive for a score and 17-17 tie with about two minutes left in the first quarter.
But Lopez would continue to prove frustrating for the Bulls as Nazr Mohammed and Gibson struggled early in late coverage and Lopez scored seven points in the last two minutes to give the Nets a 26-21 lead after one.
“They played a good game, rebounded. Got to give them their credit,” said Mohammed who had six points and four rebounds in just 12 minutes. “Brook shot well; Andray with 13 and five gave them a boost. Hump (Kris Humphries) with like eight and six in 16 minutes. They gave their team what they needed.
“But we’re OK,” said Mohammed. “You (media) guys think there’s pressure. The average fan thinks there’s more pressure in closeout games. The pressure is on you to close out up 3-1. We have as a goal to accomplish something. So you have to be focused and ready to take the game and not expect them to give it to you because they want it, too. We’ve got to do a better job blocking out. That should give us something to focus on.
“We were right there,” said Mohammed. “We usually win when we are in position. We find a way to gut it out. They needed a win tonight and got it. Now we go home where our fans are amazing and we need to win one.”
The Nets continued to pound the Bulls inside even with relative strangers like Humphries, who had eight second quarter points and four rebounds, outscoring every Bulls who played in the quarter. Deng took a turn on Williams early in the second as C.J. Watson came in and Robinson moved onto him. But the perimeter defense remained soft, though moreso as the Bulls also were missing taking advantage of the mismatches as Deng was defended several times by the much smaller MarShon Brooks and never got passes, or did too late once a big came to help. It’s those delays of a few seconds when you don’t see a mismatch or don’t realize they’ve switched on the pick and roll when you miss a chance for an easy score. And the Bulls were missing plenty this time.
“We’ve got to search (Boozer) out,” said Thibodeau. “Sometimes the game tells you where it’s going, too. If they’re giving help to him, we want to play inside/out.”
The Nets moved out to a 50-40 lead and closed the half leading 52-44 as Wallace got open for a three as the help went inside instead, the Bulls defense unusually off balance. It will not be a happy film session.
“They were more physical than us,” said Noah. “It was a disappointing loss. I think we’ll respond very well. Just a lot of mental mistakes. Overall, I think we can play better. They hit a lot of shots. We’re disappointed the way we played tonight. But it is no time to get down. Go home and get ready for Game 6. We let frustration get to us a little bit. We’ve got to move on.”
The Bulls began to edge back in the third quarter on a tough three from Butler, who had eight in the quarter, and a burst from Noah with seven as Butler also went hard to the basket. Mohammed had a late putback and Deng a one-on-one move for a score to get the Bulls within 77-73 entering the fourth quarter.
But it would be fool’s gold in a sense, a tease as Butler opened the fourth with another three and Robinson with a drive to get within 79-78. Then Belinelli made a pair of jumpers as the Bulls kept nipping at the Nets, within 85-84 with 8:16 left.
“They played excellent, they played hard,” said Robinson. “You can tell they didn’t want to go home. Some days everything is not going to be perfect. They outrebounded us and that was the key to the game, a lot of points in the paint. We’ve got to bounce back. We’ve got to continue to play Chicago basketball, which is tough and nasty and together and we’ll be all right.”
It wasn’t this time as Johnson and Blatche made isolation plays to put the Nets ahead 93-86 with 5:24 left after Belinelli was called for a flagrant foul on a Blatche fast break leak out. Thibodeau seemed befuddled by the call and said again he’d need an explanation.
“It’s like now in the NBA you can’t do hard fouls,” lamented Robinson. “To me, I feel like they are taking away the game. You cannot touch people. At the same time, you’ve got to play through it. We bounced back, but they made shots. They outhustled us to the 50/50 balls. We’ve got to get better.”
The Bulls would have one more brief threat with a Robinson jumper to bring the Bulls within 95-90 with 4:15 remaining. But with Noah helping out again, Lopez snuck in for a dunk and three point play. And then Wallace added that three and steal and fast break to pretty much end it a few minutes later as the Bulls staggered to the finish instead of providing another drama.
“It never crossed my mind that we would have a mishap like we had in the previous game,” said Johnson. “As you could see, we really took the shot clock down each time to about five or six seconds and tried to get the best shot available. I think Brook and D-Will really carried us down the stretch.”
The Bulls still lead the series 3-2, but they also know which game they need to win to remain active.
“There were some parts when he played extremely well,” said Thibodeau. “But we all have
to do better.”