Bulls can’t close out Nets and head for Game 7


May 3

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A tough Bulls team suffered a tough 95-92 loss Thursday to send the Bulls and Nets to Brooklyn Saturday for a Game 7 in their first round playoff series. So if it’s about toughness, perhaps the Bulls have the advantage even on the road.

“Our confidence is going up,” insisted Jimmy Butler, who played 48 minutes for the ill Luol Deng. “They know they’ve got to win Game 7. We know we’ve got to win Game 7. It’s going to be a fight. The tougher team is going to get the win.”

Perhaps that’s the best thing the Bulls have going for them as they are on the verge of blowing a 3-1 lead in this playoff series, marching on like the revolutionary figures in the famous Spirit of ’76 painting, wounded and in ill health but showing spirit and determination.

Joakim Noah

“I’m ready to play right now,” said a frisky Joakim Noah afterward when asked about his plantar fasciitis. “We’re a team of fighters. We keep getting punched in the face but we fight back. I’m proud of this team. We’re going to go into a hostile environment in Brooklyn and we’re going to win.

“It’s going to take all of us sticking together through all kinds of adversity,” said Noah, who had 14 points, 15 rebounds and five blocks, the only Bulls player other than Artis Gilmore to produce those numbers in a playoff game according to Elias Sports. “This has been a hard year, a really hard year. But I’m really proud of this team. We’re a team of fighters. Tonight was disappointing. We wanted to close it out and get ready for the next series. We are playing a very talented group we think are very capable. But I’m ready. I want to play right now.”

Soon enough at 7 p.m. Chicago time Saturday.

“It’s hard because I know how hard we fought to get in position (down two with 2:19 left) and just couldn’t get over the hump,” added Noah, “You think of so many plays in a game where if you could just have it back. But it’s about moving forward, not looking back. We can’t have this one back. We’ve got to move on and get ready for Game 7 on the road. I’m just ready to kick some (butt).”

If we know anything about this Bulls team, it’s that they’ll give it all they have no matter the odds. There have been 112 Game 7’s in NBA playoff history with about 80 percent won by the home team. Eight teams ever have come back from trailing 3-1 in a series to win.

In franchise history, the Bulls have played nine Game 7’s in the playoffs. They have lost all six of those they played on the road, the last the 2009 first round game in Boston after the famous Game 6 triple overtime win. In this series against the Nets, the Bulls won Game 4 in triple overtime.

“It’s going to be whose will takes over the game,” said Carlos Boozer, who had 14 points and 13 rebounds after fouling out in just under 33 minutes. “Our will versus their will. Whatever it takes to win.”

That’s the spirit of a Game 7, but it’s a Bulls team marching in looking like that Continental Army, tattered, injured, afflicted and infirm.

In the 10 games between the teams this season, the Nets have had the same starting lineup in every one. The Bulls have used seven different.

Deng sat out Thursday with an infection the team believed could have been meningitis, according to CSN Chicago. Noah battled through his plantar fasciitis for more than 43 minutes. Tag Gibson fouled out in just under 18 minutes playing with the flu, a towel wrapped over his head in timeouts and afterward in the locker room. Kirk Hinrich continued to limp around with his strained calf and Derrick Rose remained out.

Nate Robinson

“It seems almost every time we play them it’s a different roster,” said Nets coach P.J. Carlesimo.

Nate Robinson also had the flu, though he played just under 42 minutes, scored 18 points and had some unconventional issues as he sat on the bench in timeouts vomiting into a bucket.

“A couple of times I felt like throwing up during the game, but you really can’t call timeout for that,” explained Robinson in drawing a word picture you’d prefer to avoid. “So you play through it and wait for the timeout to come. It’s going to be a hostile environment to get a win. The more hungry team is going to win it and that’s going to be us.”

Though I prefer not think about hunger now.

“A couple of times I had to throw up during the game,” continued Robinson, “but I didn’t know if they’d call a foul on me if I threw up on Deron. I’ll have to check the rulebook on that one. My stomach hurts a little bit, but you have to play through it. Got to play whether sick or not. We all play our (butts) off and have the team to do that.”

The Bulls may be down to their final chance for the 2012-13 season, an unusual and frustrating season that likely exceeded expectations given Rose’s season long recuperation and the drama and controversy surrounding that, and then injuries that kept Noah, Hinrich and Gibson out a combined 55 games. But the Bulls patched together lineups once again all season, much like last year, and walked to the edge of the second round of the playoffs last week with that fabulous Robinson performance and triple overtime win. But the Nets recovered to win at home and then with Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez scoring 17 points each led pretty much all game and then withstood the Bulls with multiple shots to tie or go ahead in the last two minutes and never quite get there.

In the last 2:19, the Bulls were within three points for all but nine seconds.

“Every time we got close we made some mistake on defense; offense, too,” said Marco Bellineli, who started at shooting guard and led the Bulls with 22 points and seven assists, including a three pointer with 2:19 left to get the Bulls within 90-88.

The Bulls would get two more chances to tie the game, and miss both. They seemed to be straining all game for that one chance to get a tie or lead late and get the crowd to push them home and it never would come.

The Bulls had last led in the first quarter at 25-23, though they never let the Nets get too far out of sight. There were 15 lead changes and five ties in a close, high scoring first quarter in which Belinelli’s scoring and playmaking was giving the Bulls a rare offensive boost as Belinelli scored or assisted on half the Bulls 54 first half points.

But it was a bit too much of a shootout for the Bulls with the Nets pushing the ball into their sort of game and a 60-54 halftime lead. The Bulls gained a measure of defensive control after halftime highlighted by a Boozer dunk-and-scream action on offense, Noah finding Butler for a slam dunk late in a shot clock as the Bulls were moving the ball better and then Belinelli with a three off a Robinson penetration and pass.

Marco Belinelli

And though the Nets led by 10 just before halftime, the Bulls reined them in getting within 70-69 late in the third quarter and then failing to score on three straight possessions as the Nets also were shut out.

“Frustrating,” said Gibson. “Every time we were right there, there might be a call not going our way or a ball not rolling your way, but you have to keep playing. So we have to regroup.”

The Bulls trailed 75-71 going into the fourth quarter, and the Nets, though the game had the feel of their dominance, were really ready to be taken. They opened the fourth missing four of their first five shots, both free throws and committed a pair of turnovers. The Bulls defense after a rough first half (60 points and 55.8 percent Nets shooting) recovered behind Butler and Noah while still feeling the absence of their two top perimeter defenders, Hinrich and Deng.

And though the Bulls tightened up on the Nets with Noah all over the boards and blocking shots and Butler back to help rebound with seven along with six assists, the Bulls offense went awry again depending too much on perimeter jumpers and ignoring Boozer inside. It would prove a problem again with Robinson uncertain as a distributing point guard, though Belinelli’s presence helped some. The Bulls too often became impatient like in Game 5 and took the quick shot, missing their first nine shots of the fourth quarter before Boozer tipped in his own miss, retrieving his own shots proving his best method of scoring.

But against all odds as we have seen many times this season, this group of Bulls players no matter whom coach Tom Thibodeau goes to—and they certainly seem to believe they have enough to win whomever plays—doesn’t seem out of any game.

“There is not a team in the league that plays harder than them,” said Carlesimo. “We could have made it easier on ourselves and given us more of a cushion if we made some layups and free throws late in the game. (But) things are looking a lot better for us than they did when we were leaving here last Saturday. We have a lot of heart. We are a very resilient team. That is also true for the Bulls. It’s been a pretty good series when you can get it to a seventh game. It is fortunate for us that our guys have earned home court. There is no guarantee, but I would rather be there.”

After the Nets took an 83-75 lead with just over eight minutes left, Butler hit a jumper and Robinson did a street ball crossover—probably a double dribble and carry in there somewhere it was so fast—for a layup by Kris Humphries on a switch. And the Bulls were right back in trailing 83-79. They were matching the Nets now score for score and when Belinelli made that three off an inbounds pass, perhaps the Bulls were just two minutes after all this from Miami and the conference semifinals.

They got that defensive stop forcing Lopez into a long jumper. But Robinson forced a drive that missed and Andray Blatche with the clock shot running down and stuck with the ball made an unlikely banker for a 92-88 lead with 1:15 left.

Robinson went right back with a quick 20 footer, and Noah this time got Blatche hesitating and finally going up for the block and defensive stop with 41.9 seconds left. But Robinson now taking pretty much every shot threw up a wild one on a drive with 32 seconds left as Boozer fouled out on the miss.

“We tried,” said Robinson, “did everything we could. The ball didn’t bounce our way a couple of times. A couple of good looks at the basket. But that’s part of the game.

The Nets got free throws leading 92-90 with 32 seconds left and Blatche made one of two. The Bulls called timeout and went with Nazr Mohammed, who surprisingly played just over two minutes. Mohammed had a big play as he made a layup on a sharp interior pass from Noah to bring the Bulls within 93-92 with 25.2 seconds left.

The Nets got the ball into Williams, who was trapped and quickly called a timeout as he tension and enthusiasm in the United Center rose exponentially. C.J. Watson threw into the backcourt to Blatche with 19.2 seconds left and Robinson fouled him, Blatche made both for a 95-92 lead.

So the Bulls still had a shot. Robinson took a handoff from Noah after the inbound, but Robinson stumbled. Noah got the ball and the Nets knocked his pass inside out of bounds. It was now 10.3 seconds left throwing it in. Robinson got it in to Belinelli, who got a pretty good look at a three with Lopez closing. It missed long.

“I could have made that shot,” said Belinelli, who added the Nets did close fast.

Noah, playing the game in a fury, tracked the ball down in front of the Nets bench. But he stepped out of bounds grabbing it with 6.3 seconds left. The Bulls, though, still weren’t done. The Nets inbounded to Williams and Noah tied him up in a play the Bulls use and which was successful earlier this season against Boston and led to a win. They jumped with 3.6 seconds left. But Noah couldn’t seem where to tip the ball after looking around several times. He got it over Williams, but Johnson got the tip and ran out the clock.

“It shows how tough our guys are,” said Robinson. “Take our hats off to our team. Had the injury bug, guys sick, but at the same time we have to find a way to win. We came up a little short this time. We live for situations like this. Come out victorious and it’s going to be a great story.”

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