BROOKLYN – After a brutal loss in Game 4 of their first-round series with the Chicago Bulls, the Brooklyn Nets have fought their way back and earned a Game 7 on their home floor on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, TNT).
Game 7s are always huge for both teams, but these 48 minutes will absolutely define the Nets’ season. It will be the difference between accomplishment and disappointment.
The guys Tom Thibodeau puts on the floor will fight for every possession, but the Bulls basically punted this season with the moves they made (or didn’t make) last summer. Their star player hasn’t played a single minute and four more key players are far less than 100 percent. If they lose, we understand that they were undermanned and they retool for next season. They’ve already established a culture of defense, toughness and resilience, which will be there as long as Thibodeau is on the bench.
The Nets, however, haven’t established anything other than a willingness to spend money. There’s a lot of culture outside the Barclays Center, but not necessarily in the locker room.
But if the Nets win Game 7, they’ve at least established themselves as a top-four team in the Eastern Conference and put themselves in a conference semifinals matchup with the juggernaut Miami Heat, where no one will expect them to win more than a game. They will have proven that they too have some resilience, becoming only the ninth team in NBA history to come back from a 3-1 deficit.
If the Nets lose, what are they? They’re a team that didn’t come close to making the most of their talent and lost to a depleted team held together by gauze tape.
Derrick Rose and Luol Deng are not playing. Kirk Hinrich probably isn’t playing either. Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson are banged up and Nate Robinson was throwing up on the bench on Thursday. No, the Nets aren’t 100 percent, but their issues are nothing compared to those of Chicago’s M.A.S.H unit.
So Game 7 is truly a referendum on all things Nets. Here’s who has a lot on the line Saturday:
Billy King: The Nets general manager got his contract extension, but still has a lot of work to do if he wants to turn this team into a true contender. Brooklyn was the league’s most improved team this season, because King spent a lot of Mikhail Prokhorov‘s money.
But $139 million of that money is going to Gerald Wallace and Joe Johnson, who are both on the wrong side of 30 and who both had disappointing seasons. There’s spending money, and there’s spending money wisely.
A playoff victory doesn’t necessarily validate the trades that brought Johnson and Wallace here, but the Nets aren’t necessarily done putting this team together either. A series win is something to build on and maybe something to help convince veteran free agents (and/or a great coach) that this is the place to be.
The Nets’ defense: The Bulls are a pretty bad offensive team. They ranked 24th on that end of the floor in the regular season, and that was with some of their players healthier than they are now. But they’ve been able to hang with the Nets in this series, in part because the Brooklyn defense has been rather porous, especially when trying to stop Chicago’s pick-and-roll attack.
Chicago basically has two guys who can beat you: Carlos Boozer and Robinson. And Robinson is just as likely to shoot the Bulls out of a game as he is to shoot them into one. If the Nets can’t stop these guys, they’ve got a lot of ‘splaining to do.
Deron Williams: Williams has silenced his critics, playing much better over the last 2 1/2 months and making it clear that his early-season struggles were injury-related. But if he’s truly back to being an elite point guard, he has to prove it on Saturday. He has got to be aggressive offensively, get his team to move the ball, and put it on himself to stay in front of Robinson defensively.
Talent has never been a question with Williams. Leadership, however, has. To win a Game 7 against a resilient opponent, the Nets will need a leader on the floor.
Brook Lopez: Returning from two foot injuries suffered last season, Lopez has established himself as an All-Star and the best offensive center in the league. Just as important, he has taken a step forward defensively.
Lopez has been the best player in this series, but has struggled in the second half of some of these games. He has shot 8-for-24 in the third quarter, in which the Nets have struggled most of the series (and most of the season too).
In fact, in the second half of 10 total games against the Bulls this season, Lopez has shot just 28-for-70 (40 percent). The final regular season meeting ended with Lopez turning the ball over, getting blocked by Nazr Mohammed, and missing a jumper to tie at the buzzer, allowing the Bulls to escape with a two-point victory.
It’s one thing to be an All-Star. It’s another to be a guy your team can count on to get you big buckets in a do-or-die situation. And even before we get to the closing moments of Game 7, Lopez’s pick-and-roll defense will also be in the spotlight.
P.J. Carlesimo: It seems like a foregone conclusion that the Nets’ interim coach won’t be asked to return this summer, and he probably won’t receive much credit if the Nets win this series. But he’ll clearly get much of the blame if they lose, because it’s supposed to be the coach’s job to make the most of his team’s talent.
This team hasn’t done that. The offense has been inconsistent and the defense has been mediocre, at best. Reserves MarShon Brooks and Mirza Teletovic, who could possibly have contributed more (and helped space the floor), failed to develop.
Carlesimo wasn’t put in an easy position, of course. He was handed a team that had lost 10 of its last 13 games in late December. He deserves credit for righting the ship and getting the Nets’ best players playing better. That probably won’t save his job though.
In this series, Carlesimo has been slow to adjust. His starting lineup has struggled offensively, but has played the most minutes (119) of any lineup in the postseason (no other Nets lineup has played more than 13 minutes). He has navigated his team through two elimination-game victories, but has one more to go and can’t let a bad lineup stay on the floor for too long.