CHICAGO – In this league of small ball and limited or specialized, defense-and-rebounding big men, the Brooklyn Nets have been going old-school middle on the Chicago Bulls in their first-round Eastern Conferene playoff series.
Brook Lopez, the NBA’s 10th-leading scorer during the regular season (19.4 ppg) against defenses both good and bad, ranks sixth in playoff scoring, getting his 23.6 points per game against one of the league’s most lockdown and locked-in defensive units. The 7-foot Lopez has topped 20 points in all five games and is pushing higher (21, 21, 22, 26 and 28). Lopez grabbed 30 rebounds in the three games heading into Game 6 Thursday at United Center, and his 3.4 blocked shots is tops in the postseason.
Then there’s Andray Blatche, who has backed up the best season of his eight-year, underdeveloped career with equal impact for the Nets in this series. Blatche, who carries more weight at 6-foot-11 than his roster-claimed 235 pounds, has almost identical numbers against Chicago as he had across 82 games in his first season as a Brooklyn sub. He is averaging 19.8 minutes and, pro-rated out to 36 minutes, is playing at a clip of 19.3 points and 8.4 rebounds while shooting 52.3 percent.
And here is the best part for Nets fans: Together, Lopez and Blatche have been loads of trouble for the vaunted Bulls’ defense. Brooklyn coach P.J. Carlesimo has used them in tandem a total of only 36 minutes in the five games, but when they are on the court at the same time, the Nets have outscored Chicago by 38 points. That’s better than every other Nets tandem, including Lopez and Deron Williams (plus-28 in 171 minutes) and Williams and Joe Johnson (minus-2 in 166 minutes).
Some of that may be attributed to small sample size, but it’s also an indication of Brooklyn’s advantage with two offensively gifted big men against a Bulls front line that is playing hobbled (center Joakim Noah‘s plantar fasciitis, forward Taj Gibson‘s sore knee). Lopez and Blatche have given the Nets relief valve’s against Chicago’s shifting, aggressive defense, asserting the middle on a unit that breaks the court down strong side vs. weak.
“Well, they’re skilled,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said of the Nets’ big men. “The thing is, both Lopez and Blatche can shoot the ball, they can put it on the floor, they can post the ball and they can get to the offensive board. When you add to it the greatness of Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, it spreads you out pretty good.
“You may defend the initial part fairly well and then it’s the second and third part that you’re recovering, and making a second and third effort as a team, not just individually. Now when the ball is shot, you have to get back to bodies,,and that requires a lot of discipline and commitment.”
Play in the paint has dictated swings in this series. The Nets were at their best in Game 5’s victory, with 54 points in the paint to Chicago’s 42, a 24-12 edge in second-chance points and 17 offensive rebounds to 22 on defense for the Bulls. Lopez grabbed six of those, with Reggie Evans and Kris Humphries taking three each. Meanwhile, Blatche scored 10 of his 13 points in the fourth quarter, helping the Nets own that period 33-18.
“Defensively and with rebounding, we have to do better,” Thibodeau said. “At playoff time, the more you go after, the more you’re going to get. Having a multiple-effort mentality is critical.”
Brooklyn’s mentality seems to be driven by taking that NBA playoffs’ “BIG” slogan seriously.