Playing without seemingly half their roster against the Nets, it seemed like a good bet that the Bulls would not extend their 14-game Friday road winning streak. As they often have all season, the Bulls showed their trademark resiliency, fighting all game long before coming up just short in a 93-89 loss.
With Kirk Hinrich (elbow), Carlos Boozer (hamstring) and Joakim Noah (foot) all sidelined, the Bulls struggled out of the gates with a more traditional lineup of Nate Robinson/Richard Hamilton/Luol Deng/Taj Gibson/Nazr Mohammed. After falling behind by double-digits early, Tom Thibodeau decided to use go exclusively to a small ball lineup for the rest of the game. Mohammed didn't see the court again, and Deng and Gibson both played pretty much the entire game, with Deng exiting for a brief moment at the end of the third quarter after a hard fall. And here's a "fun" fact on Gibson from Bulls stat bro Jeff Mangurten:
Taj Gibson is the first Bull to play every second of a game since Ben Wallace on December 3, 2007.— Jeff Mangurten (@JeffGurt) February 2, 2013
Because they went small, the Bulls did get beat up much of the game down low. Brook Lopez scored 20 points, the Nets won the rebounding battle 40-29 and outscored the Bulls 56-44 in the paint. Andray Blatche also had a field day against a winded Gibson in the fourth quarter, scoring 11 points in the final frame and converting a critical and-1 with just over a minute to go after the Bulls had cut the deficit down to two.
The Bulls did use small ball to their advantage for much of the night, doing a nice job breaking down the defense off the dribble and getting opportunities from the free throw line. They racked up 23 assists on 34 field goals and attempted 22 free throws on the night, making 20 of them for a 90.9 percent clip.
Nate and Marco Belinelli were especially effective creating opportunities for themselves and others. Nate struggled with his shot all night, going 4-of-16 from the field. But he ran the offense pretty well, picking up 11 dimes and not committing too many boneheaded mistakes. He set up Gibson nicely for easy buckets on numerous occasions, helping Taj rack up 16 points on the night. As for Belinelli, he ran a little point guard and showed some deft playmaking skills while also doing that thing where he barrels to the rim and hopes for a foul call. Tonight, he often got those calls, going 8-of-9 from the line and finishing tied with Deng with a team-high 18 points.
The Bulls took advantage of some putrid Nets bench play in the second quarter to get back in the game, and they actually led at halftime and throughout much of the third quarter. But the Nets bench redeemed themselves in the fourth, with the aforementioned Blatche doing all that work and MarShon Brooks chipping in nine in the quarter. And after the Bulls cut it back to two with 15 seconds left after a Deng steal and layup, C.J. Watson fittingly iced the game with a pair of free throws.
While seeing that Friday road streak end sure stinks, it's almost impossible to be upset with the effort the Bulls put forth today considering the circumstances. The fact that they were so close in the end is a testament to Thibs and the character of every single one of these guys. They didn't really play all that well (43.6 percent shooting, 1-of-14 from three), but they played their tails off. If there's anything to be upset about, I guess you could be pissed at management for not bringing back Omer Asik, or at the very least bringing in a competent replacement.
Unfortunately, the Bulls have to turn right around and play again tomorrow in Atlanta. Hinrich is almost certainly out again, and who knows what the statuses of Noah and Boozer will be. If all three are once again out, it's hard to envision a tired Bulls team going into Philips Arena, a place they have struggled recently, and pulling out a win. But I'll never completely count this team out of anything.