By Steve Lichtenstein
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Nate Robinson took a seat on the Bulls’ bench late in the third quarter of Thursday night’s Game 6 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, keeping a garbage pail well-positioned in case he experienced further gastric distress from the bug that swept through his club’s locker room the last few days.
Meanwhile, the Nets, with their season on the line, spent the fourth quarter doing almost everything in their power to gag the game away like they did in their triple-overtime loss in Game 4 on Saturday.
However, the Nets exhibited enough intestinal fortitude this time to escape with a heart-stomping 95-92 victory on the road that tied the series at 3-3, bringing a Game 7 to Brooklyn on Saturday night.
The depleted Bulls, who played without All Star forward Luol Deng (illness) and starting point guard Kirk Hinrich (calf) while giving exorbitant minutes to ailing Robinson plus big men Taj Gibson (illness) and Joakim Noah (plantar fasciitis), hacked and held their way to stay within striking distance all through the second half.
Unless you haven’t watched much of the Nets this season, you knew this one wasn’t going to be easy no matter who suited up for Chicago.
That’s because the Nets often toy with their fans’ minds, like when they roared out of the gate last night to drop 60 points on the normally defensive-oriented Bulls in the first half, shooting 55.8 percent from the floor with only two turnovers, only to follow it up by playing one of their typically ugly second halves (35 points, 27.8 percent shooting, and eight turnovers).
The start of the fourth quarter was especially sickening, with Andray Blatche and Gerald Wallace blowing point-blank layups (Wallace’s was an airball, something I haven’t seen since I coached my son’s team in a sixth grade rec league. Wallace was so open, he actually caught the ball on the other side of the rim, which is a traveling violation.).
With every opportunity to score points a precious commodity, the Nets went a ghastly 6-for-11 (54.5 percent) from the free throw line in the fourth quarter.
Even interim coach P.J. Carlesimo got into the act–he must have suffered a temporary brain aneurysm when he sent out a front line of Blatche, Reggie Evans and Kris Humphries for a minute before a four-point Bulls’ mini-run ended that experiment.
But this time the Nets made SOME plays down the stretch while the Bulls did not have the requisite gas in the tank to come all the way back due to their health and foul woes.
The Nets were aided by their bench, with Blatche knocking down a pivotal bank shot and 3-of-4 free throws in the last two minutes while C.J. Watson and Humphries were factors on both ends earlier in the quarter.
One of the turning points in this series (aside from the obvious-the Bulls’ deteriorating physical condition) was Carlesimo’s epiphany to pair Blatche with center Brook Lopez for more than token periods.
Better late than never. In the first five games, the Nets had outscored the Bulls by a whopping 91-53 during the 36 minutes when the two bigs shared the floor.
Yet Blatche did not come within a whiff of the court when the Nets squandered a 14-point lead in the final three minutes in game 4. Ever since, he’s been instrumental in helping the Nets close out these last two games to stave off elimination.
Of course, the Bulls didn’t get much production from their bench because, like the old joke, much of it was starting. I continue to be amazed by how much coach Tom Thibodeau gets out of his team no matter how trying the circumstances (as opposed to those who have coached the Nets this season, who usually reach for excuses when adversity strikes). So far he’s been able to shake off the absence of star point guard Derrick Rose in addition to all of the others’ aches and pains.
The Bulls have been at their best when they are desperate. Despite the odds, the Bulls took the Nets to the wire last night, with Noah tying up Nets point guard Deron Williams in the backcourt with three seconds left. The Nets needed Joe Johnson to run down a loose ball on the ensuing jump ball tip to the corner to secure the win.
Now both teams face do-or-die scenarios, and you would think that the Nets should have the momentum.
However, I know many knowledgeable Nets fans who will be entering the Barclays Center on Saturday with queasy feelings in their stomachs. All season long, the Nets have made a habit of kicking prosperity in the teeth, including both the Game 4 abomination as well as their desultory Game 2 loss in Brooklyn in which they were inexcusably outworked by the Bulls.
Home court hasn’t mattered much all season to Brooklyn. As of this writing, the arena isn’t even sold out for Game 7. (Though I am somewhat thankful, since it allowed me to purchase a pair of tickets for my sons.)
I’m hoping the fans will recognize the opportunity to watch the Nets take a shot at making history, as only eight teams have ever stormed back from a 3-1 deficit to take a best-of-seven NBA playoff series. It’s been nearly a decade since the fans of this tortured franchise experienced that type of jubilation.
Still, especially if Robinson and his compatriots recover in time for Saturday, it’s probably a good idea for all of us to pinpoint the nearest garbage pail–just in case.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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