BROOKLYN – As P.J. Carlesimo, the Brooklyn Nets’ coach, talked about the Chicago Bulls’ halfcourt defense early in the evening Monday night, his tone gradually morphed from respect to reverence to … something darker. Suddenly, he was Robert Shaw as Quint in “Jaws,” scaring the hell out of Brody and Hooper with his tale of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, 1100 men into the water, 316 coming out and those black, lifeless eyes.
The Bulls brought the black, lifeless eyes of their defense at its best to the Barclays Center for Game 2 of the teams’ first-round Eastern Conference playoff series.
Eleven Nets players checked into the game, only a few came out unscathed.
Bulls center Joakim Noah will get more of the headlines in the Windy City for his courageous-slash-reckless performance in helping Chicago even the best-of-seven series 1-1. Noah reached double figures in points (11) and rebounds (10) while going single figures in feet, running and jumping – trying to, anyway – on a nasty case of plantar fasciitis in his right foot. Plantar fasciitis being Latin, of course, for “hot needles jammed into the sole of one’s foot.”
If Noah played a familiar, vital role as the Bulls’ heart — pumping blood into their bounce-back game for the first victory by a road team in these 2013 playoffs — the Chicago defense handled the predator end of it, draining the lifeblood right out of Brooklyn’s attack.
Forty-eight hours after the Nets hung 89 points on the Bulls through three quarters, they needed all four to reach 82. Two days earlier, Deron Williams and Gerald Wallace had combined to score 36 points on 14-for-22 shooting, with Brooklyn hitting nearly 56 percent overall. This time, Williams and Wallace went 2-for-16 and the Nets shot 35 percent.
“Their defense was very good,” Carlesimo said afterward, “But our execution was not as good as it needs to be. … When they made an adjustment or when they increased their defensive pressure, we didn’t handle it or react as well as we needed to. … Their interior defense was better, they contested a lot better and they didn’t let [Williams] turn the corner.”
The dorsal fins showed up in full in the third quarter. With Chicago crowding Nets center Brook Lopez some, staying aggressive on Williams’ attempts at pick-and-rolls and zealously patrolling the defensive glass, Brooklyn scored only 11 points and missed 17 of its 19 shots, including the last 10. What resumed after halftime as a one-point game pushed out to 12 by the end of the third quarter, 69-57.
Compare that to the second quarter of Game 1, when the Nets nearly scored at will. They took 20 shots, missed only four and put up 35 points, as many as the Bulls got in the half. On Saturday, it was as if they were naked out there. By Monday, their armor was in place again. Their big brother – the defense as coached by Tom Thibodeau that has been Chicago’s second star, after Derrick Rose (and more reliable lately) – was back.
“It’s hard to explain why we didn’t do it the other night,” said veteran Nazr Mohammed. “How I’d describe it is, we were more in tune as a group. Guys were helping each other a little bit better. Guys were into the game plan a little better and more physical.”
Actually, forward Taj Gibson shared some insight into the Bulls’ turnaround. As posh as their luxury Manhattan hotel had been for four days, the banquet room in which they reviewed video of their Game 1 debacle was strictly back alley. What they did to the Nets’ attempts at offense in that third quarter, what the sharks did to those sailors in the south Pacific, that’s what Thibodeau did to his players’ rear ends Sunday.
“Once Thibs got into us in that film room, we really couldn’t wait to get on the court,” Gibson said. “The way they was cutting us to pieces on back cuts and getting into the lanes, we never really give up points like that. We wanted to lock in and take away those points.
“He was laying into guys. I never saw him so enflamed. He was really calling guys out, letting guys know what they didn’t do. Everybody had to go out there and dominate their matchup … he really challenged guys the last couple days.”
That great white in Spielberg‘s movie, the mechanical version nicknamed Bruce the Shark on the set and in Hollywood circles? Yep. Thibodeau. He even bared a few teeth in something that passed for a smile when told of Gibson’s comments, though he confirmed nothing.
Forward Luol Deng, whose six-point, two-rebound game in the opener got upgraded to 15 points and 10 rebounds, wouldn’t share much, either.
“We just watched the tape. We knew we didn’t play as well as we could,” Deng said, before teasing: “I had my headphones. I downloaded some new music. I didn’t know what Thibs was talking about. I watched the tape. I didn’t hear anything.”
But guard Kirk Hinrich said: “He certainly was embarrassed. We were embarrassed. Nobody likes to get embarrassed. … When you’re not on a string and you’re not relying on each other, it’s hard. You have to have that trust.
“When we play with that kind of defensive energy, where there’s multiple efforts, we had a head about ourselves as far as executing our coverages and knowing what we wanted to do.”
When Chicago’s defense gets to that point, those black eyes roll over white. Then you hear that terrible high-pitched screamin’, and the hardwood turns red.