CHICAGO – For 130 of the final 139 seconds of Game 6 Thursday at United Center, the Brooklyn Nets never could put the Chicago Bulls more than three points back in the rear-view mirror. There were repeated opportunities for the Bulls to tie or take the lead, plenty of chances for the Nets to slip up or let up on the road, in a noisy gym, their postseason survival on the brink.
Offensively, they were melting down. They shot 4-of-19 in the third quarter, 6-of-17 in the fourth. And still, Chicago never could catch them. The Nets led by six at halftime and won by three, 95-92. Three times the Bulls got as close as one point. And that was it.
Brooklyn’s defense earned them their Game 7 shot Saturday night. So many weapons offensively, so much hand-to-hand combat when those weapons misfired (Brook Lopez, Joe Johnson and Deron Williams combined for 12 points in the second half.)
“The first half we didn’t play any defense,” Nets coach P.J. Carlesimo said. “The second half we didn’t have any offense. … It was a heckuva win but it wasn’t Xs & Os, anything like that. It was two teams played real hard and our guys found a way to win.”
The Nets zinged Chicago for 60 points through the game’s first 24 minutes. That earned them a little cushion over the next 24, but not enough to absolve their shooting and scoring woes.
So when they shot 21.1 percent in the third, they made sure Chicago did no better than 27.3. When they burped along at 35.7 percent in the fourth, they saw to it that the Bulls were even worse at 32.1.
And while it stung to miss five of their 11 free throws in that final quarter, it wasn’t fatal because Chicago only shot two. All that defending, so little fouling (2 in the period).
“Be physical with ‘em. Get ‘em off their spots. [Carlos] Boozer‘s good, those guys are good getting to their spots and getting comfortable,” forward Gerald Wallace said, sharing from Brooklyn’s “book” on the Bulls. “The main thing is, we’re playing 48 minutes. We’re not dropping our heads when our shots not falling. We’re keeping the defensive pressure up on ‘em. These last two games, we’ve relied on our defense a lot more.’
Set aside the bloated numbers from Game 4, the Bulls’ 142 points and 53.2 percent shooting in triple-overtime, and Brooklyn’s defensive prowess has been good. The Nets have held the Bulls to 88.2 points, on average, in the other five games and 44.8 percent shooting.
They learned their lesson against Nate Robinson, too. Since his Nate being Nate-ness in Game 4 — 34 points off the bench, all but five from the fourth quarter on, Robinson has been contained by Brooklyn’s guards and help up front. He scored a combined 38 points on 16-of-34 shooting in Games 5 and 6 but he hasn’t spent more than a few brief stretches in takeover mode.
The Nets’ defensive focus on Robinson? Forward Reggie Evans smiled at the question.
“We ain’t focusin’ like that,” Evans said. “You know what I’m saying? Nate’s a good player but he ain’t a focus to the point where you’re like … if you asked me what’s our focus against Derrick Rose, it’s something different. You’re talking about an MVP player.
“We’re talking about Nate Robinson — he had a good game [in Game 4]. No disrespect to him because he’s a good player but, c’mon, they’ve got Luol Deng who’s an All-Star. [Joakim] Noah who’s an All-Star. Boozer, who’s a former All-Star. So don’t you think they’d be a little more of a bigger focus?”
Actually, the Bulls did not have Deng Thursday — he was sent home sick, and reportedly had a detour to a local hospital in the 24 hours prior to Game 6. Robinson was sick too — visibly at one point, in a towel-and-bucket way — as was forward Taj Gibson. Gibson showed the worst effects, fouling out after just 17:46 of raggedy play. And the Bulls’ 16 turnovers, many unforced, made Brooklyn’s defense look peskier than it truly was.
So was Chicago easier to guard, without Deng, without point guard Kirk Hinrich (bruised left calf), without that Rose guy? Sure. But a Nets club that often lapses into the bad habit of trying to outscore the other guys went the other way Thursday. They have looked capable of doing both when the games are at Barclays Center, so Brooklyn seems set up nicely for Game 7.
“Beating ‘em to the punch,” Evans said of the Nets’ tactics vs. Chicago. “Rebounding the ball whenever they miss it. Understanding the tendencies of each individual player and trying to make that come together as a unit. Once things get to clicking, and everybody communicating, good things happen.
“It was a grind game for both of us. No matter how you shoot, that don’t determine your defense. Like they say, offense sells tickets and defense wins games for you. So when you don’t got it going, that don’t mean you don’t got to play defense.”
Remembering that is big. Doing it is bigger. Doing it in a Game 7 to earn an Eastern Conference semifinals series against the NBA’s defending champions, that would be biggest of all, so deep into Brooklyn’s special season.