The Bulls just won a Game 7 on the road for the first time in franchise history, while many of their best players were either out or playing with injuries. And that, as it turns out, was the easy part, because now Chicago has to face heavy championship-favorite Miami.
The Bulls get a full day of rest before taking on Miami Monday night in AmericaAirlines Arena, where the Heat have lost just four games all season. One of those defeats came at the hands of the Bulls, in early January. You may have also heard about the other Bulls’ victory in the series this season, one that put an end to Miami’s 27-game winning streak.
Lots was made of the Bulls “hard fouls” and “tackling” in that streak busting victory, which will surely be a talking point and something to watch throughout the series. But let’s not forget the most flagrant foul of the entire series was when LeBron James lost his cool and elbowed Carlos Boozer. It’s no secret these teams don’t like each other, but to call anything the Bulls have done “cheap” is disingenuous. The Bulls aren’t going to give any easy baskets to their opponent. That goes for the Bobcats or the Heat.
But there’s no question there will be some flagrants in this series. Chicago won’t back down and neither will Miami, but there is a difference between hard fouls and cheap fouls.
If you thought the Bulls faced an uphill battle in Round 1, just wait for this series. You probably won’t be able to find an “expert” picking against the Heat—only Henry Abbot, Bradford Doolittle and Chris Palmer have the series going longer than five games on ESPN.com out of the 17 experts—and rightfully so. Miami cruised through the regular season, piling up a league-best 66 wins, while LeBron nearly unanimously won his fourth MVP award.
The Bulls split the season series with the Heat, with Miami’s victories both coming by double digits, including one game that the Bulls managed just 67 points. Both of Chicago’s victories were by single digits.
There is good news for the Bulls. First, it’s unlikely they can be any more injured than they were in Game 6 and 7 against the Nets. In all seriousness, Joakim Noah has looked better than he has in some time now the last two games out, making it appear like his plantar fasciitis has subsided somewhat. Jo had a huge Game 7, tallying 24 points, 14 rebounds and six blocks, leading the Bulls to victory.
He was healthy for only two of the four games against Miami, and the Bulls went 1-1 with their starting center. Jo averaged 12.0 points on 45.5 percent from the field, 10.0 rebounds and 6.0 assists.
Miami will have seven days of rest since sweeping the Bucks in the first round. That gives Dwyane Wade some time to heal from a bruised right knee, but it also opens the possibility of the Heat being a little rusty in Game 1. Wade is expected to play Monday, but with the Bulls still in a rhythm after Game 7 Saturday night, a quick Chicago start could help them steal Game 1.
Luol Deng is officially out for tonight’s game and hasn’t yet joined the team in Miami. Deng received a blood patch to stop spinal fluid leakage after getting a spinal tap to test for meningitis. Deng does just about as good a job as anyone can in trying to slow down LeBron James, and without Lu, it shifts the Bulls defense a little out of whack. With Deng unable to go, Jimmy Butler will probably have to switch from Wade to LeBron. And then Marco Belinelli or Kirk Hinrich (if he is healthy), would have go up against Wade.
The Bulls are 8-8 against the Heat in the Big Three era, but just 1-4 in the playoffs.
Luol Deng was in the hospital Friday, possibly for meningitis, after getting a spinal tap prior to Thursday’s game. Nate Robinson was throwing up on the bench during Game 6 because of an illness—a game in which he played 42 minutes. Taj Gibson, suffering from the same illness, struggled through 18 minutes. Joakim Noah is still fighting through plantar fasciitis and his minutes limit is long gone. Kirk Hinrich missed Game 6, but will travel with the team and will be a game-time decision with a calf injury. Derrick Rose hasn’t played all season.
I think that about sums up the Bulls luck heading into a win-or-go-home Game 7 in Brooklyn. It all comes down to Saturday night, and the Bulls roster continues to shrink.
(Quick tangent: Luol Deng defended himself on Twitter Friday, saying it was more than a flu that kept him out. Deng should never have to explain himself for missing a contest. Actually, no professional athlete should ever have to explain why they missed a game, but someone with Deng’s track record should never be questioned. And if you saw the Vine of him leaving the arena, you could tell something was very wrong with him. He has played through countless injuries these past few seasons, while averaging the most minutes per game in the league. Perhaps this is misguided anger at another Chicago Bull, but that’s another story for another time. If Luol Deng thinks he cannot go, and had a spinal tap earlier that day, Luol Deng cannot go and shouldn’t be questioned. It’s that simple. Now back to Game 7.)
Chicago was in a similar place in Game 6 and grinded all the way to the end with a shortened, injury-plagued rotation (with three players coming down with an illness, maybe “plagued” is too accurate). It was a game they had no chance of winning, but yet were still right there at the end with a chance to tie. They should have been in a better spot down the stretch honestly, but Marco Belinelli went 1-5 from three in the fourth quarter (with many of those very makeable, open attempts) and Chicago shot 32.1 percent as a team. Who knows if it would have been different had the Bulls had more rested bodies at the end.
The Bulls dug themselves an early hole, allowing Brooklyn to shoot 65.0 percent in the opening frame, and although Chicago shot 59.1 percent, that’s not how they win games. The Bulls are never going to win a shootout, and giving Brooklyn early confidence is the last thing Joakim Noah and company can afford.
The defense tightened up the rest of the way, holding Brooklyn to 27.8 percent from the field in the second half, but even with that great defensive effort Chicago couldn’t close the gap. The Bulls did hold the Nets to 48.3 percent shooting at the rim (14-29), something that would go a long way in Game 7 if it could be duplicated.
The Bulls have their work cut out for them going on the road for a Game 7. Chicago is 0-6 all-time on the road in Game 7s. Add in their injuries and it’s going to be a huge hill to climb, but if there is any team in the NBA that can do it, it’s the Bulls.
Chicago has shown this year—heck the entire Tom Thibodeau era—that they have a shot in any game they take the court—no matter how few of their players actually take the court. But sometimes those injuries just become too much to overcome, just as they were last season against the Sixers. The Bulls don’t want to be the team that followed up a first round loss as the top seed with the squad that blows a 3-1 lead…even if they have an excuse for both occurrences.
“I’m just very confident our guys are going to take advantage of the (home court) opportunity and continue to do what they’ve done all year,” Nets interim coach P.J. Carlesimo said Friday.
The Bulls will also do what they have done all year: fight until the last whistle no matter who is out there.
Stopping Deron: Deron Williams is 13-39 from the field with nine turnovers when guarded by Kirk Hinrich; unfortunately Hinrich probably won’t be able to play. That leaves Nate Robinson and Jimmy Butler. Williams is 12-24 with four turnovers when guarded by Nate Robinson and 5-14 from the field with six turnovers when Jimmy Butler is on him. So in short, keep Nate away from Deron at all costs.
Stats that may not matter but are somewhat relevant: Home teams have won 80.2 percent of Game 7s (89-22). The Bulls are 3-6 in Game 7s, but 0-6 in Game 7s on the road. The Bulls have not won a winner-take-all game on the road since 1989’s first round against the Cavaliers (this was a Game 5). The Nets are 0-1 all-time in Game 7s.
On the surface, that question seems irrational and misguided, because there are no such things as curses. But it sure feels like a witch doctor somewhere worked some major voodoo on this team.
For the past two seasons, the Bulls have had championship potential that was ultimately undone by injuries. Injuries to their superstar. Injuries to their All-Stars. Injuries to starters and reserves. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised to see one of their ball boys come up lame during a shoot around. It’s been that ridiculous.
Initially, last weekend’s thrilling triple-overtime win in Game 4 appeared to be the point at which this series turned irrevocably in Chicago’s favor. However, given that it effectively knocked Kirk Hinrich (and his invaluable defense on Deron Williams) out of Games 5 and 6, it turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory.
Even without Hinrich, the Bulls seemed a fair bet to close out the series at home in Game 6, as long as nothing else unexpected popped up to bite them in the butt.
Then something unexpected popped up to bite them in the butt.
Luol Deng is sick. Sick with what exactly is the question. Deng was reportedly sick enough to undergo a spinal tap to test for viral meningitis. The test apparently came back negative — thank God — but Deng wasn’t well enough to play and got sent home well before tip-off.
And as if all that wasn’t enough, Nate Robinson and Taj Gibson were suffering flu-like symptoms during the game.
Robinson — whom coach Tom Thibodeau says has been sick for “a while” — still managed 18 points and 4 assists, but Gibson was clearly hampered. I know Gibson hasn’t had quite the season Bulls fans had hoped for, but he’s still much better than 3 points, 3 rebounds and 6 personal fouls in 18 minutes of a critical home playoff game.
Said Gibson: ”It was all about being there for my team. I am just frustrated right now … I still feel sick. I just had to go out there and do my job. We have to play for each other.”
Added Thibodeau: ”That’s part of it. In the NBA over the course of a season, guys get sick, they play through illness.”
Playing through illness and injury is what these Bulls do pretty much every night of their lives. If the Chicago Cubs have the Curse of the Billy Goat, the Bulls must have the Curse of the Co-pay. About the only thing that hasn’t happened is players spontaneously combusting on the bench. Or should I say hasn’t happened yet? After almost 200 players games (and counting!) lost to injury this season, almost nothing would surprise me at this point.
So Tom “We Always Have More Than Enough To Win” Thibodeau was forced to ride yet another starting lineup into action. And I do mean ride. Jimmy Butler did sit down for a single second of this game. Marco Belinelli played all but one minute and 37 seconds of this one. Joakim Noah — plantar faciitis and all — logged 43 minutes and 16 seconds. Robinson, even with the flu-like symptoms, played nearly 42 minutes.
Despite it all, the Bulls almost won. “Almost” being the operative word.
Chicago’s D struggled mightily in the early going, as the Nets scored 33 points on 65 percent shooting in the first quarter. And although the defense picked up in the second half — limiting Brooklyn to 35 points on 10-for-36 shooting over the second and third quarters — that rocky start had the Bulls on their heels all game long.
This was one of those classic “hump” games, where the Bulls were tantalizingly close for most of the night but could never get over the hump and take control. They had countless opportunities to tie the game or take the lead, but something always stymied them. Missed shots. Turnovers. A key play by the Nets. Something.
In the final two minutes, the Bulls had several chances to tie the game. Robinson missed two layups. Carlos Boozer committed a loose ball foul. Belinelli missed a three. With three seconds to go, Noah lost a jump ball to Williams.
For the record, Noah is 6’11″ and Williams is 6’3″.
Said Joe Johnson: ”We just believed. We believed in one another. In practice (Wednesday), we went over a lot. More so than anything, it was about who wanted it badder.”
That’s a nice sentiment. But I disagree.
After all, who wanted it any badder than Noah (15 rebounds, 14 points, 5 assists, 5 blocked shots), who according to Elias Sports Bureau joined Artis Gilmore as the only players in Bulls playoff history to finish with at least 15 rebounds, 10 points and 5 blocks in a game since blocks were officially recorded in 1973-74? And Noah almost made the play of the game by tying up Williams on an inbounds play with seconds to go.
Robinson was pretty productive despite his illness. Belinelli scored 22 points and tied a career-high with 7 assists. Butler ran the marathon and finished with 17 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists, 1 steal and a blocked shot. Boozer had a double-double with 14 points and 13 boards.
The Bulls held the Nets to 43 percent shooting and won the rebounding battle 46-41, including a 15-10 advantage on the offensive glass. I think they wanted the game badly enough.
As Brooklyn coach P.J. Carlesimo put it: ”Starting with Derrick, their franchise player hasn’t played. It seems almost every time we play them, it’s a different roster. … There is not a team in the league that plays harder than them.”
That said, a team can go to the well only so many times before that well runs dry. Only don’t tell that to Noah, who remains as defiant and fiery as ever.
Said Noah: ”We’re a team of fighters. We keep getting punched in the face but we fight back. I’m proud of this team, and we’re going to go into a hostile environment in Brooklyn and we’re going to win.”
Noah’s teammates mirrored those sentiments.
Said Butler: ”[Our confidence is] going up. It’s sure not going to go down. They know they got to win Game 7; we know we got to win Game 7. Same style of basketball; it’s going to be a fight. The tougher team is going to get the win, and we go in wanting to be the tougher team.”
Added Gibson: ”We just got to go there, put our boxing gloves back on and tell everybody ‘be ready to play. It’s no time to be hurt, sick; it could be the end of the season. So we have to go out there, just put forth a lot of effort. There’s no time to worry about small things; we got to just push the limit.”
The Bulls may go down in Game 7. But they will not go down without a fight. That is who they are. Which is why their fans may be disappointed in a particular outcome, but they can never be disappointed a group of players who never give up on a game, no matter the odds.
MVP: No one stood out in this one. Brook Lopez, Joe Johnson and Deron Williams all had 17 points—and Williams added 11 assists. Noah had 14 points, 15 rebounds, five assists and five blocks, while still playing through plantar fasciitis. But maybe the best effort of all came from that mysterious illness that kept Luol Deng out and also affected Nate Robinson and Taj Gibson.
X factor: In a game that bodies were at a premium, the Bulls were in foul trouble for much of it. Both Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson fouled out, which meant more minutes for Noah as Thibs shuffled the already short rotation. Those fouls also gave the Nets a 33-18 advantage in free throw attempts.
Defining moment: The shot of Nate Robinson throwing up into a trash can during a timeout. Robinson played 42 minutes while fighting off an illness, scoring 18 points and dishing four assists, but he wasn’t the only guy fighting through pain.
That was…gutsy: The Bulls had no right being in this game with Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng and Derrick Rose out, but there they were within reach at the end of Game 6. I have grown very tired of the “moral victories” that Chicago has been racking up this season, but tonight was a great effort and the guys on the court deserve a ton of credit for their fight. Unfortunately that effort does nothing in the end except give the Nets something to think about going into Game 7.
It pains me to say this, because I’ve loved making fun of him (and his contract) all season, but the Bulls clearly missed Kirk Hinrich in Game 5. It wasn’t his 11.3 points on 43.2 percent shooting that he’s averaging this series that left a hole, but it’s his defense on Deron Williams. Williams went 6-14 from the field, which isn’t good, but he took ten foul shots to help him score 23 points. It is unlikely that Hinrich will be able to play through his calf injury, meaning Tom Thibodeau will have to come up with something for slowing down Williams.
Williams did a good job getting to the line, but it was once again Brook Lopez who gave the Bulls the most trouble. The center recorded 28 points and ten boards, six of those rebounds being offensive. Lopez scored 20 points in the paint, hitting 8-14 from that area. He was 1-6 outside the paint, once again showing the importance of pushing Lopez out away from the basket and into lower percentage shots.
Lopez and Williams got their points, which the Bulls could live with. What they can’t live with is the role players toasting them. Gerald Wallace had his second good game this series—which could also be his second good game of the entire year—hitting 5-8 from the field and 2-3 from deep. Andray Blatche also went 5-8, scoring 13 off the bench to go with five boards. C.J. Watson tallied eleven points, and even grabbed two offensive rebounds. Good games from the Nets role players in Game 1 also resulted in a loss for Chicago.
Those three role players hurt the Bulls, but something Chicago knew it would have to stop coming into this series really dug them the deepest hole in Game 5. The Bulls gave up 17 offensive rebounds, after giving up just 36 through the first four games of the series combined. Those 17 boards translated into 24 second-chance points.
And while we are pointing fingers, it’s Luol Deng’s turn. He has failed to step up even with the Bulls two best players out or injured, including his 6-14 for 12 points in Game 5. He’s 1-18 from three in this series. Deng averaged one made three per game for the year. Joakim Noah isn’t getting much healthier than he is now, so Lu needs find his shot and shut down whoever he is guarding at the moment, especially when it’s Gerald Wallace.
Game 5 felt a lot like Game 1 to me. Brooklyn got lots of points in the paint. Their role players contributed. And they pulled away from Chicago to get a pretty convincing win.
All that means Thibs will once again have to make his adjustments, although with Hinrich potentially out, it’ll be tougher. It might be best for Marco Belinelli to start, rather than Nate Robinson. That way Nate could do his normal “shoot all the time” off the bench routine, and Belinelli could guard Joe Johnson, freeing up Jimmy Butler to guard Deron Williams from the start. Starting Nate Robinson is like eating a ton of candy right before dinner; it may sound like a good idea, but you’re going to throw up all over.
Nate, not surprisingly, put up little resistance for Williams, but Butler has done a good job on him all series. This idea of starting Belinelli was tossed around before Game 5, but Thibs decided against it. Given a second chance, maybe he’ll try and switch things up and not allow Deron to get into a rhythm.
Tom Thibodeau could have more on his hands than just figuring out how to replace Hinrich’s defense though. Both Luol Deng and Taj Gibson stayed home on Wednesday because they were sick. Thibs is hopeful they can go, but if not…well if not Vladimir Radmanovic is a possibility to get playing time in the postseason and that’s just scary.
No matter who is out there, this will be the Bulls best chance to close out the Nets as they return to the United Center. Brooklyn’s Andray Blatche said on Wednesday “there’s no doubt in our mind. We are the better team.” That should give whoever is healthy some extra motivation to get that last win.
MVP (Most Valuable Player): Brook Lopez once again led the Nets, posting 28 points and ten boards. Lopez also got to the line seven times, hitting six of those freebies. He was 8-11 on shots at the rim and 10-14 inside the paint. On everything else he was 1-6. The Bulls had been doing a solid job of keeping him away from the bucket, but not in Game 6.
LVP (Least Valuable Player): I feel like I’ve said it a lot this season, but with Derrick Rose out and Joakim Noah injured, the Bulls’ other “All-Star” needs to show up. Well, Deng hasn’t been there this series. Lu finished with 12 points on 6-14 from the field and 0-3 from deep. For the series, Deng is 1-18 from three point range.
Defining Moment: Gerald Wallace’s five points in 17 seconds with just over two minutes left in the game put it out of reach. Wallace hit a corner three and then stole an errant Nate Robinson pass and slammed home a breakaway dunk. Unfortunately he didn’t miss it like C.J. Watson did, and the Bulls hopes of another comeback were dashed.
X factor: The Bulls were allowing nine offensive rebounds per game in this series.Tonight they gave up 17 offensive rebounds and 24 second chance points. Chicago allowed the Nets to shoot 50 percent from the field—they can’t also give up 17 offensive rebounds and expect to win. C.J. Watson even had two O-boards.
It seems fitting somehow that in a playoff game where the teams involved combined to score 276 points, had a whopping 13 players in double figures, and needed three overtimes to decide the outcome, the smallest player on the floor had the biggest impact of all.
Mind you, there were significant contributions on both sides. The Nets got them from Deron Williams (32 points, 10 assists, 2 blocks), Brook Lopez (26 points, 11 rebounds, 4 blocks), Joe Johnson (22 points, 10-for-20, 3 rebounds), Gerald Wallace (17 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists) and Reggie Evans (15 points, 13 rebounds, 2 blocks).
Meanwhile, the Bulls got big-time performances from Carlos Boozer (21 points, 10-for-16, 8 rebounds), Kirk Hinrich (18 points, 7-for-12, 14 assists), Joakim Noah (15 points, 13 rebounds, 4 blocked shots) and Luol Deng (15 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists).
But none were bigger than what they got out of little Nate Robinson.
It’s a little hard to figure considering the circumstances. After all, Robinson has become something of an NBA vagabond. In the past four years, he has played for the Knicks, Celtics, Thunder, Warriors and Bulls without really catching on anywhere.
Robinson had some good days with the Knicks — averaging 17.2 points per game and compiling a Player Efficiency Rating of 18.9 in 2008-09 — before falling out of then-coach Mike D’Antoni’s favor (not to mention his rotation) and eventually getting traded to Boston. He played a limited role in Beantown before getting shipped to Oklahoma City as an add-in to the Jeff Green-for-Kendrick Perkins trade. Robinson played only four games for the Thunder before getting waived. Last season, he signed with the Warriors as a free agent and played reasonably well for them — 11.1 PPG, 4.5 APG, 18.0 PER — but was not re-signed when the season ended.
To put that into perspective, that is apparently the same amount the Bulls spent on Vladimir Radmanovic. Only Daequan Cook, Louis Amundson and Malcom Thomas have made less from the Bulls this season.
And yet — by the numbers — Robinson has been one of the team’s most productive players.
I’m serious. Check it out for yourself. Robinson leads the team in Points Per 36 minutes (18.5), three-point percentage (.405), Effective Field Goal Percentage (.510), Assist Percentage (31.4) and Steal Percentage (2.2). He ranks second in PER (17.4), True Shooting Percentage (.540), Offensive Rating (108) and Offensive Win Shares (3.5). He also ranks third in Win Shares per 48 Minutes (.136) and fourth in total Win Shares (5.9).
Not bad for a kid from Seattle playing on a minimum contract.
Then again, Robinson’s life has been all about defying the odds. Despite standing only 5’9″ — and a short 5’9″ at that — Nate had a successful collegiate career at Washington University, where he played both basketball and football. Robinson helped lead the basketball team to two straight NCAA tournament bids and a Sweet 16 appearance in 2005. His football career wasn’t quite as distinguished, but he did have a key interception in the 2002 Apple Cup that helped set up the Huskies to beat the Washington State Cougars, who were ranked number three in the country at the time.
I’m not sure the Bulls expected all that much out of Robinson this season. He was a gun for hire, an energy guy off the bench, somebody who could occasionally provide instant offense with Derrick Rose out of action.
Which is exactly what he did.
Sure, there were nights when he drove his coaches and teammates crazy. The popular refrain is that Nate can shoot you into games…and he can shoot you out of them. And at times, his decision-making on passes and shot selection is questionable at best. But by and large, Robinson’s good has outweighed his bad.
Then came yesterday’s improbably playoff victory.
It was a game the Bulls probably had no business winning. They were down by 14 points (109-95) with about three minutes to go. Disappointed fans were filing out of the United Center in mild disgust. The Bulls aren’t a top offensive team — they ranked 24th in Offensive Efficiency during the regular season — and the idea of them overcoming a 14-point deficit in a few minutes seemed about as probable as lead spontaneously transforming into gold.
To that point, it appeared as if the most meaningful contribution Robinson was destined to make in this game was a near-fight with C.J. Watson in the second quarter. But Robinson orchestrated an epic 14-0 run, scoring the first 12 on his own and then finding Boozer for the final two. The Bulls still had to sweat out a couple free throws by Lopez and get a putback from Noah to force overtime, but Robinson’s offensive explosion was beyond epic.
Said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau: ”It was big shot after big shot, but that’s what he does. That’s what makes him so valuable. It doesn’t take him much to get going and when he gets going, he can go on a big run.”
Despite the tribute, I often get the feeling that Robinson’s scoring exploits offend Thibodeau’s sensibilities even as they save his team’s butt. After all, Thibodeau lives in a world where basketball is about defense, rebounding and outhustling your opponent. To Thibs, basketball is won by hard work, not hot hands.
But hot hands sure help.
Few players can light it up the way Robinson does on occasion. And Robinson is the only player currently on the Bulls roster who can do it. In some ways, he’s even more combustible than a healthy Rose, if only because he’s a better three-point shooter. And the secret to Nate’s success is an inner confidence that says: “I can make every shot.”
Said Robinson: ”I always think I’m on fire. Like the old school game, ‘NBA Jam,’ you make a couple and the rim’s on fire and when you shoot the ball, the ball’s on fire. I feel like that at times. Well, all the time. When I’m in the game, I play with a lot of confidence and you kind of got to lie to yourself that you can’t miss.”
The ultimate believe in oneself. How else do you explain Robinson scoring a game-high 34 points on 23 shots in 29 minutes? The personal 12-point run? The running 23-foot bank shot with two seconds left in the first overtime that nearly won the game?
Robinson scored 23 points on 11-for-16 shooting in the fourth quarter. He added another 6 points before fouling out in the second overtime. The only other time in the last 15 seasons that a player scored 29 points after the third quarter was when LeBron James dismantled the Pistons back in 2007. And had he scored one more point in the fourth, Robinson would have tied Michael Jordan for the most points ever scored by a Bulls player in the fourth quarter.
That’s right. Nate Robinson. In the same sentences with LeBron and MJ. Not bad company.
That’s why Robinson’s accomplishment stands out in a game full of brave performances. Like Kirk Hinrich playing 60 minutes, or Noah going 49 despite limping around on a foot riddled with plantar faciitis. I haven’t forgotten or overlooked Deng feeding Noah for a huge dunk with 1:18 left in the second overtime, or Nazr Mohammed hitting a hook and later grabbing a key offensive rebound in the third overtime. There were so many big plays yesterday. So many guys stepping up. Willing themselves on.
But I will always remember this game because of Robinson’s legendary performance.
The Nets, on the other hand, are left to rue a game that got away from them. The 16 missed free throws. A missed dunk by C.J. Watson right before Robinson’s big fourth quarter run. And a late disappearing act by Williams (2-for-11 in the fourth quarter and overtimes).
Said Williams: ”We made a lot of mistakes up 14. It was so long ago, I can’t remember what all went on. We had the missed dunk. Missed free throws. I fouled Nate on the 3. We made a lot of mistakes in the fourth quarter.”
And now the Bulls are poised the finish off the Nets and move on to round two.
Unfortunately, after leading by as many as 17 points (71-54) early in the fourth quarter, the Bulls suffered a complete meltdown on offense and defense. From that point, Brooklyn outscored Chicago 22-8 and came within one wide-open three-point attempt by C.J. Watson of forcing overtime.
No, it wasn’t pretty, but the Bull will take the win thankyouverymuch.
Said Carlos Boozer: ”We did what we had to do to win the game. In the playoffs, you have to win different ways. Nothing is perfect.”
Boozer knows what he’s talking about. He led the Bulls in scoring (22 points on 9-for-15 shooting) and ripped down a game-high 16 rebounds, but he also committed a game-worst 4 turnovers. That said, Boozer’s offense carried the Bulls through various dismal stretches that saw them shoot 39 percent as a team.
Said Taj Gibson: ”One thing about Carlos that people don’t understand (is) that he does his job every day. He’s there early, a great teammate, he’s always going to give you 110 percent in practice and he understands what it takes. He did a phenomenal job late. Like Thibs said, when we watch film, Thibs was really calling guys out and one thing about Carlos — he responded. Thibs told him to (play more) help-side defense, step up on defense, and give support towards the point guard and he’s been doing that. I think that’s one of things people don’t understand (about him). It’s a small thing but on our team that’s big for us.”
Added Luol Deng: ”I thought Carlos hit some big shots. They made some runs and he just kept coming up huge. He was big for us. Carlos has been playing great and we just got to keep going to him and giving him looks. He’s playing so well right now and the baskets he hit tonight were really huge. (The Nets) kind of felt like they got momentum and Carlos would come back and answer.”
Even so, closing out the Nets was a struggle to the bitter end.
Still, as Boozer said, the Bulls did what they had to do. Especially Luol Deng. Lu didn’t shoot the ball particularly well — 1-for-6 on threes and 9-for-23 overall — but he had 10 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and had an incredible stretch to open the third quarter.
That stretch started with three long jumpers from 20, 17 and 16 feet. He then stunned Gerald Wallace with a wicked crossover that sent Wallace stumbling to the floor before stepping back to nail a three-pointer from 26 feet out. On Chicago’s next possession, Deng drove past Wallace and hit a layup as Wallace fouled him, then converted the free throw for an old-fashioned three-point play.
Deng’s explosion turned a 41-34 halftime lead into a 53-38 lead that had the Nets on their heels.
Said Deng: ”I had a few good minutes. I felt like I could have shot the ball a lot better. I don’t know how many minutes, seven or so of great minutes. They could have sent me home after that.”
And Deng wasn’t just abusing Wallace on offense. He also abused him on defense. Wallace — who clearly isn’t right in the head right now — finished with 5 points on 2-for-8 shooting in 25 minutes.
Past that, it seems like Chicago’s defense has largely figured out Deron Williams (5-for-14 from the field, 3-for-8 on threes, 4 assists) and the injured Joe Johnson (6-for-14), and Andray Blatche (3-for-9) and Watson (1-for-8) seem to have left their shooting touch back in Game 1.
All that said, the Bulls still can’t put the stops on Brook Lopez, who scored 22 points (8-for-16), grabbed 9 rebounds and blocked 7 shots. Lopez seems to make something happen every time he touches the ball, regardless of who’s guarding him, even Joakim Noah.
Speaking of Jo…
Noah had a rough night. A very rough night. Before the game began, Noah provided a graphic description of what it feels like to play with plantar faciitis: “It feels like you have needles underneath your foot while you’re playing. You can imagine. You need to jump. You need to run. You need to do a lot of things while you’re playing basketball. You don’t want needles on your feet, right?”
No, Joakim, I do not.
Well, during Game 3, Noah looked like he was running on broken glass and rusty nails with needles on his feet. He snared 8 boards and blocked a couple shots, but he was 0-for-5 at the rim and 0-for-7 from the field overall. Noah looked uncomfortable running and awkward handling the basketball. He couldn’t elevate toward or around the basket. And the Bulls were outscored by 13 points during his 27 minutes on the floor, making him the only member of the starting lineup that had a negative plus-minus score.
But Noah’s worth goes well beyond what we can see in a box score, and the Bulls are better spiritually if not statistically when Joakim is available to play.
Said Deng: ”Jo does so much and he’s not going to complain about his feet or anything. We just got to make sure — the game is over, he feels great, he’s got to make sure he’s got to do what’s necessary to give us whatever he can next game but you could see he’s huge for us. When Jo is at his best or even close to that, we’re tough.”
The question is: Can Noah be at his best with so little rest between a late Thursday night game and an early afternoon game on Saturday?
Said Noah: ”It’s hurting. It’s hurting, but overall I’m just happy we won. We don’t have a lot of time to rest but I’ll get as much treatment as I can and be ready for Game 4.”
Noah might not be the only heavy-footed player on Saturday. Thibodeau coaxed big minutes out of Deng (44), Boozer (40) and Kirk Hinrich (40). Boozer and Deng obviously were needed for scoring and rebounding. Hinrich had a decent offensive game (12 points and 2 assists) despite missing all three of his three-point attempts. But Captain Kirk’s real value has been his defense on Williams, which has been brutal since Game 1.
Said Nate Robinson: “Kirk is doing a hell of a job on him. And together as a whole we do a great job of helping each other out but it started with Kirk on Deron. Great job.”
The Bulls also once again got a big lift from Nazr Mohammed (6 rebounds, 5 points, 2 assists). His numbers might not make your eyes pop out of your head, but the Bulls were +13 during his 16 minutes on the floor, which was the team’s best plus-minus number on the night.
And depending on how Noah’s foot feels tomorrow, Mohammed might have to log more minutes in Game 4.
The Bulls won the rebounding battle 48-42, which included a 9-7 edge on the offensive glass. This is an important point, because the Nets were an elite offensive rebounding team during the regular season.
The Nets had a 30.9 offensive rebound percentage in the regular season, the third highest rate in the league. Thursday against the Bulls, the Nets had an offensive rebound percentage of 15.2%, the lowest in any game this season (including playoffs).
Quote of the Game: Said Noah: “It’s not going to be pretty. We have to grind it out, tough it out. This is our style of play. Go out and fight. We’ve dealt with so much this year; to just win is huge. So, it’s not easy, it’s not pretty…but it is rewarding.”
Play of the Game:
I felt like this play defined the win. The effort, the hustle, the defense, the teamwork. It’s all there.
Dunk of the Game:
Taj Gibson made Kris Humphries family cry with this second-quarter dunk.
Reasons for Concern:
Obviously, turnovers can be a problem for the Bulls, and they were tonight. Chicago gave up 18 points off 15 turnovers.
But a bigger concern might be inside scoring. The Bulls shot a miserable 9-for-27 (33.4%) at the rim and scored only 26 points in the paint. And as I mentioned above, Lopez looked like Bill Russell, stuffing a total of 7 shots in the game.
Remember, in Game 1, the Bulls scored only 36 points in the paint while going 14-for-29 (48.3%) at the rim. And they lost that game. The Bulls are a poor outside shooting team and can’t rely on jumpers to win this series.
Joakim Noah did not win Defensive Player of the Year. Marc Gasol did.
And deservedly so.
Gasol was fifth in the league in Defensive Rating and second overall in Defensive Win Shares. He averaged 1.7 blocks per game and 1.0 steals. Perhaps most importantly, the Memphis Grizzlies held opponents to 88.7 points per game, the lowest mark in the league.
The video doesn’t lie: this guy is an elite defender both in terms of individual defense and team defense. He absolutely anchors the Memphis defense.
Of course, all the same things can be said of Joakim Noah. Chicago’s Game 2 win over the Nets proved it beyond any shadow of a doubt. And back in January, Noah was certainly one of the leading candidates for this particular honor.
Unfortunately, Noah developed a case of plantar faciitis and started missing games, a total 16 in all. Typically speaking, players who miss chunks of the season due to injury don’t win NBA end-of-year awards.
Still, Noah made a good showing, receiving 13 first-place votes and earning a total of 107 points. He placed fourth behind Gasol (212), LeBron James (149) and Serge Ibaka (122).
Not bad company to be in all things considered.
The big man didn’t seem too broken up about not winning the award.
Said Noah: ”It’s all right. It’s not about that right now. It’s not about individual accolades or any of that. All my energy is on Game 3 right now. We put ourselves in a pretty good position. Now we’ve got home court. That’s what it’s all about. I’m not really worried about it.”
With the series heading to Chicago, the Bulls find themselves back on track, after righting the ship in Game 2 of their matchup with Brooklyn. The Bulls followed up a dismal Game 1 performance with a much more spirited defensive effort, and managed to wrestle home-court advantage from the Nets.
Fighting through injury Joakim Noah was the Bulls’ MVP once again, a spot he held down for most of the year. Nazr Mohammed stepped up, Kirk Hinrich’s defense was much improved and Rip Hamilton didn’t see the floor. Plus, nearly everything that worked for Brooklyn in Game 1, failed them in Game 2.
First, they couldn’t hit at the rim. After shooting 22-27 at the basket in the opening game of the series, Brooklyn struggled from in close, shooting 12-26. Brook Lopez was 2-6, Gerald Wallace was 1-5 and Kris Humphries was 1-3 at the bucket. The Bulls were contesting everything in close, and that goes for everyone from Joakim Noah to Nazr Mohammed to Luol Deng to Jimmy Butler.
Chicago also shut down Brooklyn’s role players. Wallace was 5-7 in Game 1 for 14 points, six rebounds, two assists, a steal and two blocks. In Game 2 he had just two points, on 1-7 shooting and grabbed three boards. That wasn’t necessarily the most surprising regression, considering Wallace has played poorly this season. And while Deng didn’t have a great shooting game (7-17 FG, 15 points), he didn’t get outplayed by Wallace like he did in the opening contest (ten rebounds, four assists, two blocks).
Back to the Nets role players, after combining for 26 points on 12-19 shooting, C.J. Watson and Andray Blatche struggled a little on Monday, hitting 8-18 from the field for 18 points.
The Bulls are playing without their star, and with their second best player hindered by plantar fasciitis. They need their role players to out-play Brooklyn’s. Butler needs to slow Joe Johnson. Deng clearly needs to outplay Wallace. Boozer, who had a down night with just 13 points, needs to control the boards against Reggie Evans and score on the other end. Brook Lopez and Deron Williams are almost always going to get their points, but the Bulls should win the rest of the battles.
I say “almost always going to get their points,” because both Williams and Lopez had trouble in Game 2. Deron Williams had an awful game, hitting just a single shot from the floor (1-9) and finishing in single digits (eight points). I’d love to say this was all the Bulls’ defense, but that wasn’t the whole story. Hinrich did a good job defending Williams, but Deron missed some open shots. (The same can be said of Joe Johnson who went 6-18.) What the Bulls did do, was keep Williams away from the basket. In Game 1, Deron went 4-4 at the rim and 3-4 from 3-9 feet. In Game 2, he was 0-1 at the rim and 1-2 from 3-9 feet. Hinrich and good help defense are to credit for Williams being unable to get anything going inside.
And although Brook Lopez was still solid he did most of his damage from outside. That’s exactly where the Bulls want him to work. Lopez went 2-6 at the rim and 3-5 from 16-23 feet. Lopez can hit that long two, but the Bulls will give it to him rather than getting roasted in the paint again. Lopez hit all three of those jumpers in the last 4:41 of the second quarter. The Bulls played it the same every time. Noah, who was a step slow, didn’t contest as he usually would have, but the bottom line is that if Lopez wins the series with that shot, the Bulls will live with it. Brook shot 37 percent from 16-23 feet this season.
Chicago also benefited from Brooklyn shooting 2-of-19 in the third quarter and missing their last 10 shots in the frame. That helped the Bulls turn a one-point halftime lead into a 12-point advantage going into the fourth.
Tom Thibodeau and the Bulls clearly made their adjustments after Game 1, and Game 2 was much more what I expected from this series. It was close and ugly. The Bulls defense showed up and made the Nets work. But at the same time, Williams isn’t going to have another 1-9 shooting night and Brooklyn missed an awful lot of open shots. The Bulls made their changes, especially protecting the rim, but the Nets had a pretty bad night.
In the end, Chicago did what it needed to do: it stole home-court by gutting out a win, and now needs replicate that in the United Center.
The biggest question is how well Noah will play: will it be Game 1 Jo or Game 2 Jo? Heading into the playoffs, Noah has three days of rest before the opening contest. He managed just 13 minutes in that matchup, and they weren’t very productive minutes. Then, he got two days of rest before carrying the Bulls in Game 2. Now, he is back to having three days of rest before playing in the United Center. Hopefully, the extra day of rest means Noah will have the same type of energy he did in Game 2. According to Tom Thibodeau, Noah is expected to be on the 25-minute limit once again.
And speaking of plantar fasciitis, Joe Johnson did not practice on Wednesday because of it. He is listed as a game-time decision for Game 3.
The Bulls went 24-17 in the United Center, while the Nets were 23-18 on the road.