Monday, April 22, 2013

Bulls-Nets, Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Game Two: The Importance of Being Gritty

Chicago Bulls 90, Brooklyn Nets 82--Series tied, 1-1

Luckily, I didn't get around to writing anything about Game One of this series, which is a good thing given the  fairly disappointing outcome. The Bulls aren't 100 percent --Joakim Noah only managed to grit out 13 minutes-- but you would have liked to see a closer game given the Bulls' nice regular season mark against the Nets. 

Noah said he would give it a go again tonight for Game Two, but it was unclear how much a factor he could possibly be, particularly given the pesky nature of a plantar fasciitis injury. I'm writing these first couple of paragraphs before the game has started, but the unfortunate reality seems to be that the Bulls are going to have to win this series largely without significant contributions from Noah. This is a shame given the season he's had, but it's not exactly unexpected when a player is forced to play the minutes that Noah has. So it goes. 

In any case, the Bulls came into tonight with the opportunity to even the series before heading back to Chicago for Game Three on Thursday. It wasn't pretty early on, but through just over three minutes of play the game was tied at 2-2: progress! Noah got the start and was playing hard, as usual, but you could pretty obviously tell that he was not 100 percent. He started his evening with a miss in the paint on a relatively challenging running layup and also failed to connect on a mid-range jumper from just past the free throw line extended. 

The next few minutes continued to resemble a poorly played, out of control JV game, but the Bulls somehow found themselves up 10-6 heading into the first timeout. The Nets were blocking Bulls shots, crossing them over and throwing down monstrous dunks, but the Bulls held on to 20-17 lead heading into the second, a huge improvement over the 25-14 deficit they took into the second frame of Game One. 

Marco Belinelli pitched in some strong minutes in the second, hitting a 23-footer and then back-to-back strong finishes at the rim for six points in the second quarter's first half. Unfortunately, Brook Lopez caught fire, scoring eight second quarter points. Old friend C.J. Watson buried a buzzer-beating trey to send the Bulls into the half with a 47-46 lead. It was not the prettiest half of basketball, but it was exactly the sort of game the Bulls needed to play. 
The Bulls defended the boards, turned the Nets over nine times and held them to a modest 46% from the field in the first half; some combination of that would need to continue if Chicago was going to eek out a victory.

Chicago jumped out to a hot start from the field, extending their lead to 57-50, all while Deron Williams sat at 0/6 from the field through almost halfway through the third. Both teams continued to be generally dreadful in the half court, but a 7-0 run, mostly in transition, gave the Bulls a 12-point lead, their largest of the game. 

The Bulls won the third frame, 22-11, positioning them perfectly for a fourth quarter collapse chance to even the series with 12 more minutes of solid play. The Nets, of course, countered with an 11-4 run of their own to start the fourth. A thunderdunk from Noah stemmed the tide, and he added a truly spectacular offensive rebound, saving the ball from going out of bounds and leading to an open Robinson triple. 

After another Noah bucket in the paint, the Nets rattled off another big run, an 8-0 stretch in just over a minute of play. The Bulls had clearly played a much better game to this point, but a poor final four minutes would have certainly sent the Bulls back to Chicago down two games. 

The Bulls gritted out a 6-2 run in response, while Brooklyn threes continued not to fall at the other end; the Nets were an atrocious 4/22 from beyond the arc with about a minute to go in the game. To make matters even better, a Noah block was reviewed and Chicago was eventually awarded possession. With 52 seconds to go, it became hack-a-Bull time. 

The Bulls only split their first three trips to the line, but Brooklyn continued to flail around aimlessly on the offensive end, not really threatening to make the Bulls sweat. 

Again, this was far from aesthetically pleasing, but that's how the Bulls are going to win games. A hot shooting start from Hinrich (he started 4/4 but finished 4/10), solid contributions from Belinelli, Boozer and Deng, and a lockdown defensive effort on Deron Williams was just enough to push the Bulls to victory on this night. 

It's probably asking too much to expect Williams to go 1/9 from the field again in this series, but it was encouraging to see the Bulls stick around despite the Nets' stretch of highlight reel play early in the game. 

Joakim Noah hit the upper limit of his assigned minutes cap (25), and was 4/8 from the field with 10 boards. Fortunately for the Bulls, Noah will have two days to ice that foot before these two teams hit the United Center floor on Thursday. 

No, the Bulls don't have championship aspirations this season, but that does not mean this isn't a team worth enjoying. Tonight was vintage 2012-13 Bulls basketball; we'd all like to see Derrick Rose out there, of course, but this iteration of Bulls basketball is fun to watch in its own way. 

The formula is simple and not quite as elegant as it once was, but that's okay with me, just as it's been all season. 

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