Bulls hang on to net a 2-1 lead in series


Apr 26

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We know Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau isn’t exactly Mr. Happy, though he does enjoy the occasional guffaw when someone reverses the pinch post action in the triangle offense.

But it was a very somber Thibodeau late Thursday night in the United Center, grimly breaking down Game 3 of the Bulls/Nets series.

“We had a hard time scoring,” Thibodeau lamented. “They had it their way. We’re going to have to come out a lot tougher in the next one. They came out and jumped on us pretty good. So we had to dig out of that hole. Once we did that, I thought for the most part in the second and third quarters we played well… They kept the pressure us. We’re going to have to bounce back. We have to read and recognize (defending). We have to react to the ball. We have to read the ball better. There’s a lot of things we have to do a lot better.”

Carlos Boozer

So imagine if the Bulls hadn’t won 79-76 to take a 2-1 lead in the series with Game 4 at 1 p.m. CT Saturday in the United Center.

“We did what we had to do to win the game,” said Carlos Boozer, who has been the offensive star of the series with 22 points and 16 rebounds as he’s now averaging 20 points and 12 rebounds in the three games and shooting 57.4 percent.

“Nate (Robinson) made one free throw,” Boozer said in describing the end game sequence when the Bulls survived blowing a 17-point fourth quarter lead including still leading by a dozen with under five minutes left. “Joakim (Noah) made one free throw. It ended up being enough. C.J. (Watson) had a corner shot and Jo hustled his butt out there, contested it and made him miss (tying three attempt with three tenths of a second left). In the playoffs, you’ve got to win in different ways. Nothing is perfect.”

This was perhaps as far from it as you’d get in the NBA with the Nets shooting 34.6 percent, missing in one unbelievable — and that is appropriate for the most overused word in sports commentary — sequence 25 of 26 shots and shooting 22.5 percent in the first half. Here were the Nets with 52 points a few minutes into the fourth quarter on the road, and with seconds left still with a shot at going into overtime.

Can they be that bad again? Even if they tried?

“We missed some open shots and some open threes throughout the whole game that we normally make,” said Deron Williams, who had 18 points but on five of 14 shooting as Brook Lopez again led the Nets, this time with 22 points and nine rebounds.

Luol Deng with 21 points, including 14 consecutive with two to close the first half and the team’s first 12 in the third quarter — “I had a good seven minutes,” joked the new lighthearted Deng working more on routines these days apparently if the Catskills ever come back — supported Boozer along with Kirk Hinrich with 12 points. Deng also had 10 rebounds as the Bulls outrebounded the Nets 48-42. Though behind Lopez, Brooklyn has the edge in inside scoring. No other Bull was in double figures as starters Noah and Jimmy Butler combined for five points on one of 12 shooting.

“For whatever reason we’re just not hitting shots right now,” lamented Williams.

The narrative of Game 3 will be the Bulls suffocating defense, their image as a grimy, grueling, grinding opponent just too tough for those goobers from Brooklyn. I didn’t actually mean that last part, but I was running out of “g” words.

“That’s the style we love to play,” said Deng. “We love ugly games. We want to make it a defensive game.”

“It’s not going to be pretty,” Noah added. “We have to grind it out, tough it out. This is our style. Go out and fight. We’ve dealt with so much this year. It’s not easy, it’s not pretty. But it is rewarding.”

Hinrich did do his imitation of Velco and stuck himself to Williams, though the Bulls again provided big men inside stunting and helping on Williams after he got the Nets off to a 17-5 start in the first six minutes.

“We were low energy to start the game,” Hinrich said. “We were upset the way we started the game and we were able to turn it around. It’s not how you start it’s how you finish.”

The Bulls didn’t do that well, either, failing to score a field goal in the last 5:47 and splitting two free throws each time when both would have effectively ended the game. The Bulls even got a fourth quarter break when an official review changed a Robinson two pointer to a three. They were flying high and someone shoved them out the back door and they were just hanging on like in one of those Die Hard movies, a fly in the ointment, a monkey in the wrench.

Williams, actually, didn’t do his team any favors, either, as he seemed more preoccupied with his poor Game 2 and kept dribbling into Bulls’ helping defense. He had just four assists, though you don’t get many when the team shoots under 35 percent.

Though Noah didn’t have a field goal, he did have eight rebounds and a pair of blocks and gutted out (hey, there was that “g” word!) 27 minutes with his plantar fasciitis.

“It’s frustrating,” said Noah, “especially now to be like this. You want to be able to give it everything this time of year. It is hurting. I’m not jumping as well as I want to. I can’t jump off my right foot. I haven’t played in a long time either, so I just keep working on my game as much I can without irritating it. It’s complicated. But I’m happy we won and now it’s on me to play better. It wasn’t good offense, but that was one of the best defensive games we played all season. I can’t do everything I want, but I want to be out there to help the team.”

Taj Gibson played just 12 minutes, but had the highlight play of the game, an airborne dunk over Kris Humphries early in the second quarter in which Gibson took off near the foul line to finish a heck of a sequence in which he had blocked a Humphries shot.

“My legs have been coming back to me lately,” said Gibson. “It’s been real frustrating wearing that big (knee) brace. But lately in practice I’ve been feeling good, jumping the way I normally jump and feeling real explosive. It’s the playoffs. You have to play real physical. You can’t try to lay the ball up. You have to power it in.”

Which is probably a good all around message as the Nets blocked 11 shots, seven by Lopez as the Bulls were too often trying to finesse the ball in.

But, no, they are not an offensive team. Still, they do add up the points at the end to determine the winner if I have the rule book straight. And if the game plan is another one of 26 defensive stand, well, I suspect that’s why Thibodeau wasn’t celebrating all that much. It’s difficult to imagine the Nets, or anyone above seventh grade, really, playing that badly again and yet still in the game. Sure, the Bulls defensive play was impressive once again.

Hinrich has been all over Williams and Noah despite his bed-of-hot-coals running style was harassing Lopez and recovering to perimeter shooters.

“I thought tonight he just battled,” said Thibodeau. “Things really weren’t going his way (trouble catching the ball, finishing drives and grabbing rebounds), but he kept battling. Even at the end to step up (and make a free throw). He has missed so much time. His timing isn’t quite there yet. Each day it’s getting better and better. It’s encouraging he’s feeling a lot better. The more he does the more he gets in rhythm. We’re asking him to do a lot now. Defend the pick and roll, get back to the rim, defend the rim, alter shots, rebound the ball, run the floor, set screens, pass the ball, play off him, play through him. Whatever he can give us is a plus. He’s willing it. This guy hasn’t practiced since the All-Star break.”

So as we know Thibodeau knows he is getting all can from the Bulls on the defensive end. But he has to get some scoring into the game. The Nets are going to figure this out at some point, and it could be soon with desperation hanging over them.

Butler has struggled to be an offensive threat, averaging seven points and shooting 41 percent. But Thibodeau sees the game first on the defensive end, as do his players. Which is basically why he’s had Butler start as a defensive matchup on Joe Johnson. Johnson had 15 points as he played almost 41 minutes despite concerns he might not play with plantar fasciitis. With both he and Williams playing more than 40 minutes, the quick turnaround for a Saturday afternoon game could be problematic. Of course, so did both Deng and Boozer.

Thibodeau has sat out Richard Hamilton in both games, basically for defensive matchups because Thibodeau prefers to use Robinson on Watson. But Thibodeau might have to give Hamilton a look in Game 4 to jump start a brutally ineffective Bulls offense as Hamilton can get shots. Marco Belinelli had a rough go with one of four and three points. But he is one of the team’s better pick and roll players, which would give another player able to make plays off the pick and roll and give the team an offensive option.

Because Thibodeau and the players suspect what might be coming.

The Nets now will be fighting for their playoff future as they probably don’t win if they fall behind 3-1. The Bulls, by the way, are 13-2 when they lead in series 2-1. Though most of those were with Michael Jordan, who could score more than the entire Bulls starting lineup, which had 60 Thursday.

The future of coach P.J. Carlesimo may depend on this series after he replaced Avery Johnson in December. And perhaps that of several players as the owner talks about titles, which are a long way from first round losses to teams without their best player.

The question is will Carlesimo finally bend and send Gerald Wallace home. Perhaps Reggie Evans as well.

When the Nets made their run back into the game in the fourth quarter, they did so with a three-guard lineup in which they spread the ball around and spread out the Bulls defense and then cut inside.

Kirk Hinrich

“When we get the ball swung to the weak side and we get some movement, we’re fine,” Williams said. “But when we just let them keep us on one side, we’re struggling. We’re struggling to shoot the ball, score the ball, and we’re playing right into what they want to do.”

That’s generally been because they often have non scorers like Wallace, Evans and Humphries on the floor. When they are, the Bulls have been able to play off and help on Williams, especially, forcing him into multiple bad decisions as he holds onto the ball. The Nets have liked to close games with three guards with Williams off the ball at times with Watson at point guard in sort of a three-guard rotation the Pistons used well in their title seasons with Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars and Vinnie Johnson.

Carlesimo even went back to MarShon Brooks, who was the pivotal player late in the one regular season game when the Nets beat the Bulls. He had fallen out of the rotation, though Carlesimo had him back late in Thursday’s game when the Nets almost pulled out a miracle.

After going all season extensively with Wallace and Evans, would the Nets go with the guard lineup, which has become fashionable and successful in other series, to put pressure on a Bulls team that has so much trouble scoring?

“We’ve got to look at tape and be ready for that,” admitted Deng. “They could be going small for more scoring. Brooks played more minutes. We’ll have to be prepared.”

And then does Thibodeau vary from his defensive matchup formats to seek out more offense. He tried in Game 1 after the Bulls fell behind early and it was a disaster when he went small and the Nets overwhelmed the Bulls.

Come, Watson, the game is afoot.

Hey, was Sherlock talking about C.J.?

It was a shocking start for the Bulls welcome home as the Nets came out pushing the ball, which is their goal to not play against the Bulls set defense and putting an aggressive double team on Boozer, whom they’ve identified as the Bulls’ biggest threat.

“I thought Carlos hit some big shots,” said Deng. “He was big for us. Carlos has been playing great. We’ve got to keep going to him (they actually didn’t enough) and giving him looks. The felt like they had momentum, and Carlos would come back every time and answer it.”

Taj Gibson

Yes, hold off the amnesty talk another few games.

“We tried to deny him the ball. We tried to make him go in a certain direction and we contested his shot,” said Carlesimo of defending Boozer. “We haven’t done any of it real well. When he gets hot, he’s making shots. You still have to make the shot. He doesn’t seem to miss an open shot. When he gets an open shot against us, it goes in. He’s a hell of a player. We’ve got to do a better job on him. We have not contained him very well at all. There are things we need to do better defensively, and that is one. We have to do a better job on Boozer.”

But after the Nets got that 17-5 lead thanks to seven Bulls turnovers, the Bulls shut them out the rest of the quarter and took a 19-17 lead after one in a varied attack with Nazr Mohammed again supplying good minutes in relief of Noah.

Gibson had that major slam dunk early in the second as a mismatched Nets second unit fumbled around. Noah had a classic behind the back bounce pass to set Belinelli up for free throws and the Bulls hit the boards for a pair of offensive rebounds to set up Hinrich for a floater as he reached double figures in both wins and has become a vital offensive contributor.

But it was on defense where the Bulls were at their best, even if it wasn’t their best as Noah is slowed and Boozer, not the best help defender, was taking up Gibson’s time because the Bulls needed his scoring. Lopez did get deep position a few times. But the Bulls continued to thwart Williams as a 28-4 run from midway through the first into the second helped the Bulls to a 41-34 halftime lead.

Of course, you’d like to be ahead more with that sort of dominance, and especially with Deng’s shot being the leading actor to open the second half as he smoothly made shots from 20, 17, 16 and 26 feet in a row before a layup for a three-point play and 53-38 lead before the Nets could say, Toto (aka, Deron Williams), we’re not in Brooklyn anymore.

“The Bulls are playing good defense,” agreed Carlesimo. “They are loading up on our guys who are capable of scoring. We are not shooting a three well at all. Not just the contested ones, but the open ones. And we did a poor job finishing in the paint. You can’t win if you are struggling inside like we are struggling inside until the fourth quarter. Most of the stuff inside is because they are playing very good defense. It’s been very difficult for us to finish; we have been struggling inside and we can’t win if you’re not making shots in the paint. We’re down 2-1 in the series, so have to win Saturday and take it back to Brooklyn.”

The Bulls led 65-52 going into the fourth quarter and then 73-56 after a tough Gibson runner with 8:35 left. Boozer added a jumper as the Nets began to finally move the ball with their guard heavy lineup, getting seven of their 15 assists in the fourth quarter, as it appeared Thibodeau failed to hand out the final page of the game plan.

The Bulls ground to a stop while Lopez found room again as the Bulls were trying to catch the shooters. And when Brooks scored with two minutes left, suddenly the Nets were within 77-72 and in plenty of position to steal the game.

Deng missed a three, but the Bulls defense held as Brooks missed a point blank layup. Boozer came out with yet another big defensive rebound as his sure hands were grabbing everything. But now Hinrich missed from in close. Williams chose a quick three with 49.9 seconds left and he missed. But Noah, who had been having all sorts of trouble hanging onto balls and finishing shots, dribbled out of bounds with 30 seconds left. He is working hard, but sometimes he may have to sit when the team needs points. The Nets came out of a timeout and got Lopez running down the lane to dunk to get within 77-74 with 14.4 seconds left.

The Bulls put Robinson in. He was fouled and made one of two. Williams then went strong and scored to bring Brooklyn within 78-76 with five seconds left. Deng couldn’t find anyone on the inbounds and had to go to Noah, who coaxed the second one in for a 79-76 Bulls lead. The Nets did have a chance.

And they got a good shot as they swung the ball around the perimeter to Watson in the right corner. Noah came flying out and Watson’s three missed everything, leaving time to breathe if only for a few more hours until Saturday afternoon.

“We have faced adversity all season without D Rose,” said Boozer. “Different guys out with different injuries and all the other injuries. We have been able to stay afloat, get to the fifth seed, which is an accomplishment in itself. Now we’re in the playoffs. No need to look back. We’ve got to look forward. We are looking forward. We still have a lot to do.”

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