By Steve Lichtenstein
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It’s official — in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs beginning on Saturday night at Barclays Center, the Nets will be running with the Bulls.
Or walking — the preferred pace of two of the NBA’s most deliberate offenses (based on number of possessions per game).
Strategically speaking, I can’t imagine a worse matchup — outside of Miami — for the Nets, who lost three of four to Chicago during the regular season. I’m still debating internally whether, if given the choice, it would have been better had the Nets given up home-court advantage to finish sixth like the Hawks. The Hawks had the fifth seed in their hands until Tuesday, when they decided to tank their final two games against the Raptors and the Knicks by resting their core. Now they get the third-seeded Pacers, a team that the Nets swept this year.
I didn’t want any part of the Bulls who, under defensive whiz Tom Thibodeau, are like one of those neutral-zone trapping NHL teams, making a muck out of the game possession-by-possession by clogging the strong side.
They have the size to do it, especially if All-Star center Joakim Noah’s foot gets closer to 100 percent. Noah missed 12 of 13 games before coming off the bench in the Bulls’ wins over Orlando and Washington to end the season. He may not be all the way back, but the Bulls thrive off his energy.
Power forward Carlos Boozer has given the Nets fits all season, averaging 21 points and 10 rebounds in the three games he played. (The sole Nets’ victory in the series came when Boozer sat out with a hamstring injury in February). He had a monster 29-18 effort two weeks ago in their last meeting in Brooklyn.
Even their wings, Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler, excel in a physical game, with the 6-foot-7 Butler expected to man up against the Nets closer, shooting guard Joe Johnson.
If the Bulls have one weakness, it’s their inconsistent offensive efficiency. But that might not materialize in this series if the Nets don’t shore up their own defensive issues.
After a full season of learning the technique, it’s still hit-or-miss whether Brooklyn center Brook Lopez properly defends the pick-and-roll. Lately he’s been switching an awful lot, which could be dangerous given the Bulls’ strength inside.
And though the Bulls happen to be the fifth-worst three-point shooting team (34.6 percent) in the ;eague, the Nets are in the bottom third in defending the three-point line. The Nets allowed the Bulls to shoot a combined 38.5 percent from behind the arc in their last two meetings, a significant statistical discrepancy when you consider how tight these games are.
The Bulls are loaded with streaky scorers. At various times, the Nets have been burned by Boozer, Deng, Butler and Nate Robinson. Noah is an excellent passer from the high post and has a fair, albeit awkward, mid-range shot.
Chicago has also gotten production from its bench, with Marco Belinelli putting the dagger in the Nets in their first meeting and then Robinson floating home the game-winner in the series finale.
And I haven’t even mentioned Derrick Rose yet.
The 2011 MVP has been “cleared to play” following his surgery and rehab of a torn left ACL. Rose has so far demurred, feeling uncomfortable testing his knee in game situations. He’s limiting his time on the floor to pregame drills. His potential return has Las Vegas sweating out concocting a fair-series line.
But I also believe that the Nets have ample weaponry to make this a long series no matter what Rose does.
Point guard Deron Williams has been magnificent since the All-Star break, averaging 22.9 points and eight assists after struggling with ankle woes in the first half of the season. I expect Lopez to raise his intensity level in his first postseason experience, while Johnson is a war-tested playoff veteran.
However, the key to whether the Nets move forward is their forwards.
Oh, they’re tough enough to match the Bulls in that department. But Reggie Evans and Gerald Wallace simply have to provide some scoring. The Nets’ forwards, including reserves Kris Humphries and Keith Bogans, combined to total a whopping six points on 3-for-13 shooting in the last Bulls game.
That’s not going to cut it. Thibodeau will have his defenders take away the Nets’ “big three” at every opportunity and dare others to beat him. He’s going to send double-teams to disrupt the Nets’ isolation plays, leaving Evans open underneath or Wallace free at the opposite three-point line.
Evans has shown improvement recently in his ability to convert inside, but Nets fans still shudder when he has the ball there. And Wallace continues to look ill at ease on the offensive end, despite getting extra time in the Nets’ final two otherwise-meaningless regular-season games. Wallace scored five points in last night’s 103-99 victory over Detroit, but both his field goals were dunks, and he air-balled his only three-point attempt — a wide-open look from the left corner.
As I mentioned previously, the Nets HAVE to give more time to backup center Andray Blatche at forward. Granted it’s a risky proposition, given that Blatche sometimes thinks there are extra points for degree of difficulty instead of making the fundamental play. His defense is spotty. And I was concerned about Nets coach P.J. Carlesimo’s comments regarding Blatche’s conditioning after Blatche played 38 minutes in Monday’s win over Washington.
But Blatche won’t be treated as an afterthought by Chicago’s defense, not like Evans and Humphries will be. The Bulls can ignore Blatche at their own peril, for Blatche has the ability to score from a variety of spots on the floor and can make plays off the dribble.
Besides, I continue to assert that it’s illogical for the Nets’ fourth-leading scorer to be playing under 20 minutes per game — certainly not in a series like this where points should be hard to come by.
The Nets will be in the uncommon position of being the underdog despite having the extra home game. The Bulls have shown that they can raise their game against the league’s elite, while the Nets have mainly fattened their win total (30 of their 49) against sub-.500 opponents. Chicago has a distinct advantage during its home games while Brooklyn, for all its hype, has yet to provide its Nets much of a boost during their biggest games in their inaugural season.
It’s the Nets’ inconsistency that makes it hard for any fan to feel confident about this series. I think Carlesimo has done well given the circumstances of his ascension, but he will bear the brunt of the criticism if, for instance, he fails to counter the opponent’s halftime adjustments. That could cause more third-quarter swoons.
All it takes is one game like that to turn around a series.
That’s why, as much as my heart wants to say the Nets in seven, my head says the Bulls in six.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
What’s your prediction for this series? Do you agree with Lichtenstein? Let us know in the comments section below…