The Brooklyn Nets aren’t going to out-tough the Chicago Bulls. No team can do that.
Led by Tom Thibodeau, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng, the Bulls are certainly the most resilient team in the league, Exhibit A being Saturday’s comeback from 14 points down with three minutes to go in regulation and the ability to outlast the Nets in three overtimes with Noah, Nate Robinson and Taj Gibson having fouled out.
“That’s been the nature of the team all season,” Thibodeau said Sunday. “They’ll keep battling. Things weren’t going our way, but there was no give-in. They just kept going.”
Now, it’s not like the Nets are pushovers. It takes a certain amount of toughness to build a 14-point lead in a hostile environment when you’re down 2-1 in the series. And the Nets managed to bounce back from blowing that 14-point lead to make some (just not enough) big plays down the stretch. Really, if just one of those crazy Robinson shots didn’t go in, this series would be tied 2-2.
It’s not though. And the Nets are now faced with the challenge of having to win three straight games. If they can’t, we can certainly declare their season a disappointment.
So Brooklyn will have to show more of its own resilience in Game 5 on Monday (7 p.m. ET, TNT). Playing well in the face of elimination is a mental thing, especially in the wake of such a heartbreaking loss.
But the Nets shouldn’t lack confidence going forward. They have put up big numbers against the staunch Chicago defense twice in the series thus far. And though they’re 2-6 against the Bulls this season, they’ve been outscored by just 12 total points over the eight games.
“I don’t think it’s difficult for our guys to feel that they’re capable of doing this,” Nets coach P.J. Carlesimo said. “I think that they feel we can beat the Bulls. Have we done it? No, we haven’t done it enough. But they know that we can do it.”
The Nets have seemingly been a team without character all season. They’re to be praised for taking care of business against bad teams (they were 35-7 against teams that finished below .500) and for compiling the league’s fifth-best road record (23-18). But they’re to be questioned for their 14-26 mark against winning teams and their defense, which wavered ranged from poor to mediocre most of the season.
Maybe that’s just who the Nets are, a good team that can’t hang when the going gets tough. Or maybe they haven’t shown us everything they have.
If the Nets are to show some resolve on Monday, it must manifest itself in execution as much as energy. They can continue to beat the Bulls’ defense if they get into their offense early, keep their stars – Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez — on the move, and knock down some shots. The absence of Kirk Hinrich — out with a calf injury — should benefit Williams on the perimeter.
Defensively, the Nets need to cut off Robinson in the pick-and-roll and put more pressure on Carlos Boozer at the high post. No other Chicago player has really been able to hurt them and the Bulls have been somewhat fortunate in that they’ve shot so well (54 percent) from mid-range. That number is not sustainable, especially if Brooklyn does a slightly better job of challenging those shots.
It’s all right there for the Nets. Chicago is certainly the tougher team, but not necessarily the better team. Down 3-1, proving that will be difficult, but nothing worthwhile comes easily.
It starts with Game 5.
Hinrich’s absence (is status beyond Game 5 is unknown) could be a real killer for the Bulls. Here are some numbers that don’t paint a pretty picture for Chicago…
- Since Jan. 1, the Bulls are 27-12 (5-1 vs. Brooklyn) with Hinrich and 5-13 (0-1 vs. Brooklyn) without him.
- Hinrich has been the primary defender on Williams and has played 160 of the 171 minutes that Williams has played in the series.
- The Bulls’ have allowed the Nets to score just 97.5 points per 100 possessions in Hinrich’s 162 minutes on the floor, but 110.7 in Hinrich’s 45 minutes on the bench. That’s some brutal defense, but it should be noted that Joakim Noah has played just three of those 45 minutes.