Battered Bulls drop Game 5, open door for Nets
NEW YORK -- For all of the magic Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau has been able to coax out of his battered roster, this was one body blow too many. With Joakim Noah hobbling around on one foot, Taj Gibson operating on one good knee, Kirk Hinrich battling through a severe calf strain, and Derrick Rose still sitting in a suit, Chicago had built a 3-1 series lead through punishing defense and efficient offense, through the sheer will and determination of a team wired to refuse to quit. The loss of Hinrich though, the team's level headed floor general, it's pesky perimeter defender who was ruled out Monday morning after his left calf worsened in the hours after grinding out 60 grueling minutes in the Bulls triple overtime win over the Nets on Saturday, proved to be too much. A physically taxed team had become too overextended. And with the clock winding down in Brooklyn's 110-91 Game 5 win, there was Nate Robinson (44 minutes) and Jimmy Butler (32) hunched over at halfcourt, hands on their knees, too tired to stand up, a visual that spoke volumes.
The Bulls won't admit to anything, of course. "You can find an excuse if you want one," Thibodeau said. "You have to have mental toughness." But the sight of the Chicago's locker room told a different story. A dozen or so ice bags strewn around the carpeted floor, three ice tubs filled to the brim, parked in front of Noah, Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng's lockers, Hinrich sitting on a training table, his left leg propped up, a long sleeve covering it to his knee. This team is a M.A.S.H unit, and it isn't likely to get much better.
Brooklyn is still down 3-2, still headed back to Chicago, but the Bulls' injury woes have given them a chance. Rebounding, long one of Chicago's strengths, was taken away by a Nets team that out boarded the Bulls 44-33. "That was the difference in the game," Thibodeau said. Brooklyn shot themselves out of Games 2, 3 and 4, connecting on 27.3 percent of their shots from 3-point range, failing to crack 25 percent twice. Chicago's defensive philosophy isn't a Rubik's cube; they pack the paint and dare you to beat them from the outside. In Game 5, the Nets shot 35.3 percent from three and and 50 percent overall. And without Hinrich hounding him, Deron Williams finished with a tidy 23-point, 10-assist night.
"We made some shots," P.J. Carlesimo said. "It always looks nice when you make shots."
Added Williams, "It is definitely a different look between Nate and Kirk."
Chicago still can't figure out Brook Lopez, who has been the Nets' most consistent threat. Long ago Lopez answered any questions about how he would come back from an injury-plagued 2011-2012, rebounding with a 19.4 point, 6.9 rebound regular season, one worthy of an All-NBA team distinction. In the playoffs, Lopez has ratcheted up his game, averaging 22.5 points in the Nets' first four games before overwhelming the Bulls with 28 points and 10 rebounds in Game 5. Chicago prides itself on keeping opponents out of the paint, surrendering just 39.7 per game, sixth fewest in the NBA, during the regular season. On Monday, led by Lopez, the Nets totaled 54.
"You [could] see the look in [Lopez's] eyes tonight," Williams said. "He had it going. He was rebounding the ball, he was scoring the ball...he was just a monster."
Yes, the Nets are in it, planting the pressure on Chicago to win at home on Thursday or face a Game 7 at the Barclays Center. Miami is waiting, not that either team has a chance to beat them. The Bulls are too banged up to give the Heat any real problems, though LeBron James and Dwyane Wade would undoubtedly pay a physical toll against them. The Nets have All-Star talent at key positions but glaring holes at others. Owner Mikhail Prokhorov told Bloomberg recently that the Nets need "one more good player" to contend with Miami, and he's right. Gerald Wallace needs help and Reggie Evans and Kris Humphries can't man the frontcourt, not on a team with a payroll that demands results.
Prokhorov handed GM Billy King a multiyear contract extension last week, and adding to a capped out roster will be King's top task this summer. King is one of the NBA's most enterprising executives, with a knack for putting together complicated three- and four-team deals. He will have Humphries' $12 million expiring contract to dangle in the offseason, the rights to a couple of tantalizing Europeans (Bojan Bogdanovic, Ilkan Karaman) and all his first-round picks to play with.
For now though, the Nets will focus on small victories. Win Thursday, win Saturday, advance to the second round for the first time since '07, take another step forward, another step away from the team that won 12 games in '09-'10. "We really need to buckle down in Game 6 and leave it all out there," Joe Johnson said. Yes, Chicago has opened the door, and if Hinrich can't play the Bulls may be too hobbled to close it.