Bulls heading for ultimate Game 7 in Brooklyn


May 3

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It may not be the best of times for the Bulls Saturday in Brooklyn, but Game 7’s are the best of times in sport. No more time to improve, no backs to the wall or it being a long season or another game. You can get rid of the worst of times quickly.

It reflects the best—or perhaps worst—in sports and character, of what the games are about. How do you perform at the most crucial time? Sport is one of the few places where we get to measure that in full view without explanation or excuse. You can perform and then we know how you did immediately since they keep score.

The Bulls, having surrendered a 3-1 lead in this first round series with the Nets, face the end of their season on the road and in much dismay.

Their winter of despair has yet to find its spring of hope.

Kirk Hinrich, who has been out the last two games with a calf injury, seems unlikely to play. Luol Deng went back to the emergency room as his virus apparently worsened. He didn’t travel with the team to Brooklyn Friday, but he may come on his own. You’d think he is questionable or doubtful as well.

Deng, by the way despite his weakened and sickened condition, had to resort to his Twitter account Friday to address scurrilous charges he, too, just doesn’t want to play. Which is shocking given he’s been playing all season with a torn ligament in his left wrist and his pain only is exceeded by having read the cruel accusations hurled at players these days by spectators.

Deng so prides himself on playing that he felt compelled to Tweet responses like this:

“It really upsets me that everyone thinks I would miss a game bc of the flu. I’ve played a lot of games w the flu in my career.”

“On Wed I was taken to the ER and my symptoms indicated I may have meningitis.”

“Now I’m back in the ER where I may have to spend the night… I want my teammates and Bulls fans to know I would NEVER miss a game bc of flu.”

“If I’m medically cleared I will fly to NY to be with my team and try to win game 7.”

How pathetic is this deplorable and irresponsible social media era that players end up responding to such slanders? I can only imagine the hateful comments in his account. He’s a guy going to the emergency room being bombarded with hate mail for doing so.

Joakim Noah

“I think we’re ready,” said Noah of Game 7. “It’s going to be exciting. Let’s get it done.”

Derrick Rose remains out, and he apparently isn’t on Twitter, so good for him given the commentary aimed at him for having had knee surgery. Joakim Noah seems to be doing better with his plantar fasciitis, though given how badly he wants to win this series back in his home city he’d probably never tell anyone. Taj Gibson’s production has declined with his knee injury and Nate Robinson probably will bring his vomit bucket just in case.

Though anyone would be mistaken to dismiss this Bulls team that has produced beyond expectations through injuries and uncertainty the last two years. You know they’ll compete. The question is whether it will be enough.

Usually when you reach a seventh game of a series, there’s not much to change as the teams have out adjusted one another by then. But with the Bulls ever changing lineups and rotations, nothing is predictable.

The player who might make the difference for the Bulls is Jimmy Butler, who presumably would replace Deng again at small forward.

Butler played 48 minutes in Game 6 with a generally strong all around game. He mostly defended Joe Johnson with Nate Robinson on Deron Williams. But Williams cut up the Bulls early in the game with 14 points and eight assists in a 60-point halftime. Defended by Butler in the fourth quarter, Williams didn’t have a field goal and two assists. Williams make the Nets go as neither Johnson nor Gerald Wallace make plays with the ball. You’d figure the Bulls would need Butler to go all the way harassing Williams.

“I feel like we’re all of us tough,” said Butler as Bulls players seem to be getting upset with all the negatives and implications about their injuries. “Down three or four or five or seven people we still expect to win.”

After all, it’s one thing to question perhaps the dedication of the Bobcats or the Kings or Cavaliers. But this Bulls team that is universally regarded around the NBA as one of the toughest and hardest playing teams on a regular basis for the past three years? This team has malingers?

Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau probably will go with the same starting lineup as both Deng and Hinrich seem unlikely, which means Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli in the backcourt. Belinelli continued to play well despite little activity early in the series and probably is the team’s best playmaker with Hinrich and Rose out.

Robinson is better off the ball and better off the bench as an energizer. If the Bulls had Deng, I’d go with Butler and Belinelli with a big backcourt that could defend stronger and then Robinson to come in as the offensive game changer.

“I try to be ready every time,” said Belinelli. “We need to be positive. Our mentality has to be to go there and win. During the season Lu was out, Jo, Taj, I was out. The good thing about this team is the can win a game with the guys we have.”

The Bulls may not have that opportunity for a Belinelli/Butler backcourt without Deng and Hinrich. So they’ll need to probably slow the game more and do a better job of finding Carlos Boozer in the post as he collapses the Nets’ defense with his scoring.

After being frequently ignored on offense the last two games, Boozer has fallen to second on the team in scoring in the playoffs at 17.5 with Robinson at 17.8. But Boozer leads the team shooting 56 percent along with a team best 11.2 rebounds per game.

But it’s not about numbers now as much as performance and measuring up to the moment.

There have been some memorable ones in Game 7’s in NBA history. Reputations are made and lost in Game 7’s.

We still hear the echoes of Celtics broadcaster Johnny Most in the 1965 conference finals when John Havlicek stole the ball to clinch the series over the 76ers.

On the other end was Rod Strickland’s ill-advised and over criticized pass that ended the 1990 conference semifinals in overtime and sent the Spurs to the conference finals over Portland.

There was one of the great shootouts between Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins in the 1988 conference semifinals won by the Celtics.

One of the shocking meltdowns was the Trailblazers 2000 fourth quarter 15-point blown lead when Shaq and Kobe went on to the Finals and their first title in Phil Jackson’s first season in Los Angeles.

One of the more amazing ones had to be Bill Russell’s first title in 1957, the game eventually decided by a basket in the second overtime. How agonizing is that for the title?

Jimmy Butler

“It’s going to be a fight,” guard Jimmy Butler said. “The tougher team is going to get the win.”

One of the great matchups least talked about was the Knicks and Bullets of the early 1970’s with a Hall of Fame matchup at almost every position with Walt Frazier against Earl Monroe, Kevin Loughery against Dick Barnett, Bill Bradley against Jack Marin, Dave DeBusschere against Gus Johnson and Willis Reed against Wes Unseld. The Bullets held off the defending champ Knicks in the conference finals as Unseld blocked a Bradley shot at the buzzer for a two-point win.

There was Willis Reed’s famous injury appearance against the Lakers and Wilt Chamberlain and hitting the first two baskets, his only scores of the 1970 game in basically playing only in the first half.

Another big duel was Bird and Julius Erving in the 1981 conference finals when Boston prevailed rallying from 3-1 down.

There was Dirk and Duncan going overtime with Dallas winning in the 2006 Western finals with Dirk with 37 and Duncan with 41.

There was the Lakers 2002 conference finals overtime win over the Kings in the series that earlier was saved by Robert Horry’s unlikely winner.

There was the highest scoring ever, 142-131 in the 1963 division finals when it looked like Oscar Robertson would finally get past Boston when Robertson averaged 31.8 points, 13 rebounds and nine assists in the playoffs.

How tough was it to be the Lakers in the Bill Russell era, basically never able to get past the Celtics when Frank Selvey’s 12-footer rolled off the rim at the end of regulation and the Lakers lost in overtime in the 1962 Finals.

The 1969 Finals game after which Russell retired and Jerry West was so good he was the only MVP on a losing team. The Lakers had acquired Wilt Chamberlain that season to get by Boston and coach Butch Van Breda Kolff in a feud with Chamberlain held him out down the stretch as the Celtics won by two while the Lakers had balloons printed with championship ready to be dropped. That was when Don Nelson’s famous shot bounced high and in.

The Bulls didn’t have quite that much drama in their nine game 7’s, though perhaps the most famous was one they lost.

That was the 1973 Western Conference semifinals with the Bulls up seven on Wilt and the Lakers with under three minutes left. Chamberlain blocked a Norm Van Lier shot down the stretch to preserve the three-point win.

Great Game 7’s were often disappointments with the Bulls with their best chance to win a title with their early 1970’s team in 1975 with a 3-2 lead in the conference finals. But they lost Game 6 in Chicago and then blew an early double digit lead to the Warriors and lost by four as Golden State went on to sweep in the Finals.

There were a couple of terrific wins, though, particularly in the 1992 conference semifinals over the Knicks and the 1998 conference finals over the Pacers.

The 1992 series was a brutal, physical slugfest with Pat Riley new to New York. Michael Jordan scored 42 points to make it a rout.

In the Bulls last title run, the Pacers looked about to end it with a lead with about seven minutes left. Larry Bird still talks about a late jump ball he felt if the Pacers got they would have won the game. Scottie Pippen called that series their toughest in the title run.

The only other Bulls Game 7 win was in the 1974 conference semifinals over the Pistons despite Jerry Sloan, who was out with a torn plantar fascia. Yes, they had it then, too.

The Bulls lost in Game 7 in the 1971 conference semifinals as they were blitzed by Gail Goodrich with Jerry West out after knee surgery.

The Bulls lost to the Pistons in the 1990 conference finals in the famous game when Pippen suffered a severe migraine.

There was the 1994 loss to the Knicks in the conference semifinals that probably should never have gotten there thanks to the infamous Hue Hollins foul call against Pippen.

And there was the loss to the Celtics in 2009 in the amazing first round series with four overtime games and Bull-to-be Brian Scalabrine starring for the Celtics off the bench in Ben Gordon’s final game as a Bull with 33 points.

“Game 7 is win or go home,” said Belinelli. “We want to win that game.”

It’s a take of two teams.

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