Three-Pointers: Nets survive, but Bulls have reason for hope
Three thoughts from the Nets' 95-92 victory over the Bulls on Thursday to avoid elimination in Game 6 of their first-round series:
• The Nets should have won going away. This wasn't exactly a confidence-builder for Brooklyn, which barely survived despite the fact that only one of Chicago's top players was on the floor at the end. Kirk Hinrich was sidelined by a bruised left calf for the second straight game. Luol Deng was sent home before the game after being tested for viral meningitis and undergoing a spinal tap. Nate Robinson and sixth man Taj Gibson (three points and three rebounds before fouling out in 18 minutes) played in spite of the same kinds of flu symptoms. Joakim Noah was still suffering from plantar fasciitis, and, of course, Derrick Rose was out.
And yet the depleted Bulls had several chances in the final seconds to force overtime. Marco Belinelli, who came up with a game-high 22 points, seven assists and five rebounds in 46 minutes, missed a three that appeared to be chased down by Noah before he stepped out of bounds in the final seconds. Noah tied up Deron Williams on the ensuing inbounds, but Noah's tap of the jump ball was intercepted by Joe Johnson.
The Nets led most of the way but never by more than 10 and missed 11-of-33 free throws. While no one was spectacular for the Nets, they received 17 points each from Deron Williams (11 assists in 42 minutes), Johnson and Brook Lopez. Andray Blatche provided more points and rebounds (10 and seven, respectively) than the depleted bench of the Bulls (seven points and four rebounds) altogether. Blatche, a 68.5 percent free throw shooter during the season, made two big free throws with 19.2 seconds remaining to avoid elimination.
The opening minutes turned out to be crucial as the Nets shot 65 percent in the first period with 10 points each from Johnson and Lopez. They took a 33-27 lead out of the quarter and never let the Bulls take the lead over the final 38 minutes. "Me and D-Will (who had four assists in the opening quarter) understood that we had to get us off to a good start, be aggressive and make plays," Johnson said to reporters after the game. "It wasn't necessarily about getting our shot or getting off offensively. It was coming out and trying to make a statement early."
"The first half was like an old ABA game -- neither team could stop each other, and in the second half neither team could score," said Brooklyn coach P.J. Carlesimo. "It's a heck of a win, but it wasn't Xs and Os. It was two teams playing really hard, and our guys found a way to win."
• The toughness of the Bulls. "If there's a team in the league that plays harder than them," said Carlesimo, "I don't know who it is."
Coach Tom Thibodeau kept his Bulls within reach even after learning less than 90 minutes before the game that Deng would be unavailable. Robinson was vomiting into a trash can on the bench during a timeout and yet he generated 18 points in 42 minutes. Noah (14 points, 15 rebounds and five assists in 43 minutes) and Carlos Boozer (14 points and 13 rebounds) enabled Chicago to outrebound the Nets 56-41 while outscoring them 13-3 on second chances. True to the character of their team, the Bulls gave the more inspiring effort even though they came into the game with a 3-2 lead in the series.
"Hey, we have enough," said Thibodeau, reciting his signature phrase. "We have enough."
Game 7 is impossible to predict. The Bulls should be heartened by this courageous performance and the hope that Deng, Gibson and Robinson will be feeling better Saturday in Brooklyn. But the most crucial addition would be Hinrich. "It affects [the series] dramatically," said Carlesimo of Hinrich's absence, "because he's one of their best players. But having said that, other guys have played very well. Does it make a difference? It absolutely makes a difference. But it's not like the guys who have gotten the opportunity to play more minutes are playing terribly."
Hinrich's defense on Williams would be crucial. "He made good strides today," said Thibodeau of Hinrich's injury. "I'm hopeful that it will be better tomorrow. But if he's not [available], we have enough."
The Nets had been outplayed in this series while falling to a 3-1 deficit, and even though they haven't been as inspiring as Chicago, they've nonetheless earned a chance to extend their season in their new arena. "We were here last Saturday and we weren't looking really good," said Carlesimo of their triple-OT loss in Chicago in Game 4. "We haven't turned the corner, but we're looking a lot better than we did last Saturday."