Well that was a bit too close for comfort, wasn't it? After a slow start, the Bulls dominated for much of Game 3 against the Nets before going in the tank themselves offensively, only to barely pull out a 79-76 victory.
The Bulls didn't make a basket the final 5:47 of the game, nearly blowing a 17-point lead in the process. The Nets had a last gasp chance to tie the game thanks to some missed free throws, but C.J. Watson air-balled a wide open corner three as time expired. With the victory, the Bulls now hold a 2-1 lead in the series with Game 4 looming at the United Center on Saturday.
Carlos Boozer shook off a brutal start to finish with 22 points on 9-of-16 shooting to go along with 16 rebounds, while Luol Deng had 21 points and 10 rebounds. Deng was especially key to start the second half as the Bulls extended their halftime lead out to double-digits. Kirk Hinrich also played another fine game, finishing with 12 points and playing more stellar defense on Deron Williams. Much like last game, the Bulls' team defense was superb on Williams, choking off the lane and not allowing any dribble penetration. But much credit must go to Hinrich for being a pest.
Williams finished with 18 points, but he went just 5-of-14 and was invisible for a long stretch in the middle of the game. Brook Lopez led the Nets with 22 points, finally getting on track in the fourth quarter after going out with foul trouble early. Joe Johnson played through his plantar fasciitis and wound up with a solid 15 points on 6-of-14 shooting, but his poor decision making early helped the Bulls build their lead.
The Nets actually started off gangbusters, as their starters continued their Jekyll and Hyde ways after a pathetic Game 2. It seemed apparent that Williams took his poor Game 2 performance personally, as he ratcheted up his aggressiveness on both ends of the floor. He was pushing the pace offensively and getting all up in Hinrich's grill on the other end. Williams had eight points all of Game 2, and he matched that output after about six minutes tonight. Hilariously, he wouldn't score another point until midway through the third quarter.
The Bulls' offense was as bad as it's been all year to start the game (only to be worse later), with Boozer looking like the Playoff Boozer we have come to know and hate. Boozer fumbled and bumbled his way to three turnovers in the early going, with the Bulls racking up five turnovers on their first eight possessions.
The Bulls trailed 17-5 midway through the first quarter, but there was absolutely no reason to panic. We've seen this movie before against the Nets, and sure enough, their offense went in the tank when Lopez went out with two fouls. The Nets proceeded to miss 14 straight shots to end the quarter, with a steady diet of Johnson isos, Gerald Wallace bricks (or air-balls) and even a Reggie Evans jumper (!!!). The Bulls finally started to go get it rolling offensively, and they took a 19-17 lead into the second quarter.
The second quarter was more of the same, as the Nets continued to embarrass themselves on the offensive end. Watson cooled off from his hot start in the first two games and Jerry Stackhouse shot his 42nd air-ball of the series, which once again left me scratching my head as to why MarShon Brooks didn't get a look before the washed up Stack. When your offense sucks that bad, you'd think you'd consider giving up a little defense for an offensive spark.
Over about a 13-minute stretch from midway through the first quarter to midway through the second, the Nets went 1-of-25 from the field and were outscored 28-4. Much credit obviously goes to the Bulls' defense, which was swarming all over the place, but the Nets were much to blame as well. Their shot selection was terrible and it's simply hard to run effective offense against a defense as good as the Bulls when there are so many offensive zeros on the floor. Again, just embarrassing.
Speaking of embarrassing, why hello there Kris Humphries:
The Bulls went up by as many as 12 in the first half on several occasions on the backs of Boozer and Hinrich, who had eight points apiece in the quarter. Hinrich hit a few more mid-range buckets, and I swear to God he has more mid-range makes in the last two weeks than he did all season prior (better late than never!). The halftime deficit settled at just seven despite the Nets finishing the half 4-of-32 after starting 5-of-8. Brooklyn was able to get to the line a bit and Wallace finally hit one of the gazillion wide open three-pointers the Bulls afforded him.
The third quarter turned into the Luol Deng Show, with All-Star Deng showing up and scoring the first 12 points of the quarter for the Bulls. Deng cooked Wallace time and time again, keeping him off balance with the dribble (weird, I know) and burying jumper after jumper in his face.
Williams did start to heat up again late in the third quarter and the Bulls' offense got a little stagnant, but some Boozer buckets were able to keep the lead in double-digits. Nate Robinson's first bucket of the game at the very end of the quarter put the Bulls up 13 heading into the final frame.
The Nets finally went to Brooks and a three-guard look in the fourth quarter, and they were rewarded with some run-outs that led to easy buckets. As mentioned, things got way too close to comfort at the end, but the Bulls were able to barely hold off the Nets off in a game that probably shouldn't be spoken of much more (but of course it will be!).
A final couple of notes, Joakim Noah played 27 minutes and did an admirable job on the defensive end, but he did absolutely nothing on offense. He scored one point and went 0-of-7 from the field and had zero confidence on the offensive end. But it's hard to blame him considering the injury.
What's more disappointing is the major regression to the mean by Jimmy Butler, although I guess that should have been somewhat expected. Butler had just four points on 1-of-5 shooting, and he just seems overwhelmed offensively. Luckily, the guy is still great on defense, so it's not all bad.
As we've been saying all year, a win's a win. This especially rings true in the postseason. Much more Game 3 coverage to come.