By Steve Lichtenstein
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Forget about beating the Heat. The Nets couldn’t even run with the broken-down Bulls.
After all the money, all the hype, and all the expectations that came with owning home-court advantage in an NBA playoff series, Brooklyn’s inaugural season ended with a dud. An inexcusable 99-93 loss to Chicago in the deciding Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals last night sent the Nets packing for summer vacation. Instead, Chicago gets the reward of facing the indomitable Heat in the conference semis starting on Monday in Miami.
Despite having nearly every tangible and intangible advantage–a raucous Barclays Center crowd, an opponent playing without its top two point guards and All Star forward, and the momentum from charging back from a 3-1 deficit (with the opportunity to become only the 9th team in NBA history to win a series after getting down by such a deficit), the Nets laid an egg in the first half, falling behind by 17 points. Though they fought back with several second-half mini-runs, the Nets were never able to climb over the hump.
That’s because two of the Bulls’ edges in this series, their work ethic and their coaching, were too much for the Nets to overcome.
It’s why I had picked the Bulls to win this series in six (sorry, I never factored in the possibility that half of the Bulls’ rotation would spend Game 6 in an infirmary instead of on the United Center court).
But the additional road game had no effect on the ultimate outcome because the Bulls were simply a step ahead of the Nets, both literally and figuratively, when it counted.
The Bulls seemed to come away with the vast majority of 50/50 balls last night, and they were vigilant in making the Nets pay for their inferior effort.
Much of that is due to Tom Thibodeau’s elite coaching. For now, I’m going to concentrate on what Thibodeau did well, as opposed to the failings of Brooklyn interim coach P.J. Carlesimo. I’ll get to that in a separate postscript missive in a few days after I’ve calmed down a bit.
Regarding his team’s toughness, Thibodeau said, “These games often come down to the effort plays, the ability to get to a ball, to tip, to deflect, whatever it might be to create the extra possession. Most often these games are going to come down to one or two possessions. So it’s so important, if you add those up over the course of game, that’s usually what separates winning and losing.”
It helps that Thibodeau is a master defensive strategist, consistently configuring ways to stymie any Net who had any notion of heating up.
Much of Thibodeau’s focus was obviously centered on the Nets’ “Big Three” of center Brook Lopez and guards Deron Williams and Joe Johnson.
With point guard Kirk Hinrich inactive for a second straight game with a calf injury, Thibodeau switched swingman Jimmy Butler onto Williams after D-Will ate up Nate Robinson to the tune of nine first-quarter points. Williams shot 5-for-12 the rest of the way while expending a lot of energy attempting to free himself from the longer Butler.
Thibodeau also placed a heavy burden on center Joakim Noah. Noah, who was limited in the first few games of the series thanks to a case of plantar fasciitis, was noticeably more aggressive in putting up 24 points, 14 rebounds, and 6 blocks in 41 minutes last night.
Noah hit the offensive boards hard in the first quarter and was equally effective preventing Lopez from going off early as per the Nets’ game plan.
“There’s plays that he (Noah) makes that are great multiple-effort type plays,” said Thibodeau. “He can get quickly to a second and third jump—very few guys can do that. We also ask him to be everywhere on defense—he’s exerting a lot of energy and he’s in unbelievable shape.”
That left Johnson, whose own injury issues caught up to him last night. Johnson was dreadful, shooting just 2-for-14, including 1-for-9 from three-point range, and committing three turnovers.
Johnson saved his most crucial miss for crunch time, where he had been so proficient during the regular season. Johnson misfired on a three-pointer with 39 seconds remaining that could have brought the Nets to within two points.
“We didn’t lose because of somebody not shooting the ball (well),” said Carlesimo. “We lost because of the way we didn’t match their energy in the first half. That was the difference in the game.”
The Nets did receive an unexpected 19 points from forward Gerald Wallace, including 11 in the third quarter when Brooklyn chopped 10 points off the Bulls’ halftime lead.
But Thibodeau’s Bulls, despite having similar dry-spell tendencies at times, are much more diverse than the Nets. There’s very little reliance on isolation plays. Thibodeau makes sure every Bull on the floor is at least a threat to score, which Brooklyn couldn’t always say when Carlesimo employed such offensively-challenged players as Reggie Evans, Kris Humphries and (earlier in the series) Keith Bogans.
Thibodeau always seems to have a player like Marco Belinelli, a reserve swingman, in his hip pocket when he needs him. Belinelli scored 24 points, 9 of them fourth-quarter daggers when the Nets were on the verge of closing in on the Bulls, to compensate for Luol Deng’s absence due to an illness.
“Marco’s a very experienced player,” said Thibodeau. “He’s hit a lot of big shots. He can run pick-and-roll, he can run catch-and-shoot, he’s a very good spot-up shooter and he knows how to move on penetration. He’s a very smart overall player.”
I’ve heard a lot from the Nets leading up to last night’s game about how they “were the better team.” In terms of talent, that may be true, especially if you only count those healthy enough to take the floor.
Owner Mikhail Prokhorov committed approximately $330 million in player contracts last summer so that his once-dreadful Nyets could compete at higher levels. Again, further evaluation of that plan will come in a few days. On the surface though, Williams was often the best player on the floor in this series and, until last night, Lopez was at least Noah’s equal.
But the best team doesn’t always win. A team that is coached better and plays harder will often emerge victorious over one which is slightly more skilled.
It’s a lesson Brooklyn will again have to wait till next year to apply.
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