Chicago takes the series lead: Bulls 79, Nets 76

Now that was some good old-fashioned defense.

The Bulls shook off an awful start — falling behind 17-5 halfway through the first quarter and earning a hot-and-nasty earful from coach Tom Thibodeau — to give a vicious defensive performance against the Nets.

For the 36 minutes anyway.

Here are Brookyn’s shooting stats for the first three quarters:

Q1: 3-for-14 on two-pointers, 2-for-8 on threes, 22.7% overall
Q2: 3-for-14 on two-pointers, 1-for-4 on threes, 22.2% overall
Q3: 6-for-16 on two-pointers, 2-for-5 on threes, 38.1% overall

What’s more, the Nets missed 12 layup attempts and shot poorly from very area on the floor (per Hoopdata):

3-9 feet: 1-for-6 (16.7%)
10-15 feet: 3-for-10 (30%)
16-23 feet: 3-for-15 (20%)
Threes: 5-for-21 (23.8%)

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.

Key Stat:
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.

According to ESPN Stats and Information:

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.

Recap, Box Score, Advanced Box Score, Play-by-Play, Shot Chart.

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